Preservation Blues

Opened in 1926 as a movie palace, the Congress Theater building takes up a quarter of a city block on Milwaukee near Rockwell, with 46 apartments, 16 storefronts, and a lavish domed auditorium built to hold nearly 3,000 people. Since its heyday, it has hosted ballets, weddings, pipe organ concerts, midget wrestling, talent shows, the International Mr. Leather competition, and a multitude of independently promoted concerts: Slipknot, the Wu-Tang Clan, Fugazi and Shellac, Derrick May, and the Residents have all filled the big room in recent years, and smaller acts, like Quintron and Wolf Eyes, have put on shows in the four-story marble-wainscoted lobby.

Ray Spasenovski, a 54-year-old Yugoslavian immigrant, and four partners purchased the Congress in 1990, intending to resell it at a profit. But rather than aggressively seeking buyers or even advertising, they merely left the door open, thinking that the way the neighborhood was going the right buyer would just walk in–and by 1993, Spasenovski had pared down his real estate business to manage the theater full-time. Last spring he was feeling worn down by the job of keeping up the 35,000-square-foot theater–which, while he won’t comment specifically on what needs work, he fondly refers to as “a big ol’ jalopy.” So he met with several prospective buyers, including Thomas Drake, a developer who bid $5 million and reportedly wanted to erect condos behind the old facade.

About six months before he’d talked to any buyers, Spasenovski had worked out a deal with an artist named Jeff Fischer, who agreed to do repair work around the theater in exchange for studio space. Fischer fell in love with the building, and decided to take things a step further: unbeknownst to Spasenovski, he invited in three preservationists–one from the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, one from the city’s Department of Planning and Development, and one from the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois–and gave them a tour. He also wrote a formal letter to the city landmarks commission, urging them to consider the building for protection. “My first intention wasn’t to ruin the deals,” Fischer says. “I thought it would help Ray.”

But after he heard about Drake’s plans, he and Caleb Christopher–a grad student in the historical preservation program at the School of the Art Institute who’d been helping him restore the theater’s intricate interior plasterwork–sent out an alarmed E-mail from the “Friends of the Congress Theater,” calling on the community to support any effort to preserve the theater. The message was forwarded all over town; Christopher claims he received responses from as far away as Florida. “The threat of numbers is what helped. I think it changed everything,” he says.

At that point the commission took action, forwarding Fischer’s original letter to 26th Ward alderman Billy Ocasio and Spasenovski. Fischer promptly turned in his keys to an infuriated Spasenovski. “I left under the assumption that I wouldn’t be welcome back,” says Fischer. In July Spasenovski got a letter from the commission stating that the Congress was indeed being considered for preliminary landmark status. The decision would hinge on an assessment of the building’s historical, cultural, or architectural significance, and would prevent demolition or other structural changes for a year while the commission conducted a more formal and thorough study.

Spasenovski says he doesn’t know who the rest of the Friends of the Congress Theater might be. “Friends? They call themselves friends?” he says. “Where were they ten years ago when I needed help setting up the theater? Where were they when I had to quit my business to run this place? If they’re such good friends, why do they come to the concerts and put cigarette butts out on the marble?” He also argues that most of the theater’s neighbors would actually love to see it go. “Everyone hates us. The people who come to the shows hate us because we don’t have a parking lot….The neighborhood residents hate us because of the commotion and the noise….I know every prima donna up and down the street, and they all hate the Congress.”

On August 2, he learned that preliminary status had been granted. The decision was reported the following morning in the Tribune and the Sun-Times, and according to city planning department spokesperson Pete Scales, the developer backed out immediately. Spasenovski was confused by the process and angry that he had been left out of it. But according to James Peters, who was the deputy commissioner of the planning department at the time, this was typical–when someone other than the owner requests landmark status, the commission approaches the evaluation with stealth, lest the owner hasten the destruction or modification of the building in question.

“I’m not disputing that the Congress Theater should be a landmark,” Spasenovski says. In fact, he says that he has inquired about landmark status in the past, sending unanswered letters to the commission in 1993 and 1997. “But I want to know why, after ten and a half years, right when I’m about to sell the building, does the city finally take notice?” Peters responds that in his letters Spasenovski had asked about making the Congress a national landmark, which isn’t what the city does.

It usually takes about a year for the commission to grant preliminary landmark status, though the process can be expedited in the face of impending demolition. When asked why it was granted so quickly to the Congress, which hadn’t been issued a demolition permit yet, Scales explains: “It was more of a problem than an emergency. The alderman stepped in and asked us to study it.” But the Sun-Times reported that Ocasio didn’t know the building was “on the agenda” until the day before the announcement, and that he would’ve preferred simply asking the building department not to issue a demolition permit.

By the end of the Congress’s preliminary status period, the landmarks commission will issue a recommendation to City Council, which will then vote on whether to assign permanent status to the site. According to Becky Carroll, another spokesperson for the planning department, a decision regarding the Congress will be announced in July. If it gets landmark status, Spasenovski or any future owner of the Congress will have to maintain it in its present state and run any repairs by the planning department. There can be financial benefits: the city can grant tax credits and deductions, waive permit fees, or make exceptions for building and zoning codes.

Meanwhile, though, Spasenovski says about ten potential buyers have come and gone, in his opinion frightened off by the uncertainty of the theater’s future. He’s also losing tenants–including the Ace Hardware that’s occupied the storefront at 2129 N. Milwaukee for the past 40 years–because he can’t make long-term promises about leases. He says there are now at least two viable plans for the building, both of which would preserve it.

He declines to talk about them on the record, but Hector Villagrana, chief of staff for Ocasio, let me in on the one the alderman prefers, which involves selling the building to the Hispanic Housing Development Corporation. The company would lease the theater to the House of Blues, which would “rehab [it and] bring it up to code and their own specifications,” but on off nights it would be available for Latino community events. The involved parties are “trying to figure out the numbers, but [they] want to see this happen soon,” Villagrana says. “If the community won’t gain from this building, what’s the point of having a nice building? It’s just a piece of junk.”

Peter Margasak is on vacation.

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