Congress Theater

2135 N. Milwaukee Avenue,
Chicago, IL 60647

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DavidZornig
DavidZornig on November 26, 2008 at 10:15 pm

Greetings BWChicago. I’ll gladly admit that I probably know next to nothing, on how the landmarking is supposed to or does work.
After surviving Ald. Natarus for over 30 years in my old ward, I only know how I would have “liked” landmarking to work.
Given everything classic that was taken down on the Near North side over the years,
landmark status sadly always seemed like a last resort that ended up not protecting anything enough anyway.

I do know though that most owners are resistant to landmark status. Because of the limitations it puts them under on how they can ever remodel in the future. However as we’ve learned in some cases though, even that status is so loose that sometimes all they need do is preserve the facade.
Even a “National Register of Historic Places” status doesn’t really protect a building in Chicago. I’ll await to see what happens to Pearson St.(Hair Loft) by Loyola.

Sometimes even an opposite “preservation overkill” is applied. Building’s that even I agree should have come down, but instead were poorly rebuilt to remain “preserved”.
The CVS at State & Division is a perfect example. They simply tore down everything except the outsides walls of it, and it’s Northbound neighbor. Then they built the CVS inside of it all. Even the upstairs in fake. A backlit hollow space over two stories tall inside. They blasted a blank brown sign right through an old concrete morter & pestal motif on the State St. side. Ironically it was originally a drug store. Then they hacked off brick work from where a door used to be, and left it that way.
Truly an eyesore “after” preservation.

I guess my interpretation of how landmarking “should” work, is that a protected building is just that.
And that only plumbing, HVAC, electric & the roof would be capable of being updated. But in a case of say the Esquire, I would have been happy if they rebuilt the interior however was needed to make it workable. Since it was already gutted when it was multi-plexed. Aty least we’d get to keep the art deco exterior & marquee.

Broan
Broan on November 26, 2008 at 8:55 am

The Congress recently repainted their marquee.

David, I’m not sure you’re entirely clear on how landmarking is supposed to work.

DavidZornig
DavidZornig on August 21, 2008 at 5:23 am

I finally made it to the Congress Theatre about 2 or 3 years ago. For the triumphant return of women’s roller derby to Chicago, where it all began.

The Windy City Rollers embarked on their maiden matches there, with 4 teams going at it in flat track action. I only remember one team’s name, Hell’s Belle’s. But it was the individual player’s names that were the hook. Val Capone, Anita Beer, Ellen Degenerate, Voodoo Dahl, etc.

In front of the Congress' stage, an illuminated oval track outline was adhered to the auditorium floor.
Using that sealed, clear string lighting that you hang along the bottom of your kitchen cabinets. No pitched, wooden track like those in the `70’s. Eat your heart out Starlight Express.

There was a video presentation, lively announcers and a power point style scoreboard. A band called “Death or Vegas” maybe, comic timed refs, penalty time-outs, and one girl left in an ambulance in less than an hour with a broken leg. So it’s needless to say that it was the real deal, and not just a “show”.

The special guests were an 80 year old member from one of the original roller derby teams, and one of it’s promoters.

Though you could see the action quite well from the main floor seats, it was the balcony that offered the best way from which to view this there.

I think the Windy City Rollers only had one more event there, before the Congress Theatre oddly removed the main floor seating. Basically preventing themselves from ever hosting that type of event again. Strange.
Especially for a place that didn’t seem like it could have had that much more going on on a regular basis. Not that roller derby would become that, but the audience certainly seemed to be there in force. And the neighborhood’s hidden Rockabilly demographic seemed a perfect fit.

The Congress' interior was at that time a little tired out. Signs of age & abuse, certainly from all the various incarnations it had had over the years. I seem to remember black paint in the bathrooms, and some limited plumbing options. Maybe it’s since had some cosmetics done.
But it’s kind of funny that it’s referred to as “One of Chicago’s Grandest Concert Venues”. Much like the self proclaimed “Faded Elegance” of the Riviera, both are a bit of a stretch. But at least the latter implys it knows it.
Just so there’s a point of reference here, the Chicago Theatre is an example of a “grand concert venue”. Seats would be kind of a given, to maintain that type of title.

