Disaster


Architecture and Chicago and Churches and Disaster and Louis Sullivan and Outside Chicago and Preservation07 Oct 2012 10:08 pm

During the Iowa Flood of 2008, Louis Sullivan’s Peoples Savings Bank was hit hard. The interior appears utterly ruined, though I can only base that on peeking in a few windows (a string of trouble lights, all on, was hanging inside, which seemed odd). It’s understandable that the bank’s insides will require much TLC, but the exterior, in my opinion has been shamefully and needlessly neglected, The brickwork appears to still be covered with flood grime, and the windows are draped with cobwebs. Would it kill anyone to stop by with a broom and dust rag?

Conversely, the St. Paul’s United Methodist Church is in good shape, and is a remarkable piece of work. Practically space-age in its design.

Architecture and Art and Chicago and Churches and Crime and Disaster and Film and History and Irving Park and Mayfair and Portage Park and The Hidden and Theaters and Why!?!30 Mar 2012 06:46 pm

Cross-posted from my Gentleman Unafraid blog.

Note: I’m currently working on a Gapers Block piece about the Portage Theater (4050 N. Milwaukee) and efforts to prevent its purchase by the Chicago Tabernacle Church. Some passages and sentiments may carry over to that article, but the GB article will be more history-heavy. Just FYI.

Monday night I attended the Save the Portage Theater rally. Appropriately, it was held at the theater itself. I’ve visited the Portage twice, first to take my son to a mini-comicon (where we took a picture with chubby, purplish Batman—a photo I hope he cherishes in his later years), and the second time to see Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein with my friend Pat. Both experiences were a tad cheesy, yes, but rare and sweetly enjoyable owing to their surroundings: a classic, old-school movie palace. But experiences like will be harder to come by, if a certain church buys the place, modifies it, and declares an end to the variety of programming the Portage offers to the community.

The Portage has been around in one form or another since 1920, starting out as a transitional theater (between the small vaudeville/silent film theaters and the later movie palaces) before being purchased and modified by the Balaban and Katz theater chain in the forties. Originally designed to reflect the poufy Beaux Arts/Neoclassical design favored at the time, Balaban and Katz brought a sleek, spare Art Moderne influence to the marquee and interior. Palatial doesn’t begin to describe it. Dream-like comes closer.

I arrived early, signed in at the reception tables, and—after bumping into my father in law, a transplanted Irving Parker—walked into the auditorium. As before, and despite what the potential owners might think, the place is glorious. The auditorium is dark and cavernous, but also lush, golden, and warm. As with most buildings its age and older, you can practically touch the history and life of the place. I could easily imagine the audiences filling the seats for everything from early silent movies to 70s Kung-fu flicks to modern art-house fare.

The evening was pleasant, informative, and ably led by Old Irving Park Association Vice President Anna Sobor. I believe I met Ms. Sobor a couple of years ago, when I conducted tours of my church during the annual Old Irving Park House Walk. But before she walked onstage and got things rolling, we enjoyed the organ-playing of Mr. Dennis Wolkowicz, motivating force behind the theater’s restoration. As he ran through a familiar (and not so familiar) back catalog of songs on the theater’s original Kimball organ—placed on mechanical riser to awesomely cool effect—the place filled up with hipsters, senior citizens, Chicago neighborhood types, and members of the local cultural aristocracy. A lot of bearded guys with big guts were present too. I think I recognized them from the comic show and horror fests. In the dimness and darkness I could see a hundred blogs, tweets, and updates being typed out as one.

Not every seat was filled, but at least half were. For a 1,300-seat theater that’s not bad. Illuminated thank-yous were projected on the screen, especially to preservationist ringleaders like alderman John Arena, the Portage Park Neighborhood Association, the Six Corners Association, and others. Digital cameras flashed every which way, and, appropriately, amateur and professional cinematographers shot electronic footage of the proceedings with their cameras and iPhones.

In closing, Mr. Wolkowicz led the audience in a muted version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” I got the feeling not everyone learned the lyrics in Boy Scouts, like I did. Still, all respectfully rose up, and made a game effort to be melodically patriotic. After all, that was the reason why we were there. We’re Americans, dammit, and we’re mad as hell someone’s trying to take our stuff. Rise up, my darlings, rise up. You have nothing to lose but your theater chains.

