536 - 542 N. Milwaukee Avenue - First National (Gridley) Bank Building
This historic three-story brick building was constructed in 1913 to house the town’s second financial institution, the First National Bank and several other businesses including the post office and a public auditorium. At the time of its completion, it was hailed as a thoroughly modern facility. Over the years, it has been a vital and active location, not only serving host to an important, anchor town institution during the day, but one that also providing entertainment drawing crowds of hundreds through its doors after the work day had ended.
Backstory and Context
The building at 536-542 N. Milwaukee was built in 1913 by The First National Bank. Henry G. Gardner established First National in 1903. Gardner came to Libertyville by way of Titonka, Iowa having experience as a cashier and managing officer in a bank there. First National switched hands in 1905 when Gardner left to pursue other interests and in 1906, G. Carroll Gridley a stockholder, purchased the bank. From that point on, it was known colloquially as the Gridley bank.
The current brick structure was constructed in 1913, on the former site of the Methodist Church. White columns with a stone surround and an oversized canopy on the northwest side of the building provided a grand entrance to the bank. Seven-foot tall arched windows located on the north side of the building offered the easily identifiable location of a second and third story auditorium. Numerous alterations have been made since the structure’s inception most noticeably in 1929 when the columns and canopy were removed along with a stone face around the northernmost storefront. At some point, the large, arched windows were bricked in and smaller windows were installed inside of the reduced space.
The large, three story structure was purpose built for commercial enterprises and many businesses have come and gone in the building over its tenure. Its earliest tenants were the First National Bank, post office, Public Service Company, Wells, Fargo & Co, Libertyville Auditorium and several professional offices. During the depression, the anchor business, First National, merged with the Lake County Bank located at 507 N. Milwaukee Avenue and relocated across the street with a new name, the First Lake County National Bank. Another bank, First State Bank, operated from 1946 to 1965 or 1966, where the old First National Bank had been. The 536 storefront long held a town bakery, first as Lutz’s Quality Baked Goods then more recently as Bernhardt’s. Both are still remembered fondly by locals. Other tenants over the years included several restaurants, Herschberger Appliance Store, Norge Bendix Coin Laundry, Dog Ear Records, and a knick knack shop named Something Different.
Of all the ventures that have come and gone, none has been more unique than the Auditorium and La Villa Theaters. When the building was originally designed, an auditorium spanning the height of the second and third floors was included in the space. The original theater, called the Auditorium or Libertyville Auditorium, hosted plays, dances, commencements and other public functions. With the advent of the motion picture, silent films accompanied by a piano and eventually an organ drew crowds in from miles around. Popular films of the time, like features starring Charlie Chaplin or Lillian Gish, drew crowds of 600 or more to the venue. A screen on which to project the movie was unrolled for each showing with people sitting on the main floor and mezzanine level for performances.
With technological advances and a string of new owners and operators, the theater kept up with the largest ones in Chicago and Waukegan providing a respite for the hardworking area residents. Talkies came and the advancements continued. The theater changed names to the LaVilla Theater in 1929 and added popular vaudeville acts to the lineup of offerings. It was finally closed when the nearby and more luxurious Liberty Theater opened its doors in 1937. Businesses like Dancecenter North, Greasepaint and Spotlights, and the Gymnastics Spot have been residents of the old auditorium over the years carrying on a theatrical use of the space.
The venerable building is evolving yet again. As of 2019, the auditorium portion is being reconfigured and repurposed as residential lofts. The work will mix the old and the new. The round arch windows on the north side of the building will be restored while the new apartments will be LEED certified.
“Banking on Libertyville” Shelf Life Blog, Cook Memorial Public Library website, accessed June 27, 2020
“Let’s all go to the movies: The storied history of the Liberty(ville) theater” Shelf Life Blog, Cook Memorial Public Library website, accessed June 27, 2020
“Small Fire in Post Office Friday Evening”, Lake County Independent, Jan 2, 1914, p. 4
“Auditorium managers protest at new local ordinance” Lake County Independent and Waukegan Weekly Sun, Sep 18, 1914, p. 2
Advertisement, Libertyville Independent (Libertyville, Lake County, Ill.: W.J. Smith), Mar 23, 1922, p. 5
Advertisement, Libertyville Independent (Libertyville, Lake County, Ill.: W.J. Smith), Apr 13, 1922, p. 5
“Pipe Organ for Auditorium Theater” Lake County Register) Aug 26, 1922, p. 4
“Stanley Eaton Buys Half Interest in Auditorium”, Libertyville Independent, (Libertyville, Lake County, Ill.: W.J. Smith, 1916), Feb 7, 1924
Cook Memorial Library Clippings File, Businesses.
“Old theater space could become apartments”, Daily Herald, May 9, 2019
Village of Libertyville. HistoricLibertyville.com
Libertyville-Mundelein Historical Society.
Courtesy of Jim Moran
Libertyville-Mundelein Historical Society. Libertyville Township Assessor collection.