Congress Theater

2135 N. Milwaukee Avenue,
Chicago, IL 60647

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Additional Info

Previously operated by: Balaban & Katz Corp., Lubliner & Trinz, Plitt Theatres, Publix Theaters Corporation

Firms: Fridstein & Company

Functions: Concerts, Live Performances, Special Events

Styles: Adam, Baroque, Italian Renaissance

Previous Names: Teatro Azteca, Vincente Fernandez Theatre, Cine Mexico

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News About This Theater

Congress Theater

A mix of architectural styles (including Adam and Italian Baroque), this theater has an elaborate large domed auditorium and is covered with decorations in stone, terra-cotta, and plaster. It remains remarkably intact, down to the original light fixtures and marble wainscoting.

The 2,904-seat Congress Theater was built for the Lubliner & Trinz chain. On its opening day, September 5, 1926, there were parades, band concerts, and a bathing beauty contest. The first movie shown at the Congress Theater was “Rolling Home”, a Reginald Denny comedy, as well as five Orpheum vaudeville acts. It was equipped with a Wurlitzer 4 manual 20 ranks organ. In November 1929, the Congress Theater was taken over by the Balaban & Katz chain.

In the 1970’s, the Congress Theater was renamed Teatro Azteca, and screened Spanish-language films. Movies continued to be shown through the 1980’s when it was known as the Vincente Fernandez Theatre. By the 1990’s, the theater hosted live Latin acts, boxing matches, and an occasional film.

In 2000, the theater was threatened by demolition (for proposed condominiums), but the neighborhood rallied to its defence. On July 10, 2002, the Congress Theater was declared a Chicago City Landmark.

This splendid survivor of the movie palace era functioned as one of Chicago’s grandest concert venues, and was closed for refurbishment in 2013. In January 2018 the Congress Theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In early-2020 work on the renovation/restoration of the theatre was halted, but restarted in May 2021.

Contributed by Bryan Krefft

Recent comments (view all 86 comments)

HowardBHaas on June 29, 2021 at 4:14 pm

that seems to be an update on an outdoor fountain.

DavidZornig on June 29, 2021 at 4:26 pm

Ha, right your are. Here is the real update on the update.

RickB on December 13, 2021 at 6:15 pm

Venue was renamed the Vicente Fernandez Theatre in the late ‘80s. Chicagopedia group on Facebook has ads from 1988 (Stand and Deliver in Spanish) and '89 (Leonard-Duran III bout on closed-circuit) billing it as such.

DavidZornig on March 7, 2022 at 4:10 pm

Dare I say update, again…

DavidZornig on April 27, 2022 at 8:22 am

2017 Urban Remain piece with photos.–Q2KpKKp-nhJgTgrm9JWVQhF5zVL99ab0VSA

Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on August 9, 2022 at 9:01 am

Was over that way the other day. Didn’t seem like there was any activity.

William Karnoscak
William Karnoscak on February 8, 2023 at 8:04 am

Here’s an update from an indie Chicago newspaper, Block Club Chicago:

It’s still a long way off through the red tape of the local city phalanx of committees and city council, etc. But there’s still hope.