Mr. Wolkowicz concluded his set, but was informed that folks were still signing up outside. So, he returned to the keys, and vamped out a little “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” On the northwest side, the audience clearly root-root-roots for the Cubs.

A little perspective on the size of the stage and screen.

At last, Ms. Sobor took the stage, and thanked Mr. Wolkowicz and all dignitaries present. Alderman John Arena—prime instigator of the Portage campaign—was present, looking casually fashionable in a windbreaker and “SAVE THE PORTAGE” t-shirt. His colleague Alderman Tim Cullerton of the 38th ward sat nearby, appearing firmly entrenched in his suit and tie.

Ms. Sobor wasted no time, asking the audience to keep a civil tongue, and stressing that the biggest goal of the campaign was to support local businesses and let them know they’re being “patronized” by Portage supporters. As I later learned, the Chicago Tabernacle folks have given similar instructions to their throng—as a tax-free group I assume they’re attempting to sound financially lucrative. Sobor then introduced Arena, who, if the applause was any indication, needn’t worry about several hundred votes in 2016.


The man is a decent speaker, and he reminded me that one of the reasons I voted for him is his approach to pragmatic preservation. Protecting pretty buildings is fine, but they need a reason to exist and a healthy local economy to persist. The folks behind the Portage’s restoration have done as much, and the theater is viewed as an anchor for the Six Corners shopping district. Once upon a time, this was the greatest and busiest place to shop, eat, drink, and see a flick outside the Loop. For the past several years, before he was even an alderman, Arena and others have tried to give the slightly shabby Six Corners a economic shot in the arm. Thus far things have been looking up.

Then the Chicago Tabernacle Church approached him last September, asking for his support as they sought to buy the theater and convert it into a church. Arena asked for a write-up of their intentions for the property, and what they presented to the zoning board was (in my words) horrifying.

CTC’s plans included removing the snazzy marquee outside (not sure if this includes the original terra cotta PORTAGE PARK THEATER marquee out front as well as the flashy electric one; I hope not), get rid of the businesses currently occupying the storefronts, and convert the auditorium and apartments inside into classrooms. Arena said um, no thank you, but welcomed them to the area and suggested several local properties that would better suit their and the community’s purposes. The church’s subsequent lack of response showed they weren’t interested, and have proceeded to push for ownership of the building and their proposed changes.

Despite public outcry, the CTC folks are displaying a, in my opinion, weird obsessiveness about purchasing the building, and a predictable disinterest in allowing the place to be used for the silent, classic, and (naturally) horror film festivals already taking place there. Speaking in a Tribune article about the Portage kerfuffle, church leader Al Toledo offered the following bit of aesthetic blindness:

“We happen to have a choir that people come listen to. We do a number of dramatic presentations. We have an Easter presentation coming up. So we have art that we bring forth as well, and I don’t think that should be minimized.”

Minimized? Not really. More like irrelevant. Chicago is surfeit with churches, religious choirs, and Easter presentations, but lacking in classic movie palaces and independent film venues. Eleven churches of varying sizes are within walking distance of the Six Corners district; but only two movie theaters (including the newly restored Patio Theater, which continues to exist by the skin of its teeth) currently operate thereabouts. Whether the 11 churches (not to mention the nearby Islamic center and Buddhist temple) are the right kind of churches according to Mr. Toledo… Well, let’s not touch that point just yet. Fans of the theater have been called on to grit their teeth and echo alderman Arena’s point that the church is welcome to the community (because, sure, we could always use more tax-free soul-winners who believe the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse could come galloping down Milwaukee Ave. at any moment), and thus far everyone’s played nice. Thus far.

