DOWNTOWN — A City Council committee voted to grant a zoning change Tuesday that might bring the downfall of the last standing Hull House Association theater.
The change was sought by real estate developer Dave Gassman, who bought the former community center at 4520 N. Beacon St. with plans plans to convert it into an apartment complex.
The plan would destroy the historic Leo Lerner Theatre in the building's basement that is currently home to the Pegasus Players theater company, although the theater was better known for housing the Organic Theater Company and Black Ensemble Theater in years prior.
The Committee on Zoning, Landmark, and Building Standards voted Tuesday morning to grant Gassman a zoning change he needed to push forward with his plan, despite a last ditch effort from the Consortium to Save Hull House Theater. The group formed last month and includes notable names from both Chicago's theater scene and Hollywood — including Actors Joe Mantegna and George Wendt — as well as local preservationists.
“We lost. We lost," consortium leader, Organic founder and film director Stuart Gordon said in a Tuesday afternoon phone interview from California. "We were trying to get the city to support us, we were requesting meetings with mayor and were ignored. But what really did us in was when the committee refused to even consider landmarking the building. That really was the last nail in the coffin.”
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. The organization's support of the arts is intertwined with theater movements in Chicago that helped birth the city's robust, "Off-Loop" theater scene.
Several other Hull House theaters 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, which counts Pulitzer-prize winning writer David Mamet as an alum, is the last one left.
Eleanor Esser Gorski, the city's director of historic preservation, however, wrote a letter to Preservation Chicago president and consortium member Ward Miller that said both the building and its architect Crombie Taylor were not notable enough to earn 4520 N. Beacon landmark designation despite its cultural ties.
Gordon said Chicago "has got a bad case of amnesia.
"It doesn’t remember how important some things are,” said Gordon, one of the screenwriters for "Honey, I Blew Up the Kids" and "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids."
The city had delayed the Hull House vote earlier this month to give the consortium time to convince Gassman to either let theater supporters buy the building from him or otherwise preserve it. But Gassman refused to sell the building or alter his plan for apartments.
Mantegna and Wendt, members of the group and native Chicagoans, were in the city over the weekend making a last ditch effort to raise support for the theater, which supporters consider a valuable piece of both Uptown and Chicago's artistic heritage.
Mantegna — who has appeared in movies including "Three Amigos," "Godfather Part III" and "Up Close and Personal" and starred in television shows like "Criminal Minds" and "The Simpsons" — saw his career start to take off at the Organic in the 1970s when it resided at Hull House in Uptown.
"Since I was a teenager I used to dream about maybe doing a play about the Chicago Cubs. And then we wound up creating the show 'Bleacher Bums' that we did initially in that space. ... So here this thing that started as a germ of an idea becomes a play that's been performed around the world since 1977," he said. "If that type of stuff happened then, it can continue to happen."
Wendt (best known as Norm Peterson from "Cheers") compared the theater's potential demolition to "killing the goose that laid the golden egg." Wendt never worked in the theater but remembers seeing productions there as a 20-something out of college and being inspired to try his luck at acting.
The office of Ald. James Cappleman (46th), which supports Gassman's project along with the Beacon Block Club, has said the consortium is "very late to the process."
"To me, that's a pretty lame excuse: 'A day late and a dollar short'," Mantegna said. "It's not like they had open forums for months and months saying, 'We're going to be doing this to this theater.'"
Gordon, leader of the consortium, said the first time he became aware of the theater’s peril was a couple months ago after he was forwarded an article written by DNAinfo Chicago about Gassman’s plan.
Neighbors with the Beacon Block Club and Cappleman staffers attended a meeting with Gassman and approved the project in March. It was not immediately presented to the broader community because the project is under $10 million, according to Cappleman's office.
“That's how our process is,” said Cappleman’s chief of staff Tressa Feher, who emphasized that the 46th Ward Zoning and Development Committee, an advisory committee created by the alderman, decided on the process.
Feher promised that Cappleman’s office is “incredibly supportive,” of the Pegasus Players and is seeking a new home for the soon-to-be displaced theater company in light of Gassman's plan, “hopefully in our ward.”