Congress Theater Owner Wants Venue Restored to Its 1920s Glory

By Victoria Johnson on February 21, 2013 7:43am | Updated on February 21, 2013 9:59am

LOGAN SQUARE — The days may be numbered for anyone who loved to complain about the Congress Theater's dismal bathrooms.

This week, theater officials provided a sneak peak into the ambitious renovations under way at the 87-year-old theater, which owner Eddie Carranza hopes to restore to its grand 1920s heyday — and yes, those bathrooms will be among the first things to get spruced up.

"These [theaters] were kind of like destination community centers, where you'd catch a show then do something else," Carranza said. "So the theater is going back to that era when it was built."

Included in that "community center" will be a "premium bar," cafe, restaurant, grocery store, nightclub and "modern soda jerk-style" candy and ice cream shop, Carranza said.

So far, the most noticeable change in the theater is the main lobby, which has been painted white in lieu of the grubby yellow and maroon walls some concertgoers may remember.

On the second floor, two walls and a large antique projector have been ripped out to clear space for what will become a "premium lounge" for which Carranza applied for a new liquor license in late December.

He also said he intends to reupholster or replace the seats, repaint the entire main theater and refinish all the floors.

Congress projects manager Jazmine De Natera said the first phase of the project is still months from completion, but noted that when Carranza bought the theater in 2005 the place was falling apart. He first had to invest in fixing basic structural problems before getting to the finer details, she said.

"Yeah, people may not think the bathrooms are the most beautiful thing ever, but at least the ceiling isn't caving in," she said.

The first additions slated to open will be the cafe and grocery store, dubbed the Rockwell Market, which will offer meats, cheeses and produce from the Midwest, along with quick "grab-and-go" items like sandwiches and sodas.

The cafe will serve breakfast and weekend brunch, along with a sandwich-centric lunch and dinner menu, De Natera said.

Down the street a bit will be a sit-down restaurant, which De Natera said likely will serve "eclectic American" fare. Next door, work is being done on what will become a two-story nightclub and smaller venue with the working name of The Senate.

Details such as branding and opening dates for those projects have yet to be worked out, but De Natera said theater management is hoping to open the market and cafe by this summer.

Matthew Bailey, spokesman for Ald. Joe Moreno (1st), said the alderman supports the work the Congress has been doing.

"We're happy about any improvements happening at Congress," Bailey said. "Although we haven't been invited to see the renovations yet, it seems they are heading in the right direction and are working with the city."

Referring to the public nuisance process the Congress has been undergoing since last year, Bailey said what's most important is that the venue is safe.

Carranza and Congress management have promised to maintain extra security and continue to address other issues such as underage drinking and fights at the theater during shows.

The theater's next public nuisance hearing is scheduled for May 7 as something of a checkup to make sure improvements stay on course. But a separate Liquor Control Commission hearing dealing with many of those same issues will be held March 5.

Both processes put the theater's liquor license at risk.

Carranza acknowledged the theater's past troubles, but said he is doing everything he can to address them.

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