Back to the rally… Arena made the solid point that preserving the Portage is all about economic recovery. Four restaurant proposals have been made for the area, but not a one would be able to get a liquor license if the church opened shop at the theater. So, it’s not just a matter of keeping the nerd cinephiles from their celluloid fantasies, or even about protecting an, admittedly, gaudy old queen of a theater from being ravished and violated. It’s about money. A short-term windfall for the theater’s current owners won’t translate into income for Portage Park, the surrounding neighborhoods, or Chicago in general. Church folks have promised to buy stuff at the local businesses, but that remains to be seen. Will the church-goers bussed in to the church really be picking up their groceries at Jewel and their steel-toed boots at Rasenicks? Hmmmm…

When Arena finished speaking, Ms. Sobor took over again. Prepared to deliver a PowerPoint presentation, equipment failure spared the audience from the sight of hastily created pie charts. Thinking on her feet, Sobor provided all the necessary URLs and procedures for making your voice heard. Why, here’s that very information:

The Save the Portage Theater site.

Save the Portage Theater Facebook page.

Alderman Arena’ post on Everyblock.

Arena’s site.

Periodically, a few of the burly bearded fellows emitted approving howls of “Wooooooooo!” whenever they found favor with Ms. Sobor’s statements, and one seeming non sequitur about “No Brooklyn theaters!” This was answered by Ms. Sobor with another curious statement about Irving Park being founded by four New York carpetbaggers. Hah? No illumination was provided, but I later discovered that the Tabernacle folks have done this before, to the former Lowes Metropolitan in Brooklyn, NY. Before and after restoration photos on the net aren’t heartening:


Our next to last speaker was Mike Edwards, creator of the Save the Portage Facebook page, who provided the quote of the night: “Where else can you see West Side Story one week and Dawn of the Dead the next?” Edwards led the gathering in a mass cell phone contact list updating, providing the number for the Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals: (312) 744-5822

Again, that’s (312) 744-5822.


Dennis Wolkowicz, the organist and one of the prime movers on the restoration of the theater several years ago, closed the meeting, dubbing it a “community explosion.” He shared a bit of Portage trivia, explaining that back in the 80s the theater was sliced down the middle by a wall that’s since been removed. The seats reflected a curious and unwitting division of political proportions by having red seats on one side and blue ones on the other. This was rectified when director Michael Mann shot Public Enemies with Johnny Depp there in 2008, using the theater as a stand-in for the Biograph Theater on Lincoln Ave. Red and blue seats wouldn’t do, so the film company sprang for blue cushions across the board. No comment.

The meeting closed with reminders that letters to the ZBA could be returned in the lobby, and that various spokespersons would be available for interviews. I needed to get home, and after running into a workmate and my church’s pastor, I headed out to spread the word. I hope you do likewise, dear reader. Check out the above links and take action.

Come on. I’ve got kids who need to see Frankenstein on the big screen!

Architecture and Chicago and Churches and Crime and Disaster and Irving Park and Portage Park and Theaters and Why!?!26 Mar 2012 06:58 pm

Attend the public meeting tonight, Monday, March 26, at 7 p.m. at the Portage Theater, 4050 N Milwaukee. More information at 45th Ward alderman John Arena’s website.

Chicago and Crime and Disaster and Film and Fraternal Orders and Humboldt Park and Signs and Theaters24 Feb 2012 07:56 pm

I’m omitting the last names of several of this entry’s dramatis personae because the subject matter is rather sensitive. The Steppes of Chicago blog has been a great success in that we’ve received many interesting comments from folks who either live or lived in the neighborhoods we cover. Long-time Chicagoans tend to be entrenched (my own family’s lived in the region for over a century), and it’s likely the boy mentioned in this piece still has relatives in the area. Nothing can really be gained by putting his family name back in the public eye after 66 years, I think. At least in this instance. Agree? Disagree? Comment away!

If Frank T_________, age 13, was looking for a little attention, 1946 gave him more than he expected. Living with his mom and three younger sisters at 3838 Grand Ave. (still standing, though the former ground-floor tavern is now a Vienna Beef hot dog joint), Frank knew tragedy early on. The previous year his father Anthony was killed at 4207 North Ave. Mistaking the apartment for his sister-in-law’s place, Anthony was shotgunned by Mr. Edgar B_____ and died the exceedingly young age of 34. Left to raise four kids, Lillian T________, 33, presumably did the best she could. However, a subsequent series of Tribune articles from that year reveal that young Frank wasn’t always operating under adult supervision.

