Libertyville panel recommends against demolition of Liberty Theatre

  • Libertyville's historic preservation commission has voted 6-0 against a request by the owner of the former Liberty Theatre to demolish the building.

      Libertyville's historic preservation commission has voted 6-0 against a request by the owner of the former Liberty Theatre to demolish the building. Mick Zawislak | Staff Photographer

  • The Liberty Theater in Libertyville, circa 1938.

    The Liberty Theater in Libertyville, circa 1938. Courtesy of the Libertyville-Mundelein Historical Society

 
 
Updated 10/30/2019 5:18 PM

The Liberty Theatre, a familiar stop in downtown Libertyville since 1937, isn't an architectural gem but has significance to the community that should prevent it from being demolished, an advisory village panel has determined.

The lack of a suggested alternative use for the site at 708 N. Milwaukee Ave. also was a factor Monday in a 6-0 vote by the village's historic preservation commission advising against the building's demolition.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Because of alterations, including the removal of the original marquee, the building where a young Marlon Brando once worked as an usher doesn't contribute to the architectural character of the area, according to a survey commissioned by the village in 2016.

But other guidelines, such as the theater's importance to the community and the village's goal to preserve and reuse "key character giving structures," provide leeway.

"The fact that it is small and modest and a sweet little theater at the end of the street is important," Commissioner Katherine Hamilton-Smith said.

Several residents also spoke against demolition at Monday's public hearing.

"There's an element that goes beyond aesthetics," Barbara Wilcox said.

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Because the building is in a designated historic district, the historic preservation commission is required to consider whether requests for changes merit a "certificate of appropriateness" to proceed. The commission makes recommendations to the village board, which has final say.

This is the first demolition request to come before the commission, which focuses on a building's significance and value to the community.

"Our reason here is something other than the dollars and cents," noted Commissioner Les Galo.

The Rhyan family has owned the building and property for more than 50 years, and generations of Libertyville residents have seen movies there. But the family point person is 80 and wants to retire, while the current business is not financially viable, its owners say.

What originally was a single-screen movie house more recently has operated as the Liberty 1 & 2. However, despite investments in digital equipment and three rent cuts, the theater operator is struggling.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Unfortunately, there's not a great demand for the Liberty Theatre right now and the owners with great regret are seeking the opportunity available to them," said Warren Fuller, an attorney for owner Rhyan Holdings LLC.

Under their proposal, the building would be torn down and replaced with grass.

Some commissioners questioned the need for demolition without further plans in place.

"That puts us at a big disadvantage," Commissioner Mike Kollman said. "If someone wanted to put up a new building, they'd have to go through the process again."

The property has been on the market for a few years. Three potential buyers came and went because a certificate of appropriateness is a contingency even for someone who may want to reuse the structure, according to Tom O'Brien, agent for Rhyan Holdings LLC.

"If we get anyone to come in at all, they'll want to have that (demolition) permit in their hand before they sign a contract," he told the commission.

"You don't want an empty building and we don't want an empty building," he added.

Even if the village board overrides the commission's recommendation, the owner says the building will remain standing until spring.

Further muddling the potential future of the theater is a chatter of unnamed investors who would spare the building and operate it preferably as a theater. But so far, that has been only talk.

"We have no contract, no letter of intent," Fuller told the commission. "We have nothing more than information seekers."

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