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Is The Portage Theater Under Threat?

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 12, 2012 3:00PM

Portage Theater c. 1940 via Chicago Theatre Preservation Alliance
The Portage Theater is one of only a handful of independent, truly historic movie theaters still operating in Chicago. If you've been following Chicagoist for awhile, you know that we have a real soft spot for the movie palace, a grand place to see anything from Star Wars to silent cinema. So when we heard reports this weekend that the Portage is under possible threats of closure, you can bet we took notice.

Yesterday we learned via the underground multiplex that the leadership of an Albany Park church, the Chicago Tabernacle, is pursuing plans to convert the historic theater into a church. 45th Ward Ald. John Arena has the full details on his website, including the proposed changes in the church's special use permit request filed with the Department of Zoning:

They are extensive. Chicago Tabernacle plans to remove the theater marquee, eliminate of more than half of the apartments in the building and evict of many established businesses in the storefronts. They also propose interior changes that could significantly impact the character of this historic theater. Let me say loud and clear that I am not opposed to the church moving into our community. I will continue to seek a resolution that benefits both Chicago Tabernacle and our community. The loss of this historic icon in the heart of the Six Corners Shopping District would reverse years of planning and development. The historic Portage Theater can serve as an economic engine for that area.

In a lively discussion at EveryBlock Chicago, one commenter points out that the property is indeed for sale with an asking price of $2.75 million. Chicago Tabernacle is led by Pastor Al Toledo; his wife Chrissy is the daughter of Jim and Carol Cymbala, pastors of the Brooklyn Tabernacle, which itself bought a very large old movie theater in downtown Brooklyn (Loews Metropolitan, capacity ~4000) and renovated it for their use.

Now if we were talking about the renovation of a derelict property, that'd be one thing. But the Portage is a vibrant, bustling theater that typically hosts events several times a week. A source close to the Portage has told us that the current owners of the property have assured the theater that they are in no serious danger right now. Their current lease runs until 2015, and Ald. Arena seems firmly committed to keeping the theater intact. Nevertheless, this is certainly no time for complacency. Even Roger Ebert is urging is urging movie lovers to take action. You can join the Save the Portage Theater Facebook page and also email Ald. Arena with your comments—they might be included in a presentation to the Zoning Board of Appeals.