‘These chances don’t come around that often’: Changes sought in Liberty Theater plan

The Liberty Theater building in downtown Libertyville hasn't been what it once was for quite some time and never again will be.

But with a redevelopment proposal including the 1937 structure in the works, an advisory panel is asking that more elements reminiscent of its original Art Moderne style be incorporated.

That's the advice of the village's historic preservation commission, which is considering the first official proposal for the roughly 1.2-acre site at Milwaukee and Newberry avenues. As proposed, the theater — closed nearly four years ago and unoccupied since — would be redeveloped for retail uses and a restaurant, flanked by two new, connected buildings.

Aside from being a memory for generations of residents and a footnote in history – young Marlon Brando was said to have worked there as an usher – the theater's gateway location to a long-established central business district is another consideration for redevelopment, according to the panel.

“It's important to do it right and this is an opportunity to do it right,” said commissioner Mike Kollman, an architect who worked on the conversion of a nearby 1903 bank building into apartments and retail spaces.

“It's kind of burying the theater in a modern building,” he said of the proposal. “We want it to be a little more respectful and sympathetic to the original theater building.”

That will be a challenge but also an opportunity to enhance the site for years to come, Kollman said.

“These chances don't come around that often,” he added.

The theater closed in early 2020. Though located in the downtown historic district, it was extensively altered over time and believed not to contribute to the architectural character of the area.

However, its significance in the community helped persuade village leaders to reject a demolition request from the previous long-time owner.

  A plan to repurpose the Liberty Theater and add buildings to the north and south is part of a redevelopment featuring restaurants, retail and residential space in downtown Libertyville. Paul Valade/, August 2023

The property was sold in April 2021 for $1.1 million and now is in a trust. Its disposition and appearance have become an issue for some.

During an informal village board meeting in August, Manuel Velez, an architect with Vee Enterprise in Chicago, made a presentation on behalf of the unnamed owners to redevelop the theater with new buildings on either side.

The main building would include a restaurant with second-floor patio rooftop dining. It would be flanked on the north by a single-story commercial/retail building and on the south by a three-story building with retail on the ground floor and apartments on the upper two floors.

“I was trying to marry all these buildings by extending the canopy – that was my tie-in if you will,” Velez said. His takeaway from the first official review session was that the design needs to be finessed to be more in keeping with the style of the original theater building.

“That's where the challenge is right now,” he said. “How much detail are they willing to accept?”

The matter was continued until the commission’s meeting Jan. 15 or February, if needed, for Velez to make changes.

“I've got some design ideas I need to put on paper,” he said. “Hopefully, it will give respect and credence to the original theater building as it was in the 1930s.”

The proposal doesn’t require zoning variations or other elements that need review by Libertyville’s plan commission/zoning board of appeals, according to Chris Sandine, a village senior planner.

A proposed redevelopment plan for the Liberty Theater in downtown Libertyville includes space for a restaurant and shops. A village advisory panel has asked that more original 1937 elements be incorporated in the design. Courtesy of village of Libertyville

Instead, a recommendation to the village board for or against the plan will come from the historic preservation/appearance review commission.

When it opened to great fanfare in 1937, the Liberty boasted a stunning tall vertical sign and a cream-colored terra cotta exterior trimmed in dark blue.

Re-creating that original look isn't being suggested, but the commission wants more detail and elements of the original architecture incorporated in the new design.

The panel also said there should be consideration of how the finished product will fit with the historic nature of downtown Libertyville, which includes buildings dating from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

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