I remember back in 1988, the Congress had a metal show called something like “JFK Assassination Night”. Complete with a vintage, suicide door Lincoln parked inside the theatre. There were pictures of this in the paper. I can’t imagine this was anything but noise and an eerie similarity to a Marilyn Manson video ten years later. This paragraph doesn’t really belong here, but my lowly WebTV had no way to move it.

By opting to remove the seats presumably permanently, the Congress has shown that the future will most likely be more about quantity than quality. That it will never revert back to a movie palace, and will live forever more as a place for concerts.

I’m both thrilled & surprised that it was able to get landmarked as recently as 2002. But wonder what required improvements or limitations if any, were bestowed upon it with that designation. Did the landmark commission ever tour the place?
Even though many a grander theatre locally has bowed to the wrecking ball, one must wonder how this one was able to be spared. And the others not so lucky. Maybe it was it’s overall relation to the entire building that saved it.
Anyone looking to protect the next one, should maybe study how this one got done.

MKuecker
MKuecker on April 24, 2008 at 4:11 am

Thanks, Life :) That answered my question to Brian too.

Broan
Broan on April 22, 2008 at 10:09 pm

Yes, they did remove the rest of the seats from the main floor. They previously had remained under the balcony.

MKuecker
MKuecker on April 22, 2008 at 1:27 am

Life’s Too Short: I can’t find the virtual tour page – Please post an URL, and thanks.

Brian K: Thanks for the update. I was told they ripped all the seats out and replaced them with folding chairs. Is it true?

brianbobcat
brianbobcat on April 20, 2008 at 8:22 am

I was just here on Thursday for a concert, and was blown away as soon as I walked inside. There is still SO much of the original theater present, from the railings to stone floors and ceiling detail work, but as previously mentioned, a lot is also in ragged shape. The biggest such piece I saw was part from the front (speaker grills?) just in front of the balcony, it looked as if something had landed on the railing and busted off a large chunk. The other side was in perfect shape though. However, as a concert venue now, I don’t think any of the details will be restored but instead, will fall into further disarray. Nice venue for a concert though.

-Brian

Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on April 7, 2008 at 4:31 pm

I was just looking at the virtual tour offered through the theatre’s official web site. Even though they converted the projection booth to a luxury suite, one projector was left in place. I wonder if that projector can actually be used to show films, or if it is just a trendy decoration? I don’t see the array of supporting gear usually apparent in projection booth photos.

MKuecker
MKuecker on December 1, 2007 at 5:12 pm

I ride past this on the el every morning. :) It looks so run down from the outside. Nice to know it’s still functioning. :)

Mike (saps)
Mike (saps) on September 17, 2007 at 8:14 pm

>>At the time of this item Skelton was headlining at the famed Chez Paree.

Sure it wasn’t the Gay Paree? (Or was that red-headed Danny Kaye I’m thinking of?)
/theaters/21339/

sweety95
sweety95 on September 17, 2007 at 5:23 pm

I went to a party at the Congress theater 2 days ago, it was great to be inside this landmark theater. All the seats on the main floor have been removed, and there was some damage to the domed ceiling that was visible from below. There are lots of great details that are still there though,like old signs , vent covers, and the big staircase to the upstairs balconies.

GrandMogul
GrandMogul on April 10, 2007 at 7:16 pm

Yes, it’s true, Red Skelton did play the Congress!
NEWS ITEM:
Chicago Tribune, Tuesday, May 19, 1959, s. 3, p. 10, c. 6:
RED, ONCE FIRED, BOUNCES BACK
SKELTON TELLS OF CHANGE, by Stephen Harrison
Comment*

Richard Skelton, also known as Red and once fired here by popular request, returned Monday to the scene of the crime—rehired by popular request.

