THREATENED: Landmarked Congress Theater Languishes Due to Rising Construction Prices and Labor Dispute

Decay and water damage seen in the hallway at the Congress Theater in Logan Square on Feb. 6, 2023. Congress Theater, 1926, Fridstein & Co., 2117-2139 N. Milwaukee Ave. Designated a Chicago Landmark on July 10, 2002. Photo credit: Colin Boyle / Block Club Chicago
The enormous dome above the auditorium of the Congress Theater in Logan Square on Feb. 6, 2023. Congress Theater, 1926, Fridstein & Co., 2117-2139 N. Milwaukee Ave. Designated a Chicago Landmark on July 10, 2002. Photo credit: Colin Boyle / Block Club Chicago

Closed for a decade, the Congress Theater is a shell of the gleaming movie palace and music venue it once was.

“Water is seeping into the 1920s venue, badly damaging the original structure and its ornate details. The plaster walls are crumbling, and parts of the ceiling have collapsed, scattering debris. The theater’s worsening condition, combined with sky-high construction prices and other mounting costs, is complicating a local developer’s ambitious — and much-anticipated — plans to revive the Logan Square gem.

“Baum Revision, a developer with a reputation for restoring historical buildings, was winding its way through the city approval process last year, but the Congress rehab project stalled as costs increased and negotiations around labor and other issues persisted, said David Baum, one of the managing principals.

“‘It’s been a bit of a game of whack-a-mole. Every time we think we’ve figured it out, pricing goes up,’ Baum said. ‘Construction pricing has not been going in the right direction, interest rates continue to go up, getting loans is more difficult and general costs — energy or anything else — has been going up. … Pricing continues to go up while the condition of the building is not getting better.’

“The project itself hasn’t changed: Baum still plans to fully restore the 2,900-seat music venue at 2135 N. Milwaukee Ave. and surrounding retail shops and apartments.

“But the renovation is now estimated to cost $88 million, up from $70.4 million last year, Baum said. The development company is seeking $27 million in tax-increment finance dollars to cover a gap in funding. That’s $7 million more than developers asked for last year and $17 million more than the previous developer secured for a similar project.

“Baum’s team is working closely with city officials to nail down a redevelopment agreement and secure financing as theater operator AEG Presents and local labor union UNITE HERE Local 1 battle over a “good jobs commitment.”

“If everything goes according to plan, the redevelopment project could be introduced in City Council next month, setting the stage for subsequent approval, said Baum and other players, including Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st), whose ward includes the Congress.

“The project is delicate, partly because there’s a lot at stake. A restored Congress will transform the abandoned Milwaukee Avenue stretch and give the broader neighborhood an economic and cultural jolt, neighbors and local leaders said.

“‘Trying to get this thing to work is a Rubik’s Cube,’ Baum said. ‘We feel like we’re there, we hope that the powers that be will want to get this thing passed. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned like everyone else is,’ Baum said. (Bloom, Block Club Chicago, 2/8/23)

The Congress Theater was designated a Chicago Landmark in 2002 in large part due to the strong advocacy and dedication of Preservation Chicago and Logan Square Preservation. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2017. Over the past 20 years, Preservation Chicago and Logan Square Preservation have continued to advocate for its restoration and reactivation. There have been many challenges and false starts, but we are optimistic that this renovation effort will prove successful.

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