LouRugani on February 8, 2023 at 4:02 pm

As Congress Theater Crumbles, Developer Wants $27 Million From City To Revive Logan Square Gem (Credit: Block Club Chicago - By Mina Bloom, February 8, 2023)
The price tag on the long-stalled project keeps going up, and the delays are getting longer — but developers say they’re still committed to overhauling and reopening the beloved venue.
LOGAN SQUARE — Closed for a decade, the Congress Theater is a shell of the gleaming movie palace and music venue it once was. Water is seeping into the 1920s venue, badly damaging the original structure and its ornate details. The plaster walls are crumbling, and parts of the ceiling have collapsed, scattering debris.
The theater’s worsening condition, combined with sky-high construction prices and other mounting costs, is complicating a local developer’s ambitious — and much-anticipated — plans to revive the Logan Square gem.
Baum Revision, a developer with a reputation for restoring historical buildings, was winding its way through the city approval process last year, but the Congress rehab project stalled as costs increased and negotiations around labor and other issues persisted, said David Baum, one of the managing principals. “It’s been a bit of a game of whack-a-mole. Every time we think we’ve figured it out, pricing goes up,” Baum said. “Construction pricing has not been going in the right direction, interest rates continue to go up, getting loans is more difficult and general costs — energy or anything else — has been going up. … Pricing continues to go up while the condition of the building is not getting better.”
The project itself hasn’t changed: Baum still plans to fully restore the 2,900-seat music venue at 2135 N. Milwaukee Ave. and surrounding retail shops and apartments.
But the renovation is now estimated to cost $88 million, up from $70.4 million last year, Baum said. The development company is seeking $27 million in tax-increment finance dollars to cover a gap in funding. That’s $7 million more than developers asked for last year and $17 million more than the previous developer secured for a similar project. Baum’s team is working closely with city officials to nail down a redevelopment agreement and secure financing as theater operator AEG Presents and local labor union UNITE HERE Local 1 battle over a “good jobs commitment.”
If everything goes according to plan, the redevelopment project could be introduced in City Council next month, setting the stage for subsequent approval, said Baum and other players, including Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st), whose ward includes the Congress. “Trying to get this thing to work is a Rubik’s Cube,” Baum said. “We feel like we’re there, we hope that the powers that be will want to get this thing passed.”
The project is delicate, partly because there’s a lot at stake. A restored Congress will transform the abandoned Milwaukee Avenue stretch and give the broader neighborhood an economic and cultural jolt, neighbors and local leaders said.
Even though Baum is inching toward construction, some are worried the project is doomed after a series of setbacks. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned like everyone else is,” Baum said.
Baum’s project includes a rehabbed theater, roughly 5,400 square feet of retail and restaurant space along Milwaukee Avenue and Rockwell Street, 16 apartments and affordable offices and work space on the second and third floors. Fourteen of the apartments will be reserved as affordable housing.
The city’s Community Development Commission approved allocating $20 million in tax-increment financing toward the project last year, but the proposal never advanced to City Council.
After some adjustments, it seemed the revised proposal was finally headed for City Council in January with the support of Mayor Lori Lightfoot. But city officials pulled the proposal off the agenda at the last minute, La Spata said.
It also was yanked from the agenda of February’s council meeting, La Spata said.
One key issue holding up the project is the labor agreement between AEG, the theater operator, and UNITE HERE Local 1, La Spata said. Hospitality workers with the labor union are pushing AEG and the city to put a “good jobs commitment” in writing.
