What’s That Building? The Preston Bradley Center
A local surgeon and blues musician has big plans for the six-story building in Uptown, which has been home to the Peoples Church since 1926.By Dennis Rodkin
If there’s anything bigger than Dan Ivankovich, who is 6 feet, 11 inches tall, it’s his plan to revitalize a 96-year-old landmark on Lawrence Avenue in Uptown.
In October, Ivankovich, who’s an orthopedic surgeon and blues musician, and a group of investors paid $2 million for the Preston Bradley Center, a six-story, columned building that has been the home of the Peoples Church since 1926.
During a walk-through of the 15,000-square-foot building with WBEZ’s Reset, Ivankovich rattled off a long list of uses he hopes will fill the grand old space: a basketball program for young women, exercise classes for senior citizens, blues performances, church services, a soup kitchen, pain management therapy, jazz and gospel shows.
Ivankovich’s vision of the building is “about service and wellness during the day, and then rocking all night.”
When it’s all up and running, the building will cost $500,000 to $1 million to operate, Ivankovich estimates, much of it covered by grants that support the various daytime programs and ticket revenue from the evening programs. But that’s a long way off. First, he needs to get started on restoring the behemoth, which needs its utilities updated and modifications to meet requirements like the Americans With Disabilities Act.
One thing Ivankovich says he won’t change: the name on the building, Preston Bradley Center. He’s also keeping the name on Bradley’s own office, which Ivankovich is taking over.
That’s in large part because Ivankovich is, in many ways, a modern-day Preston Bradley. Hanging on the front door is a quote from Bradley’s dedication prayer delivered at the then-new building on Oct. 1, 1926. Bradley prayed the building “may always be an open door to the downtrodden and the broken and the bruised and the bleeding.”
On our walk-through, Ivankovich said something very similar. Speaking of his careerlong work with people he described as “shut-outs,” Ivankovich said, “We don’t want to exclude anyone who wants to be here.”
Speaking specifically of Bradley, Ivankovich said, “he was a rebel, brother, and I like that. I have no doubt that if he were alive today, we’d be drinking buddies.”
Bradley was a big presence, too. He was in his 20s when he came to Chicago in about 1912, and by the middle of the century was known nationwide for his weekly radio broadcasts that had an audience of 5 million, his bestselling books and his folksy, focus-on-the-good sermons at the Peoples Church to his congregation of 4,000 people. “They tell me there were lines down the block when he was in here preaching,” Ivankovich said.
The Peoples Church is Unitarian Universalist, a denomination that grew out of liberal Christianity and derives meaning from several of the world’s faith traditions. Bradley, who had grown up a fundamentalist Christian and studied at the Moody Bible Institute, left the Presbyterian church because he didn’t believe unbaptized babies were destined for hell. He later left the strict Christian path after he was expelled from Moody because he had been seen coming out of a movie theater smoking a pipe. Bradley founded The Peoples Progressive Church, which later merged with the Peoples Church of Chicago.
“I don’t distinguish between humanity and spirituality,” Bradley said in 1971. “I’ve never been interested in getting people into heaven, but heaven into people.”
When preaching, Bradley sat behind a desk on the stage of the Peoples Church’s main hall, with 1,300 seats on the main floor and two balconies. The room, 55 feet tall with wood trim on the balconies and not a speck of stained glass, is more like a theater than a church, down to the upholstered seats. It’s not surprising: The building was designed by J. E. O. Pridmore, an architect of many theaters in Chicago, Evanston, Rockford and elsewhere.
What marks this as a church sanctuary is the mural that soars two stories high above the stage, his arms outstretched and surrounded by people of assorted skin tones and clothes that show they’re a mix of farmers, working class people and professionals, including a doctor. The mural, called Keep Looking Up, was painted in 1959 by Louis Grell, who did murals in several theaters and hotels.
Ivankovich says the mural will stay, although there’s no religious component to his plans for the building other than to let the Peoples Church and possibly other congregations meet there. Talking about his plan to host live bands in this auditorium, Ivankovich said, “God’s house is gonna rock at night.”
His idea of combining health and wellness programs with live bands is both a melding of his own interests and a practical idea. “If you have an amazing venue, why be open only at night,” he said. Conversely, why keep a building filled with daytime well-being programs dark after working hours?
“One building can do both things,” he said.
It’s been a mission for about a decade, as Ivankovich looked for buildings, mostly in South Side neighborhoods where he has operated clinics. “We looked at old churches, we looked at firehouses,” he said. When a broker told him about the Peoples Church, which went up for sale in October 2020, “it was like full circle for me,” he said. “I grew up in Uptown. Uptown rocks.”
Dan Ivankovich says he’ll keep doing surgery, but he’s going to step away from some of his practice to get the Preston Bradley Center 2.0 rehabbed and refilled with programs. He doesn’t have a solid timeline yet — the purchase of the giant building was just a few weeks ago — but he said he expects the east and west parts of the building, where wellness, the soup kitchen and other social programs will go, come first.
Later, “we’ll do the eye candy part, the ooh-ahh part, the auditorium.”
Dennis Rodkin is the residential real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor. Follow him @Dennis_Rodkin.
K’Von Jackson is the freelance photojournalist for Reset’s “What’s That Building?” Follow him @true_chicago.