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Finally, Signs of Life at the Historic Congress Theater

By Paul Biasco | November 3, 2015 8:45am
 Congress Theater renovations are underway.
Congress Theater renovations are underway.
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DNAinfo/Paul Biasco

LOGAN SQUARE — More than two years since the Congress Theater shut its doors, there are signs of life at the historic theater.

The first steps of the hugely anticipated renovation of the 90-year-old Chicago Landmark have begun.

The development group behind the anticipated $55 million project started renovation of the terra-cotta facade late last month.

The ongoing work included building a scaffold on the front of the four-story theater.

The first phase of the project, which includes repairing and resetting terra cotta and tuckpointing, will cost an estimated $525,000, according to building permits issued Oct. 7.

The goal of the massive renovation project is to restore the ornate theater to its former glory.

Construction of the theater, 2135 N. Milwaukee Ave., in 1925. [The George Sollitt Construction Co.]

The rehabilitation includes the historic lobby and auditorium as well as the ground floor commercial spaces and residential units above the commercial along Milwaukee Avenue.

It will also include the construction of a small inn and affordable housing units.

No permits have been issued to start construction on the interior renovations and the timetable for the project has not been made available.

All photos by DNAinfo/Paul Biasco

The Congress had been operating as a live music venue with a heavy electronic dance music focus leading up to its closure in 2013 after a number of code violations.

Electronic Dance Music was banned at the theater in 2014 under an agreement between the city of Chicago and the theater's then embattled owner, Eddie Carranza.

That ban will remain under the new ownership.

The restoration group behind the project, New Congress, is headed by Michael Moyer, who led the $20 million restoration of the Cadillac Palace Theatre downtown.

The Congress Theater contains a 2,904-seat auditorium and has been described as one of the most intact surviving neighborhood movie "palaces" in Chicago, according to the Chicago Landmarks designation report.

The theater's capacity for live shows before it closed in 2013 was 4,500.

The theater covers a quarter city block and its interior was noted for its lavishness in both space and detailing of the lobbies and auditorium, according to the report.

There were more than 30 movie "palaces" in Chicago at one point, but as of 2000, most had been demolished.

By the 1920s, Chicago was "the jumpingest movie city in the world and had more plush elegant theatres than anywhere else," according to movie historian Ben Hall. The demand for motion pictures encouraged the construction of large-scale theaters holding between 2,000 and 4,000 movie-goers. Built by major theater operators such as Balaban and Katz, Lubliner and Trinz, and the Marks Brothers, these movie "palaces," including the Congress Theater, were major centers of entertainment both in the Loop and outlying neighborhoods.

The building was designated a landmark by the city in 2002.

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