The sprawling, two-story stable that sits in the middle of a residential block in Old Town has overcome its share of hurdles.
Since debuting as a riding school in 1871, the red-brick building has survived multiple bankrupted owners, a business license debacle, a horse heist by a former employee and two fires — the most recent was ruled arson.
But the Noble Horse Theatre, regarded as Chicago’s last original stable, may finally meet its end when a developer seeks approval Thursday to erect a seven-story apartment building in its place.
The likely demolition of Noble Horse represents the latest blow to an already beleaguered industry, business owners said. In addition to rising property prices, the horse carriage companies grapple with a number of challenges in Chicago, they said, including restrictions on carriage stand locations and a rush-hour ban.
“It’s hard to see that the city, and society in general, no longer values the entertainment, the contribution and the amazingness of horses,” said Wendy Burtt, Antique Coach & Carriage, one of two companies that housed animals and equipment at Noble Horse until this past spring. “It’s the history of the building that’s so amazing.”
Across from the Brown Line “L” tracks, trash, leaves and stale horse pellets littered the stable grounds Thursday. A gap in the metal fence around the property allowed access to the multibuilding campus, where insulation hung from the ceilings and the walls peeled. Neon spray-painted graffiti was scribbled in a dark hallway that led to a riding arena.
LG Development Group is seeking a zoning change to construct a 252-unit complex at the intersections of North Orleans, West Schiller and North Sedgewick streets and is scheduled to appear before the Chicago Plan Commission next week. LG Development did not respond to a request for comment.
Now Antique Coach and the second business that used the space, Great Lakes Horse & Carriage, have been forced to find lodging elsewhere. Burtt relocated to a warehouse in Lincoln Park, converting it to a stable. Jim Rogers, owner of Great Lakes, said he trucks his horses in from northwest Indiana.
“We are victims of gentrification just like every other small business,” said Burtt, spokeswoman and driver for Antique Coach. “We’re a dying industry. At some point, real estate will be out of our financial reach.”
The 1-acre lot that Noble Horse occupies was worth $500,000 in 1991, according to the Cook County recorder of deeds. In April, when it was sold for development purposes, the land went for at least $7.8 million, records show.
For some Old Town residents, Noble Horse Theatre is a relic of how the neighborhood was in the 1990s before — as one woman walking her dog put it — “it was all fancy with condos.”
Maurice Simpson, 53, who has lived nearby since the 1960s, said he never went inside the stable but is sad to see it go. One of his friends rented a carriage for his wedding eight years ago, Simpson said.
“I’m against any sort of demolition in the old neighborhood,” he said. “But we are undergoing massive changes. Some people don’t see the [stable] as necessary.”
Some younger residents who were newer to the area weren’t familiar with the property and wondered about its purpose. After learning about Noble Horse from a Chicago Tribune reporter, Allison Hammer, a 31-year-old nurse, said she would have been curious to know more.
“Historical landmarks are an important part of preserving the city,” said Hammer, who’s lived in Old Town for three years.
The carriage operators have mixed reactions about the fate of Noble Horse. Burtt will mourn the loss of a city gem. Rogers, however, is more concerned with practicalities.
Rogers said he got six months’ notice to vacate but has struggled finding another affordable space to rent where landlords don’t mind livestock. In his 20 years of running the company, Rogers said, he’s relocated at least eight times. He operates three horse-drawn carriages in the city.
“It was extremely inconvenient, but it’s just like another change of address,” he said. “It’s a great place, and it’s too bad.”
Burtt and Ortega, who run 10 carriages each, said their operations are too large to transport by truck. They need to house the horses close to downtown so the animals can walk to Michigan Avenue, where throngs of eager tourists make up the heart of their profits.
Ortega, whose stable is in an industrial area at North Kingsbury and West Willow streets, was among the first to rent stable space at Noble Horse in 1981. That was when the property straddled the troubled Cabrini-Green housing project and gunshots frequently rang out, recalled Ortega.
“When I started there, it was dirt poor,” he said. “There were shootings there in the middle of the street, and the neighbors were happy we moved onto the street because we brought some civility and they felt they could come out at night.”
Dan Sampson, who used to run the city’s largest carriage company, operated the Noble Horse then. He took it over in 1984 and revived the stable over 25 years, offering riding lessons, the carriage service and eventually a dinner-show production. He also pushed a $2.5 million renovation, adding 300 seats to the arena in 2003.
But Sampson also faced adversity. The stable was nearly bankrupt in 1991, a real estate company threatened to bulldoze it in 1997 and a fire ravaged the interior in the same year.
As Sampson built the business, the neighborhood changed. Cabrini Green shuttered for good in 2011. Gentrification continued as swanky restaurants popped up, and The Second City comedy club attracted an artsy crowd to settle nearby, though the 2008 economic crisis stalled some of the development.
At its height in the ’80s and ’90s, there were 60 horse-drawn carriages clopping the streets of downtown — compared with the 23 in use now. Though the current companies have converted some spaces to serve as stables, they say the Noble Horse building is the last standing stable originally built for that purpose.
By 2009, Sampson could not sustain his carriage and dinner-show business, blaming the city’s regulations for a hand in its demise. Afterward, Burtt and Rogers rented space from the property owner, real-estate developer Sheldon Baskin.
The most recent blaze in February, which damaged 13 horse-drawn carriages, appears to have been set by animal rights extremists, according to the FBI. Graffiti typically associated with that movement — spray-painted messages of “Save the horses” and “freedom” — was discovered in the barn, said the FBI, which is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.
Burtt said the industry can’t afford to fight the Noble Horse closure and said she had to emotionally detach from the property. She filmed as the last horse rode out of the barn for the final time April 1, chronicling what she calls the end of an era.
“There are kids in the city who will never have contact with horses like ours if we’re gone,” Burtt said. “Tourism in Chicago is a No. 1 industry, and we bring a very important aspect to the tourism industry, but they are forgetting about us … We’re not big business companies, we’re not corporate finance. We’re just small people trying to do our thing.”