For a popular theatre company working out of a cramped space in the Chicago suburb of Glencoe, the economic challenges imposed by the limited space were pressing. When an opportunity became available to design and build a larger facility in the heart of Glencoe’s downtown area, Writers Theatre seized the chance. Working directly from the vision outlined in the village’s master plan, the theatre project became a way to catalyze downtown development.
Glencoe is a suburb 20 miles north of Chicago with a population of approximately 9,000 residents. Settled in the mid-19th century, the area is compact and very walkable, with the downtown area serving as a focal point for the surrounding single-family homes. The small community has a cultural footprint much larger than most, including the Chicago Botanic Garden and other significant cultural organizations like the internationally renowned Ravinia Festival. Writers Theatre is part of that impressive cultural landscape. Founded in 1992 in a modest space in the back of a bookstore, the theatre opened an additional, larger—but, at 108 seats, still intimate—space at the Woman’s Library Club of Glencoe in 2003.
An affluent suburb situated north of Chicago on the shores of Lake Michigan, Glencoe has been home to a Pulitzer-Prize winning poet, statesmen, generals, and captains of industry since its incorporation in 1869. Additionally, Glencoe is well-known for its diverse collection of world-class architecture, designed by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright (Glencoe has the third-largest collection of Wright homes in the world), David Adler, Keck and Keck, and Minoru Yamasaki. For these reasons, it is not a surprise that the local community is very committed to supporting the arts. Writers Theatre not only serves the Glencoe community but also attracts audiences from the Chicago metropolitan region and beyond. The Theatre's education programs support primarily underserved groups in the surrounding area. The company, which plays to a sold-out and discerning audience of 35,000 patrons each season, has garnered critical praise for the consistent high quality and intimacy of its artistry. With the creation of a new cultural facility, they estimate that approximately 45,000 additional people could be drawn to the Glencoe area each year to participate in performances, community events, workshops, and gatherings.
With performances playing close to capacity night after night, the theatre had hit a ceiling for its economic viability. With very few seats to sell and with production costs steadily rising, the theatre was facing bleak prospects—despite an enthusiastic and committed audience. This meant that the theatre was in need of a larger space to allow for its growth. Glencoe, meanwhile, was in need of cultural opportunities that would anchor an ambitious 2005 master plan meant to integrate more cultural and commercial spaces in the downtown area. At the same time, the existing but deteriorated Woman’s Library Club building in downtown Glencoe, which housed one of the theatre’s two performance venues, was in serious need of repair.
Writers Theatre recognized the site of the Woman’s Library Club as an ideal location, yet the existing building could not accommodate its current space needs. With the new theatre center, the site, situated just on the edge of downtown Glencoe in between two parcels of Park District land, could become an important community catalyst. In addition, the existing partnership with the Woman's Library Club presented an ideal opportunity. This collaborative opportunity between the two organizations would not only allow Writers Theatre to expand its programming (and, thus, its revenue), it would also help to anchor new activities at this key site. Marketing studies commissioned by the theatre estimated that it would be possible to draw an additional 45,000 visitors to the area, adding $3 million to Glencoe’s economy each year. To meet this vision, the theatre needed a design that would give it the flexibility to stage diverse types of performances for different audience sizes and, importantly, to establish a genuine connection with the surrounding neighborhood.
The Village of Glencoe and Writers Theatre had a longstanding, mutually-supportive relationship, which was an indispensable starting point for the theatre’s expansion project. Formalized by the Village of Glencoe’s Strategic Plan five years prior to the project start, the organizations established a shared goal for the theatre to serve as a cultural anchor for the town center, spurring economic development and investment. Chicago-based architect Jeanne Gang, the principal of Studio Gang Architects, was hired as the lead architect of the new building. The Woman’s Library Club, whose rapidly deteriorating building was in need of major repairs, also became a key supporter. With the project partners all participating in major design decisions and shared use of the future building, Writers Theatre will own the new building and the Club will lease the land for 99 years at $1 per year.
The Women's Library Club of Glencoe (the third women's club in Illinois and the 61st in the country) began in 1872 as a small group of friends who gathered to read and discuss classical and contemporary literature. As their collection of books grew they made them available to the public and operated this "library" out of their first clubhouse at 654 Greenleaf Avenue. This continued until 1908 when the entire collection was donated to become the nucleus of the new Glencoe Public Library. Over the years the original social and intellectual purpose of the group has been expanded to promote the welfare, social, intellectual and philanthropic interests of the community.
After identifying the vision to establish a new cultural facility in downtown Glencoe and hiring Studio Gang Architects, Writers Theatre secured the NEA Our Town grant. Beginning in the fall of 2011, the firm made preliminary designs, which coincided with a quiet fundraising campaign. Throughout 2012 and 2013, Studio Gang then carried out a design development phase, at the end of which the theatre was able to launch a public fundraising campaign and introduce the designs to the community. Because of the strong community interest in the project, the team held open-house information sessions and communicated through brochures, emails, and social media to keep everyone informed about the ongoing design process.
The designs are now complete and Writers Theatre will have much greater flexibility to stage varied performances. A 250-seat auditorium will more than double the maximum capacity, allowing the group to include larger audiences and to sell more tickets. A smaller 99-seat flexible black box stage will complement the larger auditorium, allowing the company to continue to stage more intimate performances, too. Building on the community-based spirit of the organization, Gang also designed the lobby space in such a way that it could double as a performance space connected with the street. By designing the new facility as a cluster of spatial volumes (instead of a monolithic building), Gang ensured that it kept the intimate neighborhood scale. Additionally, Gang carved out exterior spaces in between the different parts of the building that could be used by the community. By drawing an estimated 45,000 new visitors to the area, the theatre is expected to expand foot traffic to surrounding businesses.
Though the architects were careful to design the building in consideration of its neighborhood context, Studio Gang’s Modernist aesthetic will present a new style of building for the community. As Chris Jones, Theatre Critic from the Chicago Tribune said, “the fascinating Gang renderings make one thing clear: nothing quite like this has been built on the North Shore, and it’s likely to change the architectural and cultural face of Glencoe.” This is all part of the plan, though. As he points out, “the building alone, it seems reasonable to predict, would attract cultural tourists.” And with a strong design in hand, Writers Theatre was able to generate considerable enthusiasm in the fundraising process, amounting to $22 million from private sources as of the campaign’s public announcement on November 13, 2013.