things congress theater's plaster tradesmen left behind

when i visited the congress theater last week, i began by carefully navigating and methodically photo-documenting several deep, dark and dirty plaster and steel-framed cavities and coves high above the theater's cavernous auditorium ceiling. while zigzagging across the original, wobbly wood board catwalks, i distinctly recall being taken aback by the number of objects i ran across - thanks to my head lamp - that once belonged to the many tradesmen that worked tirelessly day after day to piece together an amazingly intact and mind-boggling assemblage of plaster ornament that, when viewed from below, was designed to bring the moviegoer to another time and place, or so that was the intention (perhaps greater so with the starlit "atmospheric" type movie palaces that brought lively sunsets and storms thanks to the brenograph and its many interchangeable filters or lenses).

the gargantuan, centrally located dome, flanked by surrounding deeply recessed coves, was treated with some of the finest polychromatic finishes applied by hand, which was accomplished by several highly skilled and prideful tradesmen who went unnoticed and/or unidentified through building trade magazines and books pertaining to the congress theater's construction. similarly, any and all period photographs taken of the theater during and after is completion are void of the people who put it all together. perhaps that can be said about many of the palaces under construction during the 1920's and 1930's. thankfully, through the discovery of a great deal of discarded newspapers - many of which date months prior to opening day on september 5th, 1926, along with half-smoked cigars, pipes, hot dog wrappers, twine and tools, and "coded" blueprints, these men have been brought back to life, through these remnants they left behind. it was incredibly gratifying to find these forgotten things over 90 years later. and so i gathered as much of it as i possibly could, to recreate the experience and piece together "narratives" back at the studio through the objects, (photographed first in situ), under better lighting conditions where once can actually see the fine print (no pun intended).

if i had the time, i would discuss the importance of the congress theater, or perhaps the materials and methods of ornamental plaster as it pertains to being such an integral, often magical facet used to dress up so many neighborhood movie palaces beginning in the early 1920's, when these fantastical structures were being erected across the city as a place of refuge and escape from the harsh realities of daily life. perhaps a day will come, when i will revisit these posts to provide more depth, both in terms of imagery and information, but given the number of demolitions happening as of late, i find myself chasing time more often than living in it. this entry will be forgotten the moment i step foot into the next doomed building (thankfully, the congress is being restored, so there will be time to return, again and again). 

in fact, as i sit here writing this blog entry, my mind's eye is already gravitating towards pieces of terra cotta that were ripped away from a neighboring logan sqaure building that was built five years before the congress theater was completed. the images found above and below will hopefully feed your imagination and/or interest over what such a space these tradesmen worked in and built, along with sharing a few of the things they left behind.

the gallery below features a small collection of the congress theater attic's remnants recovered and later documented in my studio. 

rare photographic image of plaster tradesman assembling the marbro theater (demolished) interior auditorium ceiling.

incredible photographic image depicting plaster tradesman during construction of the framing, tie rods, etc., used to secure the plaster sections into place - akin to assembling a sophisticated puzzle.

update: i always look forward to receiving any and all feedback from my blog posts, especially when someone kindly offers additional information to enrich or compliment the narrative i build through images and information. i was delighted to receive an email (see below) that offers a link to the complete chicago daily news, based on the fragment i presented above. looking over the archived newspaper, i felt as if i was right there with the plasterer, having lunch and reading the news printed that day. thank you very stan mocek!


I'd just like to say that I thoroughly enjoy reading about your attempts at capturing old Chicago before it's gone.

While reading the post for 01/18/2017, my eye was caught by the picture of the newspaper fragment headed "TUESDAY May 4, 1926".

I thought I recognized the Tribune type face (I enjoy reading old newspapers) and checked the archives. Sure enough, that days newspaper is archived at -

Your particular fragment is the from the top of page 20.

You may have this information already, but if not, I thought I'd pass it along. Keep up the good work!

Best regards,

Stan Mocek





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