“UNITE HERE Local 1 opposes the use of TIF or any public subsidy for the Congress Theater redevelopment because there is no commitment from AEG that all hospitality jobs created by the redevelopment will be good jobs,” union spokesperson Elliott Mallen said in an email.
AEG didn’t respond to requests for comment. Baum said his company is not involved in labor negotiations.
La Spata, who’s involved in negotiations, said the two sides are “very, very close” to striking a deal. If the agreement is finalized, the redevelopment proposal — and the $27 million tax-increment financing allocation — will be introduced into City Council, then voted on by the finance committee and all 50 alderpeople.
La Spata and Baum hope the project will finally hit City Council in March. “We’re working on something that’s going to have a generational impact in Logan Square, and if that means it takes a few more months to get it right, I think that’s worthwhile,” La Spata said. In Chicago, using tax-increment financing to support large projects is often controversial. Tax-increment financing districts capture all growth in the property tax base in a designated area for a set period of time, usually 20 years or more, and divert it into a special fund for projects designed to spur economic development and eradicate blight. City Council’s approval of $2 billion in tax-increment financing for megadevelopments Lincoln Yards and The 78 sparked protests and lawsuits.
Proponents of Baum’s Congress proposal said the $27 million the company wants is justifiable given the project’s large scale, the poor condition of the theater and rising development costs during the pandemic.
Aside from the lobby, which is in reasonably good shape, the entire theater is a “gut job,” Baum said. It needs a new roof, new electrical and plumbing systems and extensive preservation work, he said. “We’re talking about a project that is practically a city block long, multiple buildings, a 3,000-person theater. It does not surprise me that we’re facing a really substantial rehab,” La Spata said. “I 100 percent would not be supporting this [redevelopment] process if I didn’t feel like it came with robust and generous benefits for our community and that it was going to also have a truly catalytic effect in terms of activating some of the spaces around the Congress that we want to see get going.”
La Spata has represented the 1st Ward since 2019 and is running for reelection against three challengers, including former 1st Ward Ald. Proco Joe Moreno. . The Congress Theater was built in 1926 by Fridstein & Co. as an ornate movie palace. One of the last remaining theaters associated with famous “moving picture theater” operators Lubliner & Trinz, the venue hosted vaudeville acts and “first-run photoplays” for years, then screened movies through the ’80s. The Congress later was refashioned into a music venue, drawing famous musicians and performers such as Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. It was designated a city landmark in 2002. The city ordered the theater closed in 2013 following a string of code violations and years of negligence from embattled former owner Eddie Carranza.
The move also came after a series of crimes that occurred in and around the theater during shows, including the rape of a 14-year-old girl. The city banned electronic dance music — the theater’s former music genre of choice — for all current and future owners.
Developer Michael Moyer stepped in to reopen the Congress in 2015. After years of community meetings and a multi-layered city approval process, Los Angeles-based lender and promoter AEG sued Moyer in 2020, alleging the developer defaulted on $14 million in loans. The legal trouble left the theater in the control of a court-appointed receiver.
Baum took the reins of the project in 2021. The development firm is known for restoring the Green Exchange and Margies Candies buildings, among other historical buildings.
The Congress has “been a hole in the community for a long time, but it used to be the center of the community for a long time. That’s what we enjoy doing — reimagining and bringing back things from the dead,” Baum said.
The price tag on the long-stalled project keeps going up, and the delays are getting longer — but developers say they’re still committed to overhauling and reopening the beloved venue. (Block Club Chicago)

