Veterans Museum picks new home
Museum hopes to move from South Loop to Six Corners by November
07/03/2012 10:00 PM
The Portage Lofts building doesn’t look like much. Located at 4041 W. Milwaukee Ave., it looks like a beige-colored cube with three lines of long, thin windows running horizontally along the top three floors. The storefront of the first floor is large and would look inviting if it weren’t completely empty.
But Portage Lofts won’t be empty for much longer. After almost two years of searching, the National Veterans Art Museum selected this Portage Park building as its new location. The lease was signed on June 25, and the museum plans to complete the move by Veterans Day. Once the move is complete, the Chicago Park District will take over the museum’s current South Loop location at 18th Street and Indiana Avenue and use it to expand the Women’s Park and Gardens field house facilities.
For Tina Fieldstein, the president of the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance, the move can’t come soon enough.
“A lot of people are just waiting on the expansion of the [field house facilities], because it’s desperately needed,” she said.
Feldstein took pains to emphasize that she had a great deal of respect of the museum’s mission, and that she was sorry to see it go. At the same time, she explained she felt that, as the neighborhood gentrified, the museum never quite fit in.
“The Veterans Art Museum was obviously there for quite a long time,” said Feldstein. “Over the last 10 years, the neighborhood really changed. It became more of a real neighborhood again.”
As the new residents worked together to further enhance the neighborhood, the museum wasn’t part of the process.
“We didn’t really have any interaction with the veterans,” said Feldstein. “They’ve pretty much kept pretty quiet. There wasn’t any organic, community development relationship.”
She said that while the museum participated in community events when invited, it never made an effort to reach out to the surrounding community on its own. As the result, many newer residents had no idea it was even there.
The lack of community interest certainly wouldn’t be an issue in Portage Park. The museum will be located in Six Corners, a Portage Park shopping district based around the three-way intersection between Irving Park Road, Milwaukee Avenue and Cicero Avenue. A major commercial area for the first half of the 20th century, it fell on hard times as competition from suburban malls increased and many longtime local businesses either closed down or left.
In recent years, Six Corners has sought to broaden its appeal by attracting art and entertainment venues. The Portage Theater, a historic movie palace, reopened across the street from Portage Lofts in 2006, and several businesses opened around it. But the other side of Milwaukee Avenue was a different story.
“When we moved here three years ago,” recalled Mike Inglimo, owner of PC Here, “we were the only business on this side of the street other than [Jasmin Jaham School of Dance]. Since then, a few businesses popped up.”
In spite of that, most of the storefronts remained empty. Iglimo hopes that National Veterans Art Museum would help to change that.
“The National Veterans Art Museum will cement this side as a destination for businesses. It will increase foot traffic, draw more people in.”
Under the terms of the lease, the museum will get the second and half of the third floor of Portage Lofts. The first floor storefront will become the first permanent playhouse location of the Filament Theater Ensemble.
According to museum spokesperson Sarah Eilefson, the new location has a number of advantages.
“Foot traffic is a big plus,” she said. “We are surrounded by other cultural institutions, restaurants and shops. Parking and proximity to public transportation is another big plus. It really helps us with school programs and outreach. At our old location, we didn’t really have a place to park school buses.”
Ed Bannon, the Executive Director of the Six Corners Association, pointed out another advantage.
“We have a large veteran population on the Northwest Side,” he said. “And veterans’ housing is being built west of here down Irving Park Road. They’re situating themselves in a great location.”
Most businesses within the Six Corners were unaware of the National Veterans Art Museum, but the ones that were had nothing but positive things to say. They talked about how the museum would increase foot traffic in the area, which will inevitably benefit them.
However, the long-term future of the museum in Six Corners is uncertain. The Albany Park-based Chicago Tabernacle Church made an offer to buy the Portage Theater building. The purchase cannot be completed unless the City Council agrees to rezone it as a place of worship.
Eilefson expressed optimism that the meeting would preserve the current zoning and that the museum will be able to stay.
“This is where we would like to end up,” she said. “We believe that the Portage Theater can resolve the zoning issues and we’ll be able to stay.”