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City Wants Congress Theater Closed ASAP After Latest Inspection [UPDATE]

By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 18, 2013 3:40PM

Photo credit: Gary Eckstein

***See the latest updates at the bottom of this post***

All eyes are on the Congress Theater this morning as city attorneys head to court this morning seeking an injunction preventing owner Eddie Carranza from “renting, using, leasing or occupying” the venue and granting police the power to forcibly remove Carranza from the premises if he doesn’t vacate the Congress immediately.

The latest twist in the Congress saga came after an April 3 building inspection turned up several “hazardous and dangerous conditions” inside the building. WBEZ’s Jim DeRogatis posted an A-to-Z list of the more egregious violations.

DNAInfo Chicago added the court filing called the Congress a “public nuisance” that “poses a continued harm to the occupants and the public” if it remains open.

The Congress also faces ongoing hearings with the Liquor Control Commission that could result in the city revoking Carranza’s liquor license on the venue. The court hearing on the building code violations is scheduled for 11 a.m. and, depending on the outcome, could immediately affect shows scheduled there.

Carranza at least has a better situation with the other theater he owns, the Portage Theater. He announced last week he would operate the Portage, in conjunction with Dennis Wolkowicz, and would add a digital projection system to screen first-run movies. (It’s worth noting that Wolkowicz also holds the much-coveted liquor license to the Portage; 45th Ward Ald. John Arena had previously said Carranza would get a liquor license for the Portage only if he could prove he could run the theater without incident.)

Here are some of the more choice violations from the court listing.

Bare electrical cable wires throughout the basement areas lack ground continuity and therefore pose a dangerous hazard to occupants and emergency responders.

The ventilation system above the stage block specifically designed to vent flames and smoke in case of a fire is totally disabled. This condition poses an extremely dangerous hazard as the flames and smoke will back draft into the occupied auditorium putting all patrons at risk.

Inspectors observed that the fire curtain has not been tested in numerous years, despite the annual testing requirement. The fusible links appear to be painted or covered with dirt, which could affect proper operation. There is wiring and cables, which will block the fire curtain from dropping properly causing a breach in the four hour stage block.

Fire resistive separation between auditorium and stage block is in dangerous condition. The basement north fire door to the orchestra pit is badly corroded, there is an improperly infilled opening at the basement south fire door to the orchestra pit, the first floor fire doors at each side of stage do not close properly, there is a hole in the wall being used to run a bundle of cables to the auditorium area at the basement level north brick enclosure to orchestra pit, a gridiron level hole in the brick wall between the auditorium and the stage block is being used to provide access for piping, upper level door lacks self closing device on fire door, fire doors are improperly held open.

The exit capacity at the northeast exit courtyard has been obstructed where safe exiting from the building has been significantly compromised. The presence of dumpsters, crowd control barricades, large steel gates, large steel tubs and designated disabled parking hamper travel and evacuation. The present conditions pose a dangerous hazard to employees and patron many emergency egress.

There are beverage dispensing stations and bars installed in the south main level exit corridor, balcony exit corridor, and in auditorium at the north and south exit aisles which obstruct access to exit doors.

Management or owner contact information on building is missing from the premises.

Com Ed room in basement unlocked, main area of Com Ed feed under vaulted sidewalk grid work rotten out and firebrick wall supporting grid has collapsed in part.

The catwalk for access above the ceiling in the auditorium, to rig shows and change lighting, is old and dilapidated posing risk of collapse. This condition poses a hazard to any unexpecting employee.

Obstructions in the main lobby, 1st floor, and balcony, specifically bars and coat checks reduce the path of egress. Safe egress is significantly obstructed is any emergency exiting.

The sprinkler heads in the VIP room and within the stage block are in dangerous condition. Inspectors observed that sprinkler heads have been painted and the inspectors were unable to test sprinklers of both areas to assure that the system is operational.

There is no railing system to prevent falling in either the balcony or the VIP room.

There is water in the basement near an open live front electrical panel. The panel is in use and feeds through wiring which stretches around the basement area to numerous unprotected holes in order to feed the stage block and auditorium areas. The conditions pose an electrical fire hazard and possible electrocution to occupants.

Inspectors observed a hole on the roof of the mechanical room tower. There is missing firebrick, which suggests that there could be other structural issues with the roof.

Ventilation system is inoperable; vents have been blocked and sealed. There is no fresh air supply to patrons, nor is there any exhaust of polluted air from the theater.

Update 11:25 a.m.: Chicago Sun-Times reporter Tina Sfondeles tweeted Cook County Circuit Court Judge James Michael McGing ruled the Congress will remain open at a reduced capacity. A reinspection of the venue is scheduled for April 22 and nor more tickets to upcoming shows will be sold until the violations are fixed..

Update 5:15 p.m.: More from Sfondeles at the Sun-Times. The motion to remain open at a reduced capacity was part of a deal brokered by the City and Carranza. City attorney Judy Frydland said Carranza understands the gravity of his situation now.

"It’s nothing personal, it’s nothing political. It’s totally public safety and totally directed by the fire department and buildings department. There is no outside force. This is the city being concerned over public safety.”

The April 22 reinspection will be followed by an April 23 court hearing. Over at the Congress Theater's website, shows for this weekend are now listed as sold out. Tonight's show featuring Easton Corbin with Jana Kramer and Chuck Wicks has been postponed, with today's flooding as the reason given.