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Church Calls Off Plan To Buy Portage Theater

The Portage Theater's movie-revival operation would cease if a North Side church buys the property. (CBS)

The Portage Theater’s movie-revival operation would cease if a North Side church buys the property. (CBS)

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CHICAGO (CBS) — A local megachurch has withdrawn its move to buy the historic Portage Theater on Milwaukee Avenue and turn it into space for its congregation.

The Chicago Tabernacle had been poised to buy the Portage, at 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave. in the Portage Park neighborhood. The nondenominational megachurch, which is affiliated with the Assemblies of God, has been looking for a space larger than the one it currently occupies in the Albany Park neighborhood.

The church needed a sanctuary to accommodate about 1,000 worshippers, Associate pastor Matt Reneau told CBS 2’s Mike Parker in March.

But the Chicago Sun-Times’ David Roeder reported Thursday that the church had withdrawn its attempt to buy the theater after heated opposition from neighbors and city officials.

The church also had been seeking a zoning change so it could remodel the old theater and turn it into a church sanctuary. The attempt to change the zoning was also withdrawn, Roeder reported.

The church had also sought to buy a half-block-long commercial and apartment building that stretches along each side of the theater.

The plan infuriated neighbors, as well as Ald. John Arena (45th), who had been working to preserve the historic theater since September when Chicago Tabernacle church spoke to him about its intention to buy the building.

The church said in a statement that it is in now “final negotiations” for another site, Roeder reported.

The church did not specify what the site was, but Roeder reports one alternative site it has been shown is the old Belpark Theater, at 3231 N. Cicero Ave., which has not been active as a movie theater since the 1950s and is now used as the Golden Tiara Bingo Hall.

The Portage at 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave., opened on Dec. 11, 1920. It Portage was the first venue built only for movies, and not vaudeville shows, in the Portage Park neighborhood.

The Portage became a second-run theater in the 1960s, and was divided into two cinemas with a wall down the middle of the auditorium in the 1980s, Cinema Treasures recalls. The box office was eventually shuttered, and tickets were sold in the lobby from a table and a set of folding chairs “set up school bake sale style,” Cinema Treasures says.

The Portage closed in 2001, but reopened five years later after an extensive renovation. Since 2006, it has been serving as a center point of the Chicago independent film community. It is also the home of the Silent Film Society of Chicago.