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Portage Theater, Set to Become Landmark, Faces Murky Future

 The 94-year-old theater should be maintained and protected from renovations, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks ruled.
The 94-year-old theater should be maintained and protected from renovations, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks ruled.
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PORTAGE PARK — The historic Portage Theater is on its way to becoming a landmark, but its future is very much in doubt because of the ongoing legal fight between the former movie palace's owner and its operator.

The Chicago Commission on Landmarks voted unanimously Thursday to recommend that city's zoning committee and the City Council make it more difficult to alter both the inside and the outside of the theater, which was built in 1919 and 1920.

"In the eyes of the community it has been a landmark for years and this just formalizes that," Ald, John Arena (45th) said, adding that he was hopeful that final approval of the designation would be happen quickly.

Efforts to landmark the Portage Theater began more than a year ago when the Chicago Tabernacle Church planned to purchase the theater in the heart of the Six Corners Shopping District over the objections of Arena, the business community and several neighborhood groups.

Instead, the church found another home, and Eddie Carranza, the owner of the Congress Theater in Logan Square, bought the theater. 

In addition to the facade, the landmark designation requires the building to have a marquee. Because the current marquee isn't original, it could be replaced, Arena said.

If approved, the designation would also protect both the inner and outer lobby of the theater, as well as the interior of the theater, with its intricate scrolls and designs.

The designation, however, would allow the owner of the building to remove the 1,300 seats in the theater because they aren't original, Arena said. However, the designation would require that it continue to be used as a cinema, Arena said.

Rumors that Carranza wants to remove the seats in order to host music shows similar to those at the Congress have drawn vehement community opposition. In December, Carranza told DNAinfo.com Chicago that he had no new, imminent plans for the theater seating.

"I would encourage Mr. Carranza to pursue a business model that maintains the seats," Arena said.

Carranza did not respond to several emails Friday.

Carranza could lose his liquor license at the Congress over concerns about fights, noise and underage drinking outside the theater after events. City officials have also alleged a concertgoer was assaulted by a security guard and a theater employee dealt drugs.

Carranza and Arena have been at loggerheads since Carranza bought the theater in September. In December, Carranza said he would not work with Arena, who called the theater owner “a liar” in an email message to 45th Ward residents in September.

"The concern about what's happened at the Congress colors the conversation," Arena said.

Arena said Carranza promised him and other community leaders that he would not evict theater operators Dennis Wilkowicz and Dave Dziedzic, but started legal proceedings against them days later.

As first reported by WBEZ, that legal action was dismissed Feb. 8 with the agreement of both sides, court records show.

"It seemed like detente had been reached," but all that ended when Carranza served Wolkwicz with a new eviction notice earlier this week, Arena said.

Wolkowicz, who did not return phone messages Friday, has turned away people who wanted to rent the theater after April, Arena said.

However, Rebecca Hall, co-founder of the Northwest Chicago Film Society, said her group has screenings set at the Portage through the end of the year and hasn't heard that anything has changed.

Arena said the legal wrangling had destabilized an important community asset.

"We see a renaissance happening," Arena said, adding that six restaurants are in the process of opening in and around Six Corners. "It would seem foolhardy to thwart that progress."

A city-commissioned master plan designed to map out the revitalization of the Six Corners Shopping District urges officials to use the Portage Theater can help drive the renaissance and to encourage a diverse slate of programming for families, film lovers and young concert goers.

"We haven't seen a plan of operations," Arena said. "What is the long term plan for the theater? Share it with us. Share it with the city."