His first appearance is a lark, or at least a schoolboy prank (interestingly, he was a schoolboy at  Our Lady of the Angels School, though many years before the fire). On March 15, 1946, Frank and his buddies decided to break in and skulk around the abandoned New Apollo Theater at 1536 N. Pulaski. One can completely understand why the place would be irresistible to adventurously stupid young boys. Built in 1913, it closed after 20 years and was left to rot. One reporter’s account describes a cavernous, ramshackle deathtrap, complete with collapsing walls, drooping floors, trapdoors, and copious cobwebs straight out of a Universal monster flick. What preteen lad with more curiosity than brains wouldn’t want to explore it?

"Hey, Dewey! Do you think we'll find pirate treasure down ther...AGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH!"

Eight years before Frank and his friends showed up, Dewey B_______, 14—who lived next door—and Donald J______, also 14, tried to enter the place on August 17. Accessing the roof—perhaps from Dewey’s building—they chose a ventilator shaft as their point of entry. Undoubtedly surprised when the shaft door beneath them collapsed, they soared straight down. God loved fools and children even then, because Dewey and Donald (Huey and Louie were likely elsewhere) fell only 15 to 20 feet to the rafters, rather than farther down to the theater floor. Donald broke a leg, while Dewey broke his right arm, making him the obvious choice to crawl out and seek assistance. Finding his way out, he called for help, and firemen arrived to rescue the two early urban explorers from the theater and themselves.

That the theater remained standing until Frank’s prepubescence is remarkable. At a guess, the place acquired a taboo cachet ever since Dewey and Donald’s misadventure. Likely, many others entered the place before and after, but Frank’s is the only trip (besides the other boys’) that’s on the record.

As Frank and his buddies walked the aisles, a local flatfoot grew wise, entered, and ordered them out. His friends scattered, and our young hero ducked under a stage trapdoor, closed it, and discovered a tunnel about 3 1/2 by 3 1/2 foot high. As with many a boy before him, “tunnel” equaled “adventure,” and Frank crawled on, apparently not bothered by the ickiness and vermin one would expect in the innermost recesses of an abandoned movie house. Apropos to the occasion, the tunnel, Frank reported, ended in a  four foot by four foot room littered with business cards, crumpled rags, a derby with a hole through it, and your standard human skeleton.

With only two short articles covering the story, the sequence of events grows murky, so bear with me.

When he saw the bones, Frank claimed he yelled in terror and crawled back out. I picture him yammering like Lou Costello about the sk-sk-sk-skeleton down there to the cop who told him to scram.

Later on, he gathered his courage in the presence of the cops and reporters and went back into the tunnel, emerging with the battered hat and stack of cards. A photograph accompanying the Trib story shows him holding A hat, sticking his index finger through A hole, but you have to wonder why the cops were letting him handle potential evidence. Perhaps a photographer or reporter found an old chapeau and said, “Hey, kid. Hold this for minute, willya?” Certainly not.

The stack of cards was interesting. It contained two fraternal order membership cards (which organization wasn’t specified) for Messrs. Karl H. Weis and H. Austenmueller, and numerous “theater cards”—presumably advertisements for various shows. The cards came from the days that were considered the “good old days” even in 1946. The cops traced them to Mr. Weis, who ran a bakery at 1744 W. 35th St. Weis remembered having the cards, said he had Mr. Austenmueller’s card after paying his membership fee, and further stated he’d lost the cards while changing a tire on Elston Avenue back in 1919. As to how they ended up under the New Apollo Theater, he had no idea. A likely story.

