"There's more drama here than there is onstage" is how Stuart Gordon, founder of Chicago's legendary Organic Theater Company, described the battle he and a starry, mostly west-coast consortium have been waging to preserve the little basement theater in Uptown's Hull House Center that once was Organic's home.
The struggle has pitted the California-based Chicago expats, local theater folk, and architectural preservationists against local real estate investor David Gassman, who owns the building, at 4520 N. Beacon. He plans to gut the theater and turn the whole place into apartments.
Gordon's group includes the likes of William Petersen, William H. Macy, and Jim Belushi. Last week, even as local support dwindled, former Organic members Joe Mantegna and George Wendt were in town making the case for saving the theater.
"Here's an opportunity for Chicago to prove that it's more than just a second city," Mantegna said, opining that Chicago's scrappy theater companies have had more impact and influence than the city's symphony or opera. "At least take a breath and step back a second. Once you destroy it, it's gone."
Foremost among the arguments for preservation is the theater's place in Chicago history. Built and opened in 1966 under the auspices of director Bob Sickinger, it's the only remaining one of the Hull House group of theaters that gave birth to the city's now-famous off-Loop scene. In the mid-70s through 1981, it was where Organic produced some of its most iconic shows, from Sexual Perversity in Chicago, David Mamet's first full-length play to hit the stage, to Mantegna's brilliant idea, Bleacher Bums. And for 25 years it was the home of Jackie Taylor's Black Ensemble Theater, where Taylor honed her musical-biography brand of storytelling and built a company strong enough to move, two years ago, into its own new building.
"There's apartment buildings everywhere," says Wendt. "The theater I saw there changed my life."
"At least take a breath and step back a second. Once you destroy it, it’s gone."—Joe Mantegna, supporter of efforts to preserve the Uptown Hull House Center theater
Now home to Pegasus Players, the theater remains a functioning performance space in a neighborhood the mayor has said he intends to promote as an entertainment district. It's continuing a legacy of neighborhood arts that stems directly from Jane Addams. And the two-story, concrete-and-glass, Miesian/brutalist building, designed by Crombie Taylor, with a terraced rear garden influenced by Alfred Caldwell, has architectural merit.
But as Alderman James Cappleman noted at one of the zoning committee meetings where the struggle played out, the consortium came late to the party.
The building went into foreclosure shortly after the Hull House association, in a sorry end to its own storied legacy, declared bankruptcy in January 2012. The Uptown center was bank owned, and had been sporting a prominent For Sale sign for months, Gassman says, when he spotted it this spring and asked the alderman if he'd back a zoning change to allow an additional story and a total of 24 apartments. Cappleman says he agreed after seeking input from the neighbors, none of whom objected. Gassman, who says he'd like to add a brick facade to the building "so it doesn't look like a concrete bunker," bought it for $990,000. The sale closed in May.
By the time Gassman and Cappleman appeared before the City Council zoning committee on June 11, however, Gordon and several others, including Grease coauthor Jim Jacobs, had gotten wind of the threat and hastily organized an opposition force. Their plan at that point was to buy the building from Gassman and operate it as a two-theater center, and they wanted the committee to give them time to raise money and work out a deal. An online petition asking the zoning commission to save the theater had already gathered 1,300 signatures, and five local leaders were lined up to make the plea.
League of Chicago Theatres head Deb Clapp told the committee that the city's hundreds of theater companies are in chronic need of performance venues. Ward Miller of Preservation Chicago argued that the building is Crombie Taylor's best and "a great work of art." Jackie Taylor said her time in the space had allowed her group to reach thousands of kids while growing BET; Pegasus Players' Ilesa Duncan said her company's using the historic theater to develop "the future Tracy Lettses and William Petersens"; and onetime Organic managing director Nick Rabkin said "it's the best-designed small house in town."
Cappleman, who noted several times that he's "a man of his word," looked like he was poised to ask the committee to support the zoning change in spite of those testimonials, but wound up asking for a deferment until June 25, which the committee promptly approved.
That gave the consortium two weeks to raise money, make a plan, and reach a deal with Gassman. The preservationists headed directly to the landmarks commission office and submitted a request that the building be considered for landmark status.
Nine days later, the consortium had more than 1,800 signatures on the petition but no deal. A meeting between Gassman and consortium members had gone nowhere, and the group never made an actual offer to buy the building. On the phone from LA, Gordon told me they'd raised some money but wouldn't specify how much; he maintained it was beside the point since Gassman "doesn't want to sell." He said he'd be at the zoning committee meeting on the 25th anyway, asking members to deny the zoning change unless Gassman agrees to keep the theater. "For him to destroy that theater is a crime," Gordon said. "Like cutting down a redwood forest."
But by then Gordon's local support was evaporating. Pegasus's Duncan seemed to have dropped out of the scene, the landmarks commission said it had no interest in the building, Rabkin withdrew from the consortium, and Gassman announced that he'd reached a tentative agreement with Pegasus to buy out its lease, which runs through November.
Gordon was a no-show at the committee meeting Tuesday morning, where Gassman's request for a zoning change was approved unanimously.