What’s That Building? The Congress Theater

The lobby of the Congress Theater in Logan Square
The lobby of the Congress Theater in Logan Square features a grand staircase that leads to the balcony. The theater closed in 2013 and is currently being renovated. Jason Marck / WBEZ
The lobby of the Congress Theater in Logan Square
The lobby of the Congress Theater in Logan Square features a grand staircase that leads to the balcony. The theater closed in 2013 and is currently being renovated. Jason Marck / WBEZ

What’s That Building? The Congress Theater

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The Congress Theater in Logan Square is one of two historic North Side movie theaters to recently launch massive renovations.

Work has begun on a $69 million plan to turn the 92-year-old theater into an up-to-date live music venue. About five miles northeast, the Uptown Theatre, which has sat empty since 1981, will get a $75 million renovation.

The Congress, 2135 N. Milwaukee Ave., is part of a four-building complex. The new renovations will include updates to all the buildings, which were constructed around the same time, and turn the 175,000-square-foot complex into a music venue with a 30-room hotel, 14 affordably priced apartments, and spaces for retail shops and restaurants.

Restoration has already started with the painstaking process of making new architectural drawings of every inch of the building to determine what can be kept, what needs to be replaced, and what “interventions” can be tucked in relatively unobtrusively, said Mary Ward of Woodhouse Tinucci Architects, which is overseeing the work.

Light fixtures and entrances in the theater's lobby show intricate carvings and metalwork. (Jason Marck / WBEZ)

The plan includes a glass bridge connecting opposite sides of the lobby, Ward said. The modern feature is meant to stand out from the original 1920s architecture.

It’s not the first time developer Michael Moyer has restored a grand old theater. In the late ’90s, he was a principal in the partnership that restored what’s now known as the Cadillac Palace Theatre in the Loop. The Cadillac Palace — along with other renovated theaters like the Shubert (now CIBC), the Goodman, and the Oriental — helped fuel a cultural renaissance of the Loop.

Mid-rise apartment complexes in Logan Square, which have been criticized for fueling gentrification, have created a built-in audience that appeals to lenders looking to make big investments — and it takes big money to make the Congress Theater project viable.

Here is a closer look at what’s in store for the Congress Theater:

From historic movie theater to concert venue

The Congress was built to host movies and vaudeville performers. At the time, grand theaters were being built all over America, and Chicago was considered “the jumpingest movie city in the world and had more plush elegant theatres than anywhere else,” Ben Hall, a New Yorker who founded the Theatre Historical Society of America in 1969, said in his book The Best Remaining Seats: The Story Of The Golden Age Of The Movie Palace.

The balconies at the Congress Theater are filled with ornate carvings. (Jason Marck / WBEZ)

Moyer’s firm, PalMet Venture, bought the Congress Theater in 2015 for $16.1 million. The previous owner, Eddie Carranza, had been hit with code violations and a foreclosure suit while operating it as a concert venue. In spring 2013, the city revoked Carranza’s liquor license at the Congress, and the theater shut down.

The classic theater facade

The four-story facade, currently wrapped in scaffolding, is one of those theater-fantasy classics done in an Italian Renaissance style. The facade features narrow arched windows set between twisting columns within a larger framework of hefty pilasters that support a kind of Greek temple top.

A view of the front of the theater from the inside, where caution tape marks construction in progress. (Jason Marck / WBEZ)

History remains: The grand entrance and plaster decorations

Entering the building, a glass-ceilinged vestibule leads into a vast lobby that features two curving staircases that sweep up to a pair of regal entrances to the upper seat level. Much of the original plaster trim is intact, but needs to be cleaned, repainted, and otherwise tidied up, Ward said.

Inside the theater, all the original seats are gone and the sloping floor is bare to allow for a standing audience of about 3,800 at concerts. But not everything was removed. Ward said most of the ornate plaster decoration that wraps the balcony, the two organ lofts that flank the stage, and the enormous dome that hangs over it all are still in very good condition.

The stage of the Congress Theater as seen from the balcony on July 2, 2018. (Jason Marck / WBEZ)

The original main-floor seating area will be filled with a terraced or stair-stepped set of spaces. There won’t be permanent seats, but this setup allows for wiring and utilities to run underneath and can easily be reconfigured for different types of events.

Dennis Rodkin is a real estate reporter forCrain’s Chicago Business and Morning Shift’s “What’s That Building?” contributor.