By Siraj Asfahani | April 12, 2012
Over the past year, the Lakota Group has had a full plate of work with challenging commercial district planning work in three very distinct communities and neighborhoods – the Six Corners commercial district in Chicago’s ethnically diverse northwest side; downtown Kenosha, Wisconsin, once one of the state’s most bustling industrial hubs; and Momence, Illinois, a small town located 55 miles south of Chicago’s Loop in Kankakee County. We’ve mentioned these projects before in our last blog post (way back in December) but they’re worth discussing a bit more since each planning assignment has involved, in some way or another, exploring the maintenance, reuse and rehabilitation of vacant and underutilized historic theaters.
Momence and Kenosha each have historic theaters that are in various states of repair, use and operation. Kenosha, in fact, has three theaters in its expansive downtown district of which only one, the Rhode Center for the Arts ¾ home of the Lakeside Players theater troupe ¾ is in active use as a performing arts facility. The other two theaters, the Orpheum, constructed in 1922 as part of a larger office block development, had been operating off and on as a functioning movie house since the 1990s. Down the block from the Orpheum, the Kenosha Theater, designed in the Spanish Colonial style, opened in 1927 and became not only one of Wisconsin’s most glamorous movie palaces but also an important stop for vaudeville performers and entertainers, including Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole. During the 1970s, the Theater suffered significant interior damage from a collapsed roof and lost most of its interior plaster work and ornate ceiling, supposedly painted to mimic a summer’s night in Spain. Today, with the exception of a couple of occupied ground level storefront spaces, the Theater sits vacant. The non-profit Kenosha Theatre Restoration Project is aiming to restore and reuse the theater as an active performing arts facility.
In Momence, the Momence Theater, located along Dixie Highway ¾ the town’s main drag, was once the center of the community’s entertainment scene and social life since its opening in 1928. In 1968, it closed after a short run as an adult movie house and, in recent years, the Theater’s front half was converted and used as retail storefronts. In 2006, the Momence Theatre Friends was formed to purchase the building with the hopes that the building can be reused for first-run films, film festivals and live performances. However, since that time, no actual rehab plans have come to fruition.
The most recent draft of the Downtown Momence Master Plan (http://www.thelakotagroup.com/momence/), which is in its final stages of completion, suggests a “community-initiated or supported development” process be undertaken, a process whereby local stakeholders and investors take the lead in executing a reuse plan. This approach is not as far-fetched as it seems as several communities in Illinois and elsewhere have established cooperatives and stock corporations to purchase, rehab and operate theaters with monies raised through stock purchases and membership contributions. Monies raised have often been used to purchase digital projection equipment since most movies are produced today in the digital format. The equipment alone can cost $80,000 or more and is often prohibitive for many independent movie house operators. The issue alone was enough to prompt the Art Theater in Champaign, Illinois to explore the co-op option to keep its independent downtown theater alive – http://www.thecuart.com/coop.cfm
The Portage Theater is an altogether different story from the issues facing the theaters in Momence and Kenosha. The Classical Revival, terra-cotta ornamented theater has been operating as a functioning movie house since it first opened in 1920. After sporadic operation during the last few years, the Portage was purchased by a new investor operator group (not ownership), which proceeded to rehab the building and re-open it featuring both silent and sound classic motion pictures and other events, both on-screen and live. In recent weeks, the Portage has been threatened with closure ¾ not from a lack of business or the need to conduct building repairs or replace projection equipment ¾ but from displacement. A Chicago area church is seeking to purchase the building from the current owner and repurpose the auditorium and other interior spaces for worship and other ministry related activities. As the church made its purchase offer, its plan for modifying the Theater’s façade, including the removal of the marquee, was also made known. This spurred the City of Chicago and its Commission on Chicago Landmarks to grant the Portage Theater a preliminary landmark designation to protect the facade from renovations for the time being, even as the issue of the change of ownership and use is still up in the air. In the coming weeks, the City’s Zoning Board of Appeals will conduct a hearing to determine whether a special use permit should be granted to the Church to legally convert the building into a religious facility. It will be interesting to see what happens next. Lakota is currently working as a sub-consultant to the Goodman Williams Group of Chicago to develop a new master plan for Six Corners, which is the City’s only functioning Main Street program.
The Portage Theater saga has generated a tremendous amount of news and media coverage in Chicago in recent weeks. A more in-depth report on historic theaters as important economic anchors and popular entertainment venues in Chicago neighborhoods was recently profiled in a recent issue of Crain’s Chicago Business (see below). It will be interesting to see how Momence, Kenosha and Six Corners navigate the path toward maintaining and revitalizing their historic theaters. All three communities recognize that theaters create vitality and open doors for new possibilities in driving the revitalization process.
For additional coverage the Portage Park Theater
Crain’s Chicago Business article on neighborhood theaters (http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20120331/ISSUE03/303319971/screen-gems)
Portage Park Theater Moves Closer to Landmark Designation – http://www.suntimes.com/business/11737383-420/portage-theater-moves-closer-to-landmark-designation.html
Supporter Rally to Save the Portage Theater http://chicago.cbslocal.com/2012/03/27/supporters-rally-to-save-portage-theater/