Located in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, the Kehrein Center for the Arts (KCA) is the product of a years-long effort to restore an architecturally-significant but unused auditorium into a vibrant fine and performing arts center, complete with a 900-seat storytelling theater, art gallery, and community gathering place—one of the few major projects to occur on Chicago’s West Side since the 1968 riots devastated whole sections of the area.
Opened at the turn-of-the-century at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Central Avenue in Austin, St. Catherine of Siena High School was an all-girls secondary school. In 1954, Belli & Belli, an architectural firm that designed many buildings for the Archdiocese of Chicago, completed a new addition for the school, including a stunning auditorium. Evoking the neo-futuristic vision of architect Eero Saarinen (best known for his design of St. Louis’s Gateway Arch), Belli & Belli designed a 1,000-seat theater with an expansive proscenium and main floor, mezzanine and balcony. It is a sculpture of masonry and poured-in-place concrete with curving walls and three dimensional spaces that interlock with a library and exterior courtyard.
Over the years, the space witnessed school graduations, musical theater productions, orchestra and choral programs, and contributed to the community’s cultural landscape. But when Siena moved out of Austin in 1971, the auditorium fell into disrepair. The seats were removed, leaving an empty, hollow space. Although it is one of the best surviving examples of mid-century modern architecture in Chicago, the once beautiful auditorium was no longer of use to anyone.
The Siena building remained empty until 2008 when Catalyst Circle Rock, a new nonprofit charter school system, moved in (Catalyst purchased the building in 2018). It had sufficient funds to renovate the classroom wing of the addition but not the auditorium. Recognizing that the space held enormous potential to bring about a dramatic change to the school and surrounding Austin community, Catalyst leadership assembled a volunteer committee of community leaders and began planning a massive renovation of this historic community space.
After 10 years of dedication and perseverance by the committee, a massive renovation of the historic auditorium began in the spring of 2018. Steve Saunders of Eckenhoff Saunders Architects completed the design with input from McGuire Engineers and Sound Structures. Threshold Acoustics and Gwen Grossman Lighting Design LLC developed the audio and lighting plan, respectively. Wight Company was selected to do the construction.
The $5 million project benefited from the support of the Austin neighborhood since the beginning. Illinois State Representative La Shawn Ford rallied State support for the KCA, stating that “the completion of this project would be an enormous boost and anchor in our Austin neighborhood.” Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford worked with Representative Ford, Representative Camille Lilly, and Senator Harmon to rally State support. U.S. Congressman Danny Davis provided encouragement. Their backing resulted in major financial support from the State of Illinois. Alderman Chris Taliaferro, Alderman Emma Mitts, and former Mayor Rahm Emanuel played leadership roles in the construction project by securing $1 million from Chicago’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund. It officially opened in May 2019.