This October, Chicago Filmmakers—which screens independent cinema and offers filmmaking classes on the north side—will open the doors of its new location in Edgewater, a former firehouse located at 5720 N. Ridge. Erected in 1928, the two-story building features a towering facade with brown brick and terra-cotta elements laid out in a geometric design, broad windows, and a public garden on its northern side. Near the roof sits an intricately carved stone medallion, a popular feature of city buildings from the early 20th century that speaks to the pride the designers and builders took in their craftsmanship.
Because the firehouse was declared a historic landmark in 2008, the city prohibited Filmmakers from changing the exterior, yet the interior has been adapted to suit the organization’s purposes. The garage is now a screening space, complete with surround sound and movable risers that allow for elevated seating. The second floor houses offices, two classrooms, and a projection booth designed by ace projectionist James Bond, with a 16-millimeter projector and a DCP (digital cinema package) system, the first in the organization’s history.
“Sometimes these firehouses get sold to individuals who make them into homes,” explains Brenda Webb, Chicago Filmmakers’ executive director since 1982. “But Alderman [Harry] Osterman really wanted to see the building be reused for cultural or community purposes. Through his efforts, the city issued a request for proposals, and we submitted one. So it was no inside job—we didn’t know the right people or anything to get the space. We just submitted a proposal to the city in August 2015, and in October of that year the city made the decision. Then over the next two years we were negotiating the agreement with the city. It was not your ordinary sale of a building—it was a redevelopment agreement.”
As part of that agreement, construction on the firehouse was to begin immediately after the sale, which was finalized in February 2016. “That was the result of the city’s growing concern that they had about organizations buying buildings at low costs and then letting them sit vacant for a really long time as they fund-raise to do the construction,” Webb says. “The city felt that if they were going to do this, they needed to know that it was actually happening and that the building was not going to remain vacant for years. The challenge that it posed for us as an organization was that we didn’t have a lot of time to fund-raise. Normally, you buy a building, then you fund-raise, and you take people through [the space] and you tell them about how great it can be once it’s finished. But we had to start construction right away.”
Chicago Filmmakers has continued to operate during construction, holding classes at the Andersonville location it has occupied for the past two decades. Yet the organization hasn’t hosted any screenings in the past year because Webb didn’t want to program anything until the physical move had been completed. Originally she’d expected the firehouse facility to open in late 2016, but things didn’t go according to plan. Three-phase electricity had to be installed to power the building’s elevator, which took months, and securing an occupancy license from the city took longer than she expected.
With screenings suspended, Webb reconsidered how Chicago Filmmakers would choose the films it shows. Ultimately she decided the organization would no longer have a program director but instead would broaden the scope of its screenings by drawing on multiple curators. “As part of our evolution, where we want to be more open to the community, we want the exhibition to be more open and diverse as well,” she explains. “This might mean involving a person who’s interested in documentaries to curate documentary programs or working with somebody who’s more interested in experimental film to curate experimental films. So the program director position is now a programs manager position, which reflects the notion that this person is working with other people to evolve curation.”
Webb has already reached out to Floyd Webb (no relation), who programs the Black World Cinema series at Chatham 14. “Because of our proximity to Uptown, which has a large community of African immigrants, we’re working with Floyd to develop a series that might appeal to that community. We want to see if that’s a community looking for programming and, if so, how can we connect with them.” To start the series off, Floyd Webb will host repeat screenings of the films he presents in Chatham, though Brenda Webb hopes his programming may become more specific to the local immigrant community.
Floyd Webb’s involvement may reflect a new emphasis on engaging the Edgewater community, but it also marks a return to Filmmakers’ early days: in the late 70s and early 80s, he organized the now-defunct BlackLight Film Festival, a showcase for African and African-American cinema, at Filmmakers’ old space in River North. Brenda Webb also plans to bring other familiar faces to the firehouse: in November she’ll host a screening of new work by Adele Friedman, a local artist who’s been presenting films and videos at Filmmakers since the early 1980s. Webb is also negotiating with the venerable underground director Jon Jost, who has presented numerous works at Filmmakers over the years, to host a screening of his latest project in the near future.
Webb is enthusiastic about the new programming arrangement and expects to receive valuable input from her yet-to-be-named programming committee. The move toward collective programming speaks to how Chicago Filmmakers will engage people who live near the new space. Webb hopes to involve students from nearby Senn High School in classes and programs. She feels this expanded mission will enhance the organization. “The most exciting aspect of having this building is playing more of a civic role,” she says, adding that she wants the former firehouse to be open to all sorts of community organizations. “We see this as a place where block clubs can have meetings. We want it to be a center of activity.” By engaging more people, Chicago Filmmakers hopes to create a larger community for filmmakers and film lovers than ever before. v