DavidZornig on March 16, 2023 at 9:10 am

Redevelopment hit another snag.

LouRugani on February 21, 2024 at 8:51 pm

The Congress Theatre (by Sharon Lindy) - - The Congress Theatre, located at 2135 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Chicago, opened on September 5, 1926 with 2,904 seats, as part of the Lubliner & Trinz chain of theatres. It was the third large theatre to be built in Chicago by the L&T firm as a vaudeville house on the Orpheum circuit. Acts on the circuit would try out their routines at the Congress before taking them downtown. L&T first built the Harding Theatre (2,993 seats), in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago, just a few blocks from where the Congress would be erected, in October 1925. The second theatre in their chain was the Tower on the south side at 63rd Street with 2,995 seats. The Congress was the last to be built, and it is the only one of the three which remains standing today, looking very much like it did when it was first opened. A descendant of the builders, Bruce Trinz, carries on the tradition of theatre involvement. He used to operate the Clark Theatre in downtown Chicago in the 1960s. He was one of the first theatre operators to book vintage films at a dollar admission, and the Clark changed its bill every day, showed double features, and was open 24 hours a day. Who in Chicago can forget his advertising slogan over the radio: “Hark Hark! The Clark!” Monthly movie schedules were issued and each film had a clever two-line couplet describing the movie’s theme written by Trinz himself. Alas, the Clark was demolished, and he now manages the McClurg Court Theatres in Chicago’s posh Gold Coast area. But back to the Congress: In the 1920s, there were 20 theatres in Chicago that had 2,990 seats, the odd figure being because there was a Chicago union cutoff at 3,000. If there were less than 3,000 seats, less staff was needed. The Congress was taken over by the Publix Balaban & Katz chain on February 1, 1929. It never did the volume expected of it because Milwaukee Avenue had so many cinemas, not necessarily large ones but lots of little ones. Many of these buildings still stand along Milwaukee Avenue, a 20 block stretch from Division Street to Belmont, with 30 theatres, though they are no longer used as theatres. The Congress stands on a quarter of a city block, a complex which includes 17 stores and 56 apartments. B&K gave up the theatre to the Plitt chain because of marketing problems. The 40-year manager of the Congress McNeil Smith took good care of the Congress. B&K had a long lease on the building, and so it was well cared for. The lobby, all lined in marble, was extensively redone in the late 1950s. The lobby color scheme was changed, the grand drapery over the staircase was removed, and a painted-on drape mural was produced by Hans Teichert and the B&K poster studio. From a distance, it looks like a real drape and fools many people until they come close. All original furnishings were put in storage. In 1963, the enormous Marbro Theatre closed. The CO2 air conditioner at the Congress was out of service, so at considerable expense, they moved the small air conditioning compressors from the Marbro to the Congress. A most unusual effect is created by the stud lighting around the two original inside box offices. Fridstein was the architect for the Congress, and one of his tricks is the glass-enclosed vestibule with a clean glass ceiling. As one leaves the vestibule and enters the huge lobby, directly above the doorway is a painted cardboard balcony fence mural, another product of the B&K poster studios. The long vertical lobby windows never had any curtains on them, so daylight could always stream into the huge lobby. The large ceiling light fixtures are Pearlman fixtures and are original, as are the smaller fixtures along the walls. The large fixtures are identical to those hanging in the Ambassador Theatre in St. Louis. In 1983, the Theatre Historical Society promoted a tour of the Congress for its annual fall tour. During the tour, it was noted that the fixtures had not been cleaned or working for 25 years. Shortly afterwards, a THS volunteer crew ascended to the attic of the immense dome, skirted along the catwalks, and found the cables holding the chandeliers in place over the lobby. Not having been lowered in so many years, they were dry and buried in dust and dirt (and pigeon feathers). The volunteers carefully oiled and loosened them, and slowly lowered the chandeliers to the lobby floor. Once down, many hands dismantled the glass parts, scrubbed off the grime and dirt which had accumulated over the years, replaced the bulbs, and hosted them back up manually to their former position, When the power was flipped on, they glowed and gleamed just as lovely as they did back in 1926 when they were brand new. And now a whole new generation can enjoy this sight hanging high over the lobby. Each chandelier had so many parts to it and was such an ordeal to disassemble and reassemble that it took an entire day to do just one chandelier. THS volunteers also arranged to have an artist come in, mount scaffolding. and repaint a wall mural that had been water-damaged many years before. The result is that the damage is now undetectable compared to the rest of the mural. The auditorium is of unusual proportions; Fridstein was competing with Rapp & Rapp when he designed this theatre and he had a modest budget, but he tried to make the Congress look as elegant as the R&R theatres. The main floor has 2,200 seats. and the balcony has 790. Standing anywhere on the main floor, you can see the immense flying-saucer dome this theatre has. The auditorium has never been repainted, so the colors are original, and it has been maintained fairly well. The original grand drape, valance, and teaser curtains remain. The considerable amount of marble on the lobby walls was installed by the Orpheum Circuit bookers who had a passion for marble and put it everywhere they could. The foyer between the lobby and the auditorium is unusual space because of its wide curve, but the main floor is very wide. The foyer is now empty, but it once had a great many sofas and chairs lining its walls. The foyer floor was changed to tile from carpet in the 1950s remodeling. There is a large exit door on Rockwell Street, and the foyer decorative fixtures are also original. The auditorium gives a large plush feeling to patrons. At this date, with the exception of the Chicago Theatre, the Congress is the largest operating cinema in the city. The auditorium color scheme is gold and burgundy. The auditorium aisles number eight. There are many entrances to the very shallow balcony. The back wall was redone after sound movies came in to reduce the echo. When the Congress first opened, it had one of the first 4- manual 20-rank organs known as a Publix One. Organists who played it, like Edna Sollers, John Mury, etc., said it sounded absolutely fabulous. It was so good that two years after B&K took over the theatre in 1929, they built the Southtown on Chicago’s south side, and they decided that with the depression going on, instead of buying a new organ they would move the splendid Congress organ to the Southtown. Unfortunately it sounded terrible in the Southtown. It was buried behind massive organ screens. It was subsequently broken up for parts, as was the fate of many theatre organs.

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