On June 12, 2018, the City of Chicago Community Development Commission unanimously approved the renovation of the Chicago Landmark Congress Theater including a $9.6 million subsidy from the surrounding Fullerton-Milwaukee tax-increment-financing (TIF) district. The support of TIF funds from the City of Chicago was an essential component of the financing package for the extensive $69 million renovation of the historic theater located at 2135 N. Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square. The project also includes $22.3 million worth of historic tax credits. Scheduled to be reopened in 2019, the theater is expected to host up to 125 live music events per year. According to project architect Andy Tinucci, “the goal is to ensure the building lasts another 100 years.” (Chicago Tribune, Yerak, 10/12/17)
Built in 1926 for the Lubliner and Trinz theater company as a movie theater, the ornate Congress Theater was designed by architect Fridstein & Company in the Italian Baroque style. On its opening day, September 5, 1926, there were parades, band concerts, and a bathing beauty contest. It has an elaborate large domed auditorium and is covered with decorations in stone, terra-cotta and plaster. It remains remarkably intact, down to the original light fixtures and marble wainscoting.
In 2000, the theater was threatened by demolition and replacement with condos, but the neighborhood and preservation community rallied to its defense. With the extensive and persistent support of Preservation Chicago and Logan Square Preservation, on July 10, 2002, the Congress Theater became a Designated Chicago Landmark. In January 2018, the Congress Theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The theater operated until 2013 when it was closed due to a series of safety code violations. In 2014, it was sold to developer Michael Moyer of PalMet Ventures. Moyer was part of the ownership that bought and recently restored the Cadillac Palace Theatre, also built in 1926. In January 2018, the Congress Theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The Congress Theater will reopen as a theater venue. Led by architect Andy Tinucci from Woodhouse Tinucci Architects, the redevelopment will include 30-room hotel, as well as 14 affordable housing units in the 160,000 square foot historic theater building complex. According to Tinucci, “ the goal is to ensure the building lasts another 100 years.” (Chicago Tribune, Yerak, 10/12/17) Also, a 100-unit new construction residential building will be built on the adjacent lot.
From project architect Woodhouse Tinucci Architect’s project website. “The Congress Theater (Fridstein & Company, 1926) is the most intact neighborhood movie palace from Chicago’s boom years of the 1920s. It is a classic example of a “theater block,” combining a movie theater with stores and apartments.
The block is dominated by an elaborate 4-story entrance pavilion designed in a combination of the Classical Revival and Italian Renaissance architectural styles and extensively detailed in terra cotta. Inside, the theater forms a grand progression of lavishly ornamented spaces culminating in a dramatic saucer-domed auditorium.
This project will include renovation of the theater’s historic lobby and auditorium as well as its adjacent buildings, which will house a small inn, affordable housing units and street-level retail serving the community.
The theater, which has been closed since spring 2013, originally opened in 1926 as a movie palace. Eventually it grew to host such diverse musical acts as Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Lauryn Hill, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Billy Idol, Toots and the Maytals, ZZ Top, Zoe’, and Weezer.
Under New Congress LLC’s direction, the venue will reemerge as one of the finest live music venues in the nation managed by an experienced operator with local insight and national presence. The meticulous renovation of The Congress, already a Chicago Landmark, aims for listing on the National Register of Historic Places and will draw on both the diverse history and culture of the neighborhood as well as the innate character of the architecture. Its dynamic mix of new uses will reestablish The Congress as a vibrant community anchor on Milwaukee Avenue midway between Chicago’s Logan Square and Bucktown neighborhoods.”
As reported in Crain’s Chicago Business, “TIF subsidies are a city blight-fighting tool designed to help finance projects that wouldn’t receive funding from the private sector. They have been criticized over the years as welfare for real estate developers, but the CDC staff report says the Congress Theater is a deserving candidate. Without the TIF funds, this project could not be financed and would not generate an acceptable level of return on investment,” the report said.