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A Peek Inside The Congress Theater During Its $65 Million Overhaul

By Mina Bloom | October 17, 2017 5:26am
 Chicago residents came out to take a peak at the Congress Theater Saturday ahead of renovations.
Congress Theater
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LOGAN SQUARE — To passersby, the Congress Theater looks the same as it did in 2015, when developer Michael Moyer announced his plans to redevelop the notoriously run-down concert venue.

The retail storefronts are still boarded up, the scaffolding hasn't moved, and workers are rarely seen on the premises.

But the redevelopment project is moving forward — albeit slowly.

Moyer and his team currently are working behind the scenes, securing permits and going back and forth with city, state and national officials on the best way to preserve the 1920s-era theater while making modern upgrades.

"It's a really, really complicated project," said project architect Mary Ward, who led a media tour of the theater at 2135 N. Milwaukee Ave. Saturday morning as part of Open House Chicago, an annual festival that invites the public to tour architectural gems throughout the city.

Ward, who works for Woodhouse Tinucci Architects, said much of what her team has been working on requires meticulous planning.

For example, there were no architectural drawings of the historic theater when they set out to do the overhaul, so Ward and her fellow architects had to spend about a year measuring "every little inch" of the theater because the renovation project requires drawings, she said.

Then there's the preservation work itself. Ward said she's working with historic preservation agencies on replacing the pieces that hold together the intricate metal cage near the stage that used to house the organ.

"We don't have the forms anymore, so we're working with historic [preservation agencies] to replace those foam panels with something that's not plaster. It's basically going to be laser-cut metal," she said, adding that her team wants to combine "the real" architectural elements with modern upgrades that are "honest in [their newness and quiet so [they] don't detract from what's original."

Ward said of the painstaking work: "It's not very sexy ... But you have to find ways to make it creative while still retaining the essence of the place."

Moyer, who wasn't available for an interview, is aiming to reopen the theater sometime in 2019. Construction is expected to begin in three to four months — and much of it won't be visible to passersby, which is by design.

"Milwaukee is a busy street, and we want to be good neighbors during the whole process," Ward said. "So we actually hope that people won't see a lot of it."

Under the $65 million renovation project, the theater itself will be revived — complete with tiered seating and restored architectural details. It will be able to hold about 3,500 people for standing shows and 2,500 people for seated shows, less than the capacity under former owner Eddie Carranza, Ward said.

Also part of the project are 32 hotel rooms and 14 affordable apartments — all in the buildings directly next to the theater. The retail storefronts, also in the adjoining buildings, will see new life as well. 

It's unclear if the residential midrise tower planned for the vacant lot across the street is still happening.

When asked for confirmation, neither Ward nor Moyer would comment, with Ward saying only, "Right now, the plan is flexible. Many factors come into play."

In the years leading up to its closure in 2013, the Congress was dubbed everything from derelict to dangerous. The theater was slapped with a string of code violations and threatened with foreclosure after  Carranza defaulted on his loans.

The Congress also made headlines for crimes that occurred in and around the theater during shows, including  the rape of a 14-year-old suburban girl in 2013. As a result, the theater's music genre of choice, electronic dance music, or EDM, was banned for all current and future owners.

Ward said the reimagined Congress will bring in a variety of musical acts that pay homage to the theater's history, as well as lectures, comedy shows and corporate events.

The new Congress, she said, will have the feel of the Chicago Theatre in The Loop.

"I know the current owner will manage is very professionally. I think the hope is the venue draws a broader audience, so it's not just for kids my son's age," said Ward, whose son was in high school when he went to shows there.

More photos below:

Ward said the seats in back aren't original and will be replaced. Neither are the panels, which will be painted in a "gilded style" to better reflect the theater's history. [All photos DNAinfo/Mina Bloom]

Ward looks out onto the catwalk that leads to the gold dome (pictured in the above photo).

One of the intricate light fixtures in the 1920s-era theater.

One of the theater's original dressing rooms.

The theater's original pulley system on the stage will be removed because it takes up too much space, Ward said.

People have signed a post in the basement over the years. Some signatures date to the 1960s.