CHICAGO — It might be hard to see right now, but the building at 4343 South Cottage Grove is blooming into the Lillian Marcie Center.

Named after Harry Lennix’s mother Lillian and his mentor Marcella Gilles, the center is a domino project of sorts, expected to spark a ripple effect of art and opportunity throughout the South Side.

“It’s been 15 years. It looks like it’s been overnight, but it’s been a long time with a lot of brains on this thing, a lot of people’s hearts and minds,” Lennix said “We have a holistic approach to culture which we think will benefit not just the South Side of Chicago (but also) the children, which we hope will be able to aspire for something they can see in their own neighborhoods, where they won’t have to leave the world class entertainment that they invented. The inspirational and aspirational reality in a physical form which we hope will rival anything in the world.”

TaRon Patton is part of the team that birthed the idea. She’s also Lennix’s good friend, an artist and a big dreamer.

She said while their focus is making the space distinctly Chicago, when it comes to the big picture, they’re definitely following a plan they’ve seen work.

 “Harry started talking about the Lincoln Center in New York and how Rockefeller kind of did the same thing,” Patton said. “And had the idea of all these artistic entities coming together in one place and making a viable community. One hundred years ago, Bronzeville was the artistic mecca. Outside of New York, this is where the pulse was. Ella Fitzgerald lived here, Sam Cooke lived here, Louis Armstrong lived in Bronzeville. … And so, we started saying, ‘Man we would love to bring that viability back.’”

It was an idea that was much easier to bring to fruition, thanks to some major support from Governor Bruce Rauner.

“Illinois is the only place that has an Arts and Museums Committee, like they’re the only state doing that,” Patton said. “And so, we went before them and said, ‘This is what we’re trying to do.’”

This week, the state announced it was putting $26 million dollars behind the project.

“For me the money means hope,” Patton said.

“We still have to raise a lot of money, but this is now something that has the confidence the state, of the government, and we want to be very careful to be responsible,” Lennix said. “We will do that. This is not for any kid of self-aggrandizement. This is purely for the benefit of the community and we think of the whole wide world.”

 A world that starts with the kids of Bronzeville and gives them a chance to see their own big dreams come true.

“The power of imagination, there’s nothing like it in the known universe,” Lennix said. “I think of the world and the universe itself as the imagination of God. But we can be the same thing. That by dreaming and being able to put that into a form, there’s nothing impossible to us.”

And not just on stage or in front of the camera. But in the audience and behind the scenes.

 “We’re talking to the community leaders about creating programs for the kids where they can appreciate theater, but they can also learn about it as a business,” Patton said.

Patton said she hopes the center will be a destination for existing legends and the ones still to come.

 “I see Wynton Marsalis. I see, you know, I don’t know — Denzel Washington doing a play here, I see kids (with) shows that they have written and produced and whatever. (I see) them coming here and this being the pinnacle. Like “I know I’m on my way to being a professional because I’m working at the Lillian Marcie.’”

“You can imagine this will be the new catwalk, this will be the lighting stage. The theater is right below us. This place is just an amazing architectural feat.

Mike Wordlaw, Harry’s friend and partner in the project was tasked with finding the perfect spot for the center.

“Here’s an original 100 year old barn door. You gotta look at this.”

When he discovered the cottage grove location they realized they had happened up a forgotten piece of Chicago history.

“This hay is all up in the walls here, you can see, so we’ve got the hundred year old hay in the bays of the walls. This is part of the old horse stable. Looks like it housed saddles, buckles. Carriages would come in and they would take them up to the second floor,” Wordlaw said.

Built in 1918, this used to be a distribution center for Marshall Field and Company.

“This would have probably been the area where he would have housed his inventory. This is one of the areas where the joints had started to collapse, really deteriorated because there was no roof for about 25 years.”  

And so the work, begins.