Building Pressure

Nothing focuses attention like a list, says David Bahlman, president of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois. Naming names “does more than you can possibly imagine to raise public visibility of the issue.” So last year, building on the success of its annual roster of the state’s ten most threatened sites, LPCI began issuing a second-tier watch list of 15 additional structures in the Chicago area. Bahlman was getting ready to announce the new edition of that list this week. “Even with a strong landmark ordinance in Chicago [one that can anoint a building over the owner’s objections] and a mayor who’s sensitive to preservation, we are still losing a lot of buildings,” he says. “There are about 600 buildings in Chicago we could have put on the list.”

Five properties in the suburbs and ten in Chicago made the cut. None of the buildings cited last year repeat–“People get tired of hearing the same names over and over again,” says Bahlman–though many, like Cook County Hospital, are still teardown candidates. This year’s lineup includes five modernist tollbooths as a single entry. Among them is the Lake Forest oasis: “originally a beautiful, simple bridge with a Miesian box on top of it–barely recognizable now, after being subjected to a Wendy’s mansard roof” and other abominations. There’s also the entire diagonal grid of Old Bridgeport (bounded by Halsted, 31st Street, and the Chicago River), where aluminum siding and awnings sit like so many fake mustaches and beards on structures built mostly between the 1840s and 1860s. Some of the buildings on the list were rated “orange” in Chicago’s 1996 historic research survey, but none have any protective landmark designation. Here is LPCI’s list, in no particular order (locations are in Chicago unless otherwise noted):

15 W. Burton

730 N. Rush

Des Plaines Theater, Des Plaines

Glos Mansion, Elmhurst

Gray Home, Olympia Fields

La Casita Court Apartments, 747 N. Wabash

Michael Reese Hospital, 2929 S. Ellis

Women’s Christian Temperance Union campus,


Old Bridgeport

old Central Post Office

Palm Tavern, 446 E. 47th St.

Quinn Chapel, 2401 S. Wabash

Rainbo Gardens, 4812-36 N. Clark

Illinois Tollway oases at Des Plaines, Belvidere, Hinsdale,

O’Hare, and Lake Forest

South Side Masonic Temple, 6400 S. Green

Going With the Programs

“We’re going to look back at this as a turning point,” says League of Chicago Theatres head Marj Halperin about the league’s program-publishing endeavor, Chicagoplays. “Nothing we’ve done since we started Hot Tix has generated this much enthusiasm.” A recent appeal for funds was a routine year-end activity, Halperin says, not the sign of a crisis. The fiscal year ends June 30, and she expects to book an operating deficit of $60,000 to $70,000–acceptable, she claims, since Chicagoplays is costing about $500,000 during its first year. (She hopes to make up the deficit next year with increased ad revenue.)

The league began publishing programs for its members last September, when New York-based Stagebill, which provided them free, was abruptly shut down. Halperin says ad sales are on target, with three to five full pages each month, and will probably pick up with the addition (last January) of their first full-time salesperson. What hasn’t measured up this year is operating budget donations, off about 30 percent. She’s currently interviewing for a development director; she expects Chicagoplays to be self-supporting in another year.

“As we increase ad revenue, we’ll lower the price to theaters,” Halperin says. Theaters now pay 75 percent of printing costs; the league picks up everything else, including editorial and design, which are handled by freelancers on a project basis. (Editor Tom Valeo, who worked on a start-up contract, is gone; his replacement is Myrna Petlicki.) Halperin says the programs–with localized editorial content and covers that feature Chicago street scenes and skylines–are now Chicago theater’s “number one marketing tool.” Growth has been rapid: “We started with 14 shows and just under 50,000 copies. Now we’re serving 58 organizations and printing about 150,000 copies per month.”

Chicagoplays, a wrap that carries each theater’s playbill in its center, is running a minimum of 16 pages. Theaters can reduce their tab by selling ads for the program or handing over a list of advertisers for the league to solicit. Second City and Bailiwick Repertory have both covered costs or made a profit on ad sales, says Halperin. Other theaters (Running With Scissors, Smoke and Mirrors Productions) have been motivated to join the league in order to get the program. And when the Grant Park Music Festival suddenly found itself without a publisher two weeks before its season opened, the league was able to jump in. “I presented this to two national [theater association] conferences,” Halperin says. “I’m hoping it catches on. If Stagebill could make money at it all those years, there’s no way we are going to fail.”

So where does that leave Footlights, the league’s most visible for-profit competition? Publisher Steve Marcus says his 16-year-old company, headquartered in Milwaukee with offices in Chicago and Madison, is “kind of holding our own.” According to Marcus, Footlights publishes ten Chicago issues yearly with runs of 50,000 to 80,000 copies each and works with 50 to 60 groups here–some of them once-a-year clients like the Chicago Improv Festival or the Chicago Dance Festival. He sees the league’s main advantage as a sort of political guilt card, telling its membership, “You need to support our services.” If the league is doing this at a loss, he says, it’s a measure of its inexperience and inefficiency. “They tout themselves as being a savior to the performing arts. I think that’s a bunch of baloney. Playbill, Footlights, and Performance Media were all there. I talked to the league [about stepping in when Stagebill went down]. The conversation never really got off the ground.” Marcus says Footlights will soon sell tickets, including half-price day-of-performance tickets, on its Web site, “something the league should have done with their Hot Tix long ago.”

Halperin says the Hot Tix site will be selling tickets in the near future, possibly by the end of the year. And starting this week at Hot Tix locations, half-price tickets will be available in advance, not just on the day of the show; it’ll be up to individual theaters to determine how far in advance, though typically, she expects, it’ll be about a week. Also starting this week, customers in about 125 Internet-equipped Chicago cabs can get to the league’s Web site at the touch of a button.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.