Can’t Vie with Legs
Having abandoned Vincennes, he was playing vaudevile in such landmarks as the Haymarket, the State & Congress, and the Gem, where aficionados paid a lot more attention to burlesque girls' legs than they ever did to Skelton.


[At the time of this item Skelton was headlining at the famed Chez Paree.]

GrandMogul
GrandMogul on February 8, 2007 at 6:47 pm

An ad in the Chicago Tribune, Sunday, September 5, 1926 announced:

OPENS TODAY AT 1 PM, Lubliner & Trinz' magnificent new CONGRESS theatre, 2135 Milwaukee Ave., Near Armitage; in person as special guest, Mary Philbin, Universal Screen Star; Miss Philbin will release 1,000 balloons from the roof of the Congress Theatre at 12:45 pm, each containing a voucher for a piece of bona fide real estate; grand opening programme: Reginald Denny in “Rolling Home”; vaudeville “Carnival of Venice,” a surprise of instrumental music.

GrandMogul
GrandMogul on February 8, 2007 at 4:45 pm

The Congress Theatre went “talkie” in 1928, as this ad informs the public—–

Ad from the Chicago Tribune, Saturday, November 10, 1928:

TODAY, Complete New Policy, come and hear this, new marvel of “sound” presented with our newly installed VITAPHONE-MOVIETONE, come on everybody! See and hear this thunderous inaugural program, the talking and sound sensation, “Women They Talk About,” hear the beautiful mellow voice of Irene Rich, hear William Collier, Jr., Claude Gillingwater and Audrey Ferris talk.

Star Vaudeville Acts in sound. Van & Schenck, “The pennant winning battery of songland”; see and hear Abe Lyman, and his “Good News” Orchestra; see and hear Giovanni Martinelli, famous Opera Tenor; the First “Our Gang” Comedy in sound, “School Begins”; see and hear Fox Movietone News

Broan
Broan on December 4, 2006 at 2:41 am

Here are photos of this theater.

Broan
Broan on September 19, 2006 at 1:10 am

The vertical sign’s frame has been mostly disassembled now.

Broan
Broan on June 17, 2006 at 10:57 pm

Here is a profile from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency’s HAARGIS system. It includes a small picture, with the marquee still sporting the original 60s Congress lettering.

Broan
Broan on October 4, 2005 at 12:57 pm

While they didn’t ultimately change the name, I would not be surprised if they did. The banners came down shortly after I made that post, and have been replaced by banners advertising an upcoming event. I wish I had gotten a closer look. So, either it was for an ad shoot or something, or they were doing testing of some sort. I would not be at all surprised if it does become a Nokia Theatre- AEG has projects in LA, Dallas, and NYC, and nothing in Chicago yet. The Congress now often hosts shows from House of blues- maybe they will switch affiliations.

Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on August 26, 2005 at 1:47 am

Well…we have the Ford Oriental and the Cadillac Palace. So why not? If it helps the building survive, I am all for it.

Broan
Broan on August 26, 2005 at 12:31 am

At some point in the last week, signs have gone up heralding a re-christening of the theatre as the Nokia (like the cell phone company). I personally have mixed feelings about this- on one hand, I am sad to see it lose the name it has held for most of its years (aside from the Teatro Azteca/Cine Mexico days), but on the other this will likely bring more money into keeping the place up, to bolster the Nokia name. While it is amazingly intact inside, it needs a lot of maintenance. Perhaps it will even recieve a proper marquee again.

Broan
Broan on May 27, 2005 at 4:07 pm

Yeah, they’re the same boards that say “Congress Theatre”, actually, it’s embossed through.

Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on May 27, 2005 at 4:03 pm

Well…I have to admit that the “n” might not have been there. But, I think it was. I took several pictures of the theater at this time. Perhaps “Vincenete Fernandez” is an accomplished local businessman or something? Whatever the outcome of that discussion is, this was certainly the theater’s name (rather than an attraction). It was mounted above the backlit attraction boards on either side of the marquee.