The plot thickens: Threatened Portage Theater suddenly up for possible landmark status

April 1, 2012

In a surprise move, the city plans to ask a commission to grant preliminary landmark status to the Portage Theater--a decision that could complicate a congregation's controversial plans to purchase and significantly alter the 92-year-old North Side movie house.

Staff from the Historic Preservation Division of the city's Department of Housing and Economic Development will ask the Commission on Chicago Landmarks to confer the designation at the commission's meeting Thursday, according to an agenda posted online. If the proposed preliminary designation includes the marquee, facade and interiors of the building, approval by the commission could virtually forbid alteration or removal of those elements while a permanent designation is worked out.

The Portage's future came into question last month when word surfaced that Chicago Tabernacle, an Albany Park-based ministry, made an offer to purchase the still-functioning movie theater building at 4042 N. Milwaukee and convert it into a place of worship. In addition to the marquee removal, the church is considering changes to the auditorium and eliminating the storefronts.

The theater and its architecture is featured in the above video. The theater owned and operated by two different entities. The owners have been attempting to sell the theater since last year.

Chicago Tabernacle's plans have hit a wave of resistance from the Six Corners community and the larger body of theater fans seeking to preserve the movie house, which screens an ecletic mix that includes rare and silent films and horror movies. The interior of the 1300-seat single-screen theater as a stand-in for the Biograph Theatre in the 2009 John Dillinger flick, Public Enemies.

Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert spoke up for the Portage last month, tweeting: "Chicago has countless churches but not enough theaters like the very special Portage. Help save it." A "Save the Portage Theater" page on Facebook has 2,700 followers. The website of Ald. John Arena (45th) last week reported the councilman received two emails--out of 389--in favor of a special use zoning permit that would allow the church to operate in the space. "The remainder support preserving the Portage in its present form," Arena said on the site.

But Chicago Tabernacle's pastor, the Rev. Al Toldeo told the Chicago Tribune last month the church plans to undertake a multi-million dollar repair job on the church--"We would be willing to really make it beautiful"--and believed his congregation would be an economic driver for the area.

The city's zoning commission will meet April 20 concerning the special use permit. More as it develops...