This is a 1902 photo from the Oriental Institute at U of C. But you get the idea.Cite as: DN-0000217, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

Actually, it was an irrelevant story. There was still the little matter of retrieving the skeleton. When the cops went to recover it, they found two feet of water in the tunnel Frank failed to mention. The fire department planned to pump it out, but now Frank claimed that when he went back in, he found a note stating: “You will not find the cave or the body. I toke (sic) it with me.”
Without perusing the entire March 15, 1946 Tribune, the evidence suggests it was either a slow news day, or Col. McCormick didn’t have competent fact-checkers on the payroll. The next day the entire affair was revealed to be a hoax. Austin Police Captain Thomas Duffy took Frank aside and suggested he ‘fess up. The kid crumbled and said “I was only fooling, captain.”, and claimed he got the idea for the prank after seeing skeletons on display at the [Field] Natural History Museum the week before. The ventilated hat came to him after seeing “a moving picture murder mystery,” which just goes to show that movies and museums promote juvenile delinquency. Rather than booking him, the cops took Frank home. No foul play, no harm.

Frank’s next bout with fame wasn’t so amusing. On June 27, he was lighting fire crackers in a lot beside his house while his little sister Delores, 12, stood back and watched. Fireworks have long been illegal in Illinois—the first of many laws passed in 1941—prompting our more law-aborting citizens to drive to Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Missouri for their Fourth of July an New Year’s fix. Frank shopped locally, purchasing his firecrackers from an “big boy” up north in a Niles forest preserve. Unwisely setting them off in a metal Christmas tree stand, the pyrotechnics went without incident until Frank reached the grand finale. The final firecracker must have been huge, chock full of black powder, because the resulting blast cracked windows in three nearby buildings. The tree stand blew all to hell, flinging a chunk of steel 100 feet toward Delores, gouging her left side. She was taken to now-closed Walther Memorial Hospital and stitched up. While the Trib took the opportunity to address the issue of firework safety and legislation, nothing more was said about what happened to Frank and Delores. Yet another photo of Frank accompanies the article, the handsome lad holding shards of the shattered tree stand, looking a bit dazed.

In a turn, Frank’s last appearance in the paper was heroic, but tragic. On the evening of October 6—two days before the 75th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire—flames broke out in his younger sisters’ room. Waking up to billows of smoke, little Rose, 6, and Shirley, 7, crawled out of their room and hid in another (one news source says the bathroom, another says it was the bedroom next door). Smoke continued to fill the building as Frank ran through the place, frantically searching for his sisters. He was soon joined by Chicago Fire Captain Frank J. Kubek, who saw the smoke pouring out on his way to work. The two Franks met and searched for the girls, but became separated. Kubek found his way out again and attempted re-entry from the rear door, but as he passed the side of the house he looked up to see the boy dangling from a window ledge, forced out by the flames. Telling Frank to let go, the captain caught him, severely injuring his back in the process.

3838 Grand Ave.

During this time a neighbor, Henry Sandel (perhaps Sandei—the grittiness of the microfilm scan makes it difficult to determine), set off the fire alarm before heading into the flames to help. He was able to rescue mother Lillian and daughter Delores, guiding them out before rushing back in to help Kubek.

The two men thought they heard screams coming from the bathroom, and tried to kick in the door, but the fire forced them back, searing Sandel’s  face, arms, and hands. Kubek found his way out, but Sandel had to exit a second-story window, smashing through the glass, grabbing hold of the tavern sign hanging outside, and dropping to the sidewalk without further damage. Horrifically, the sisters had suffocated by this point. Frank’s final Tribune photograph is a study in grief, he and his surviving sister Delores resting their heads against their mother’s sagging shoulders.

For us, perhaps charitably, that’s everything we know about young Frank T______, though there’s likely a family history somewhere that goes further. With hope he led a quieter life. A single family genealogy site reveals that he died in California in 1992. After a quick mental calculation, I realized that if he’d lived to the present day, Frank would be as old as my own father (living on the South Side the same time rank was living in Humboldt Park) today.

Architecture and Disaster and History and Louis Sullivan24 May 2011 03:14 am

While shuffling through my old photos, I came across this bit of heartbreak—the Dexter Building at 630 S. Wabash, which was designed by Adler and Sullivan and, at the time, the oldest example of Sullivan’s work. I took these pictures May 21, 2004. Less than two years later the building burned down. I haven’t bothered to stop by the site. I don’t care to see what they might have replaced it with. I’m sorry I never walked around to the other side to shoot the awesome exposed girders in back.