Aurora Arts Center, Aurora

2020 Landmarks Illinois Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Award for Adaptive Use

The Aurora Arts Center, funded through the collaborative efforts of the community, brings entirely new economic opportunities as well as affordable and accessible arts education and experiences to residents in the Chicago suburb. The arts center is housed in two historic buildings constructed in the 1920s and later listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the site is home to a number of businesses and arts education spaces, including the Stolp Island Social House Restaurant, the Artesan Lofts, the Paramount Theater Rehearsal Spaces and the Paramount School of the Arts, that all contribute to Aurora’s larger downtown district revitalization. The complex also provides affordable housing for artists and job opportunities for the community. Public spaces in the arts center were intentionally configured to be welcoming and spacious. In addition to its positive economic impact, the project has created a heightened awareness of the arts for the community and is providing needed space for artists to live and work. The project serves as example of how thoughtful and sensitive placemaking can have a significant positive impact on a community.

(Photo Credit Mark Ballogg)

Project Principals

The Community Builders
Cordogan Clark & Associates
McShane Construction
Vara Design
Macrostie Historic Advisors
DXU Architects
Sequoia Construction

(Photo Courtesy Paramount School of the Arts)


Kirk Albinson, The Community Builders

Both buildings that make up the Aurora Arts Center are contributing structures of the Stolp Island Historic District, listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. The two buildings help tell the story of commercial growth in Aurora and represent 1920s commercial architectural design. The buildings, along with the neighboring Paramount Theatre, are also some of the most highly decorative historic buildings in Aurora,featuring gorgeous, glazed terra cotta in a variety of cream and white hues.

While not historically connected, the Aurora Arts Center now supports the Paramount Theatre, one of the most celebrated early movie theaters in the country. Commissioned by Paramount Pictures to support its new “talkie” movies, the 1931 Paramount Theatre in Aurora with its highly decorative Art Deco design became the prototype for other theaters built by Paramount across the nation. The Stanley Building and the Block & Kuhl Building were purchased in 1985 by the City of Aurora, the Aurora Civic Center Authority and Waubonsee Community College to create the Extension Center for the college. The interior was heavily renovated in the mid-1980s for this new use, but the exterior facades were left primarily intact.

As the city of Aurora redefines itself in the 21st century, these historic 1920s commercial structures remain as representations in the early growth of the city, while adaptively used to suit the continuum of growth in the city today. Residents of Aurora are proud to see the continued use of these buildings at such a prominent downtown intersection.

(Photo Courtesy Paramount School of the Arts)

How did saving this place impact people in your community?

Kirk Albinson, The Community Builders

The Aurora Arts Center development is aptly named for its central role in advancing a thoughtfully planned mixed use, mixed income, community revitalization effort, impacting the people of Aurora in very real ways. The presence of the arts center is dramatically improving the quality of life, economic opportunity and regional interest in Downtown Aurora. The development focuses on providing high quality arts education services for the community, expanding the access and delivery of performing arts, providing quality affordable housing options geared specifically for artists and generating significant job opportunities within the revitalizing downtown market.

Prior to completion of the project, no artistic education services existed in Aurora, even though the city is the second largest in Illinois. Access was only one piece of the equation. Economic barriers proved to be real, too, in a city with nearly 20% of the residents living below the poverty level. The Paramount School for the Arts makes a deliberate effort to provide affordable arts education services to the greater community. A portion of the funds raised for the center are designated for scholarships for children who cannot afford classes. Moreover, the school has bilingual teachers to encourage enrollment from a 41% Hispanic population in Aurora. Classes are available for toddlers to adults and senior citizens.

The development includes a housing component, providing 38 affordable apartments with an artist preference on the upper floors of the Aurora Arts Center. The apartments at the Aurora Arts Center are completely rented, attracting working artists from throughout Chicagoland in search of a supportive atmosphere and affordable rents. The new residents and students of the arts school will further activate the nearby area stimulating the local economy beyond the seasonal theater productions.

The Aurora Arts Center serves as job creator in the community, generating well-paying positions in arts education services and the retail/dining service industry. The expansion of rehearsal facilities and the construction of the school lead to 25 full-time jobs and over 120 part time jobs. Workers are from a variety of creative professions. Additionally, the restaurant employs over 85 people. Many of the new jobs created are at income levels that are higher than the minimum wage but still align with the affordability requirements of the apartments in the upper floors of the development.

While these tangible statistics are impressive, they do not capture the intangible benefits derived from exposure of a diverse cross-section of Aurora’s population to new forms of music, movement and theater.

(Photo Credit Darris Harris)

Learn more

Attend the 2020 awards ceremony!


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