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Closing Hull House Uptown Theater a 'Crime,' 'Tragedy,' Some Say

 Real estate developer  Dave Gassmann  bought Uptown's former Jane Addams Hull House Association community center out of foreclosure for about $1 million in May, and with it, a part of Chicago theater history.
Hull House Community Center in Uptown to be Converted to Apartments
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UPTOWN — Some say it would be a "tragedy" and a "crime" if a developer goes through with plans to convert into apartments an Uptown theater that helped launch such Hollywood names as Joe Mantegna and David Mamet.

But Dave Gassman, who closed on his $1 million purchase of the former Hull House Association building at 4520 N. Beacon St., earlier this month, has a message for anyone upset by his plan to close the Leo Lerner Theatre in the basement: "If you want to buy the building, then you should buy it and you can do what you want," he said.

"That's what I would tell anyone who doesn't like it. Don't live in America. That's how it works," Gassman said.

The Hull House Association, founded in 1889, filed for bankruptcy last year and ceased operations across Chicago, including in Uptown at 4520 N. Beacon St.

The building currently houses the Pegasus Players theater company — yet earned most of its popularity several decades prior with the Black Ensemble Theatre, the Organic Theater and previous Hull House theater productions.

Former Tribune chief critic Richard Christiansen wrote in his memoir that the Organic was "a small but powerful and influential force in fostering the talent and shaping the personality of the city’s theater scene." 

Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and screenwriter Mamet's play "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" debuted there in 1974. Another notable Organic alum is actor Mantegna, whose resume includes "Three Amigos," "Godfather III" and "The Simpsons."

Film director Stuart Gordon, the founder of the Organic Theater, which occupied the space from 1973 to 1981, said in a phone interview from his home in L.A. that he is "hoping that something will be done to stop what is happening" to the theater.

"It would be a crime to have that theater torn down to make soulless apartment buildings," said Gordon, one of the writers for the movies, "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" and "Honey, I Blew Up the Kids." He noted that Mamet's play there helped "put him on the map."

He said Gassman "doesn't seem to care about the arts whatsoever or about the history of Hull House," adding: "He's very well named, I think."

Edgewater resident and actor Gary Houston said Hull House has shaped Chicago theater — from the "Little Theater Movement," in the early 20th century that helped forge a lane for small experimental theaters — to the "Off-Loop" movement spawned by former Hull House theater director Bob Sickinger in the 1960s that is responsible for a still vibrant grassroots community theater circuit.

The Leo Lerner Theatre is "one of the little jewels in Chicago," and "it ought to be preserved right there," Houston said.

"That's a tragedy," he said about Gassman's plan. "I hope there's public outcry."

Actor and prominent playwright Jackie Taylor, whose Black Ensemble Theatre spent 24 years in the building prior to moving into a $19 million facility elsewhere in Uptown in 2011, also lamented the loss of the performance space.

The theater has "such rich cultural history. ... [It's] very sad to see it being turned into something else," he said.

Taylor recognized Hull House as "a huge asset in creating the history and the foundation of the Black Ensemble Theatre," which is known for nationally acclaimed productions about famous black musicians and performers, including Teddy Pendergrass, Dionne Warrick, Billie Holiday and Jackie Wilson.

"We started being able to put together strategic plans and we were able to create the branding, if you will, that went with being in that small 4520 N. Beacon basement," Taylor said.

But Taylor understood that although "change is always difficult," it's also "imminent," Taylor said.

"You can't deny opportunity to individuals. And this building was bought by a developer," Taylor said. "He is not an artist. He is a developer and he wants to develop it meeting his needs. You can't say, 'You can't do that,' unless you have the money to do what you want to do with it."

And Beacon Block Club President Dustin Fogle said "the vast majority," of neighbors on Beacon support the plan, and that Ald. James Cappleman (46th) and economic development leaders are scouting new locations in Uptown for Pegasus Players.

Fogle finds the apartment plan a welcome alternative to the building sitting in foreclosure.

The plan also has the support of Cappleman. To go through with it, Gassman will need to get a zoning change approved by the Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals. No date has been set for that hearing.