UPTOWN — A group hoping to save a theater located in the former Hull House center in Uptown got some good news this week, as the city rescheduled a zoning vote to give supporters more time to work out a compromise with the developer.
Real estate developer Dave Gassman bought the mostly-vacant center at 4520 N. Beacon St. out of foreclosure for about $1 million in May. The Leo Lerner Theatre in its basement, home to the Pegasus Players theater company, has a storied past as the former home of both the Black Ensemble Theater and the Organic Theater.
On Tuesday, the City Council Zoning Committee was scheduled to vote on a zoning change that would allow Gassman to convert the building into a two-story apartment complex — but the developer's plan hit a snag.
After pleas to save the building by a group named the Consortium to Save Hull House Theater, the committee decided to punt the vote until June 25 — at the request of Ald. James Cappleman (46th) — to give the group time to try to either sway Gassman toward a development plan that includes a theater or find a way to buy the building and convince Gassman to sell it.
“At least there’s a little breathing time to come up with some new ideas,” said Ward Miller, president of Preservation Chicago and a member of the consortium.
The group was formed late last month and includes notable names from both Chicago's theater scene and Hollywood.
Supporters say the theater is a valuable part of Uptown and Chicago's artistic heritage.
Members of the group, including Chicago League of Theaters Executive Director Deb Clapp and Black Ensemble Theater founder Jackie Taylor, showed up at the zoning meeting with more than 1,000 signatures in support of the theater. The consortium also submitted an application seeking landmark status for the building.
Cappleman’s chief of staff Tressa Feher said Wednesday that the group was “very late to the process,” and that Cappleman's office and neighbors in the Beacon Block Club had already pledged support for Gassman’s plan after a meeting in March.
Feher said the deferral of the vote was "frustrating," for the alderman, but that Cappleman wanted to ensure that the consortium got a fair shot at persuading Gassman to save the theater.
“He’s trying to give them every opportunity to do the right thing since they came so late to the game," Feher said.
Gassman declined to be interviewed for this story. But Feher said the alderman "wants to make sure a meeting happens," between Gassman and the consortium.
Hull House was a prominent social service agency founded in 1889 by Nobel Peace Prize-winning social reformer Jane Addams. It went bankrupt last year and ceased operations across Chicago.
Hull House’s support of the arts throughout its history was also tied to theater movements in Chicago that helped birth the city's robust, "Off-Loop" theater scene. Several other other Hull House theaters (now defunct) were established in Chicago neighborhoods in the 1960s under the direction of former Hull House theater director Bob Sickinger, who died in May.
The theater in Uptown is the last one left.
About 1,400 people have signed a petition penned by the consortium in support of saving the theater.
In an email to DNAinfo Chicago, Beacon Block Club President Dustin Fogle wondered: where was the consortium months ago "when the building went on the market and it was likely that the theater's future would be in jeopardy?"
"In a perfect world, something might be able to be worked out between the developer and the theater, but unless someone with a lot of money swoops in, or it is somehow landmarked, the developer has the right to do with the property as he sees fit," Fogle wrote.