Harpo’s closing ends the studio’s production legacy

All good things that must come to an end, and so Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios, the 26-year old production company and 170,000-sq. ft. four-building studio complex she owns, will close in December. 

Oprah flew to Chicago for a Monday, when production in her Chicago studio ended, to announce the closing of the studio and address her employees, telling them the decision to close was not made lightly.

From a business standpoint, Oprah said, it made more sense to consolidate everything under one roof in LA, where she had moved in 2011 after she ended her daily syndicated talk show from Chicago.

For the past three years, Oprah has co-owned the OWN cable network with Discovery channels, which got off to a rocky start but is now rated 20 among ad-supported cable shows.  Recently the company moved three floors at The Lot in West Hollywood where OWN shows are produced.

Harpo’s closing and the complete move to LA was inevitable from the day Oprah announced the show’s end.  It became a stark reality in March 2014 when the property was sold for $30.5 million to real estate developer Sterling Bay Cos.

Harpo’s lease for rental of two of the four buildings expires in April, 2016. Sterling Bay has said that the property’s future is undecided, although odds are it will be massively redeveloped for residential and retail.

The studio’s 200 employees will be paid until December.  Some are expected to join the LA staff.

Fred A. Niles Studio, Harpo’s predecessor

Harpo in 1985 purchased eponymously named Fred A. Niles Communications Center at 1058 W. Washington Blvd. “The biggest stage complex east of Hollywood” produced commercials, corporate, sales meetings, TV shows and the occasional feature film. 

The studio had been converted from a roller skating rink when Niles bought it for $3 million. The building originally had been the National Guard Armory. Later, it was a cold storage plant that served as the temporary morgue for the victims of the 1915 Eastland boat disaster. Consequently, according to folklore, the buildiing was haunted.

Fred A. Niles studio had three big stages, a large recording studio, editorial rooms, carpentry shop, prop room, equipment storage, screening rooms, offices, dressing and hair and makeup  rooms, conference and client rooms and a working kitchen.   

In its heyday it employed more than 100.

In early 1983 Niles was incapacitated by a rare disease and sold the studio later that year, before his death, to a group that included an Illinois congressman, a labor leader, and the owner of a small studio. Funds used for the sale reportedly came from a loan from the state made at an unusually low rate.

Instead of renovating and operating the studio as planned, the congressman sold the property to a group of investors, including Oprah.  The filmmaker reportedly was eliminated from the sale and the Niles estate was never fully paid for the purchase.

Oprah’s group bought the property for $10 million in 1985 and invested another $10 million for a top-to-bottom rehab. “The Oprah Winfrey Show” settled into the studio in 1989.

Over the 30 years of Oprah’s ownership, Harpo bought and built additions to the complex that became an international tourist attraction and the catalyst that changed the run-down industrial area into the thriving West Loop.