Congress Marquee

The Congress Theater

2135 N. Milwaukee Ave. Chicago, Illinois 60647    773-252-4000
History and Description

The Congress Theater was designed in 1925 for Lubliner & Trinz, who operated one of Chicago's largest movie theater chains during the 1920's. The architect was Fridstein & Co., an architectual-engineering company whose other designs include the Belden-Stratford and Shoreland hotels and two other movie theaters, the Harding and Tower (both demolished).The theater opened on September 5, 1926. Besides showing movies, the theater also was a vaudeville house on the prestigious Orpheum Circuit, compromised of theaters throughout the country. Lubliner & Trinz sold their theaters to Balaban & Katz, a rival theater company, in 1929. The congress continued to show movies under the management of this and other companies through the 1980s. In 1990the theater was bought by Ray Spasenovski and his partner James P. Peterson, who bought the building.

The theater has hosted everything from weddings, The International Mr. Leather, experimental music shows, movie festivals, talent shows, visual and other fine arts, movie locations, and special events. Oprah Winfrey used the lobby to shoot her intro of her daily TV show.
Located at the northeast corner of Milwaukee and Rockwell avenues, the Congress Theater is a massive building covering a quarter of a city block. The theater auditorium itself, a massive brick presence sits at the back of the lot. A lobby plus 17 stores and 56 apartments, wraps around the auditorium.

The Congress Theater is built of brown brick with white terra-cotta trim. The theater entrance is dramatic with a four-story terra-cotta fašade detailed with a Classical Revival-style pediment and Italian Renaissance-style windows, pilasters, and low-relief ornament. Decorative signboard frames flank multi-paned theater doors. The store-apartment sections are simply detailed with white terra-cotta window surrounds and decorative raised brickwork. In addition, white terra cotta is used to highlight the theater's secondary entrance facing Rockwell.
The theater interior is lavish sequence of spaces, handsomely detailed with decorative stone- and plasterwork. Theatergoers enter a small outer vestibule with two marble-and-gilt iron box office booths. Beyond is the main lobby, a dramatic four-story space with arched ceiling decorated with Italian renaissance-style moldings. Black, gray and light brown marble is used for wainscoting, while the floor is composed of green and off-white marbleized terrazzo squares arranged in a checkerboard pattern. Two large iron-and-glass chandeliers hang from the ceiling, accompanied by smaller wall fixtures. At the far end of the main lobby, a grand staircase draws visitors through two doorways, ornamented with elaborated pediment doorframes, that lead into a narrow inner lobby, then the auditorium balcony. Flanking the staircase are two flat-arched passageways that lead to similar lobby serving the orchestra level.

The 2094-seat auditorium, retaining its original color scheme of gold and burgundy, is dramatic in its expansive use of space. A large 55-foot-wide proscenium arch dominates the far wall, flanked by semi circular projecting bays originally containing organ pipes. (The organ was removed in the early 1930s) The orchestras level seats 2,114 while the encircling balcony has additional 790 seats. Arched niches ring the balcony, while a three-tiered saucer dome covers the entire ceiling. The auditorium is lavishly decorated with elaborate plaster- and metal work in the Italian Renaissance architectural style. Wall surfaces, including the dome, are thickly detailed with low-relief ornament such as foliate motifs, swags, urns, fans, and rosettes. Doorways into the balcony are set within frames finely detailed with spiral columns supporting decorative cornices. Original iron-and-glass light fixtures remain in place along the wall.

The Congress Theater was recognized as "significant to the community" by the Chicago Historic Resources Survey (1996). It was included in Great American Movie Theaters, published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1987. The Theater Historical Society of America, a national organization devoted to theater history and preservation, has published two issues of its Marquee magazine (second quarter 1985 and first quarter 1992) featuring the congress.