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Fight to Save Hull House Uptown Theater Goes Online

By Adeshina Emmanuel | June 10, 2013 8:16am | Updated on June 10, 2013 2:03pm
 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 — More than 700 people signed a Change.org petition over the weekend in support of saving the historic theater at the former Hull House Association center in Uptown.

The building is at 4520 N. Beacon St., and currently houses the Pegasus Players theater company — but is more famous as the former home of the Black Ensemble Theatre, the Organic Theater and prior Hull House productions.

Real estate developer Dave Gassman bought the center out of foreclosure in May and now seeks a zoning change from the city to execute a plan to convert the building, including the Leo Lerner Theatre in the basement, into apartments. 

On Friday, a petition penned by the "Consortium to Save Hull House Theater," appeared online and asked people to "say no to upzoning and demolition," while saying "yes," to historic preservation, community theaters and "the economic development that comes from live theater."

"In only 60 seconds to sign this petition, you can help SAVE the historic Hull House theater in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood and preserve a legacy," the petition says.

The petition is addressed to Ald. James Cappleman (46th), whose ward includes most of Uptown, and Ald. Danny Solis (25th), whose South Side ward includes the Hull House Museum. Neither alderman could be reached for comment over the weekend.

About 730 people had signed the petition as of Monday afternoon.

Gassman's development plan is better than an underutilized, foreclosed building, Cappleman's office and a neighborhood block club have said previously. Officials are seeking a new home for the Pegasus Players.

In making its pitch to save the Leo Lerner Theatre, the petition praises the performance space for helping launch "the careers of a generation of Chicago greats," from the Organic Theater, including "Joe Mantegna (Criminal Minds), David Mamet (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Glengarry Glen Ross), Dennis Franz (NYPD Blue) and Meshach Taylor (Designing Women)."

The petition also touts the theater as a launching pad for the Black Ensemble Theatre, an Uptown staple founded by actress and playwright Jackie Taylor that boasts national recognition for productions about famous black musicians and performers, including Howlin' Wolf, Dionne Warrick and Billie Holiday.

Gassman last month advised anybody upset by his plan to fork out the cash to buy the building.

"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.'

Film director Stuart Gordon, founder of the Organic Theater and one of the screenwriters for "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," and "Honey, I Blew Up the Kids," opposes Gassman's plan. He said the developer "doesn't seem to care about the arts whatsoever or about the history of Hull House."

Hull House was a social service agency founded in 1889 by Nobel Peace Prize recipient Jane Addams. The organization filed for bankruptcy last year and ended operations across Chicago, including in Uptown, where the Hull House community center soon went into foreclosure.

Hull House is regarded as an integral force in Chicago theater history — from the "Little Theater Movement," in the early 20th century that nurtured small experimental theaters in the city — to the "Off-Loop" movement of the 1960s spurred by former Hull House theater director Bob Sickinger.

Sickinger, who died in May, created the theater in Hull House's Uptown center with the help of architect Crombie Taylor.