Breaking into the Granada: What's happening to the jewel of Rogers Park? 

The professors didn't tell Marc Gaynes anything about crowbars and padlocks when he was a student in law school. Or maybe they did, and he wasn't listening that day.

Nonetheless, at the moment, Gaynes, a lawyer for the city, stands on North Sheridan Road, crowbar in hand, trying to break into the Granada theater.

Behind him, nudging for a better view, are two reporters, one alderman, and an inspector from the city's Department of Inspectional Services.

Gaynes is breaking in because the Granada is in housing court, and, Gaynes says, the owner has not complied with a court order to allow an interior inspection. The Granada, vacant and boarded up, is in housing court because of complaints that it has deteriorated. Gaynes can't get in for reasons difficult to determine, since the owner does not respond to most phone calls or letters, even from his own lawyer.

Judge Simon Porter, of housing court, issued the warrant to Gaynes. If the building is structurally sound, fine, Porter declared. If it's not, down it goes. There are roughly 18,000 buildings in housing court; a judge has little time for weepy nostalgia over any one of them.

"I hope it's sound," says James Doyle, the city inspector. "I'd hate to see a fine theater like this demolished."

"They'd probably build just another apartment building," Gaynes offers. "Just what Rogers Park needs, right? Another concrete apartment building."

It's taken about three years of paper shuffling and legal wrangling for the Granada to reach this point in the judicial process. The Granada's Rogers Park neighbors complain bitterly about the delays. They shouldn't be so picky; they're lucky. At least the Granada has a full-time lawyer.

"I stick with a case--like the Granada--from beginning to end," Gaynes explains. "That's not the way it usually works. The city has six attorneys working in housing court. A lawyer goes to court, and he takes whatever case is on the docket that day. He may not have handled it before, he may never handle it again. This is not to knock our lawyers; they work hard. But the system's overloaded. And it can be impersonal and hostile.

"I work directly with community groups. I go to their meetings; sometimes I go to three meetings a week. They tell me where the problem buildings are, and I take those buildings to court."

Gaynes went to work for the city in 1985, when his job was created. He seems happy in his work; it conforms with his background as a community activist. Already his caseload is at 80 and rising.

The case of the Granada theater came his way in June, on the heels of complaints by the Rogers Park Community Council and David Orr, alderman of the 49th Ward. In its glory days, the Granada was a treasured jewel in the movie palace empire of Balaban and Katz.

When Balaban and Katz hit on hard times in the late 1940s, the Granada was shuffled through a series of owners, who discovered that it was nearly impossible to make money operating a theater with 3,400 seats. In 1976, the Granada closed. Four years later, a music promoter tried to operate a rock club there. He drew buckets of good press, but couldn't get a liquor license. The theater closed, again, in 1982; it's been shuttered ever since.

"That's about the time we started getting complaints," says Orr. "There's the fear that gangs will congregate there, that kids will break in and hurt themselves. There's always the threat of a fire, as with any vacant building. And the big question is economic development."

The Granada is the dominant building along a stretch of land squeezed between the busy Sheridan Road-Devon Avenue intersection and the Loyola el stop. To the east are Loyola University and Mundelein College; to the west, hundreds of apartments and homes. The location, the theory goes, is perfect. With the right management, the strip could bustle with boutiques, restaurants, and theaters. Everyone agrees that developing the Granada is the key.

"The Granada is a white elephant and an eyesore," says Dolores Collins, a longtime member of the Rogers Park Community Council. "It just sits there boarded up and vacant, the biggest building on the block. People put ugly posters on the boards, and there's graffiti. It scares off investors."

Residents complained so much that in 1984 the city sent inspectors from the Department of Inspectional Services and the Fire Department to examine the Granada's exterior. Gaynes says the inspectors found problems with the plumbing, roof, and fire escape. The city took the case to housing court, and set out to determine who to hold accountable.

"We discovered that the building was owned by a bank trust, whose beneficiary was Ken Goldberg of Glenview," says Gaynes. "We also learned that its taxes were being paid by a company called Park Lane Com, which is owned by Lou Wolf."

Aha. Now things were coming together. Most of the attorneys for the city who practice in housing court are familiar with Goldberg and Wolf. Gaynes says they have had buildings in court before, for one alleged violation or another.

Goldberg and Wolf buy, at relatively low prices, run-down property that has some charm or historic value. (Goldberg and Wolf own both the Riviera theater and the International Amphitheatre.) Gaynes describes this practice, known as "scavenging": "You board them up and wait for the highest bidder. And you stick it out, no matter how long the wait."

"A Chicago real estate investor paid $250,000 Tuesday for the International Amphitheatre, an exhibition hall and arena that cost $1.5 million to build in 1934," reads the account of that sale in the October 3, l984, Chicago Tribune. "Goldberg, a balding, middle-aged man dressed in a red jacket, white pants and scuffed brown loafers, produced the sales deposit, a $25,000 cashier's check, from a wallet secured by a rubber band."

The article went on to note that Goldberg "refused to answer reporters' questions" regarding the Amphitheatre, which had a market value of about $2.5 million. Lou Wolf, however, had more to say.

"We had no idea we'd get it for just $250,000," the Tribune quoted Wolf as saying. "It needs a little work--for example, the roof leaks--but we won't raze it. We'll hold it and see what can be done. We bought it because the price was right, and now we'll look at it, see if we can develop it."

When the city had identified Goldberg as the Granada's owner, it then remained to officially notify him that his building was in court, a daunting task, to say the least. Housing court abounds with tales--some apocryphal, no doubt--of process servers chasing fleet-footed landlords.

"My favorite has to do with the landlord who was standing on his balcony, and refused to open his door to the process server," says Gaynes. "So the server went to the balcony of an apartment next door. He folded his summons into a paper airplane, and tossed it onto the landlord's balcony. The landlord picks it up, and the server yells, 'That's it, you're served!'

"Then there's the one--it's a legend--about the time the feds served some mafioso guy who lived in Marina City. When the server handed the mafioso his summons, the mafioso got so mad, he had a heart attack and died right then and there on the spot."

Most cases, of course, are a bit more routine.

"The server rings the front doorbell," says Gaynes. "If he gets no answer, he bangs on the back door. And if no one answers, he has to go away. What's his choice? Our servers have 30 to 40 summonses to serve a day.

"But when you're working with the community groups you can be a little more persistent. I get a judge to swear in some community people as process servers. When the community people ring the doorbell, and no one answers, they go sit in their car out front. They'll wait for the landlord. If the guy comes home at 1:30 in the morning, we're there to serve him."

No one remembers how Goldberg was served in the Granada case. But court records show that on May 9, l985, he attended a hearing on the Granada.

"That must have been some moment," says Gaynes. "It's rare for landlords like Goldberg or Wolf--or even their lawyers--to attend a hearing."

According to court records, the judge ordered Goldberg to open his building to city inspectors. Goldberg, according to notes of the city, contended that the building would soon be torn down.

Around that time, negotiations were under way between Loyola University and private developers to transform the Granada into a glitzy indoor mall, complete with a music hall and movie theaters. Neither Goldberg nor Wolf has returned numerous phone calls for comment.

Since then, six court hearings on the Granada have come and gone without an appearance by Goldberg, according to court records. For that matter, he never opened his building for inspection, like the court ordered. At one hearing, in August 1985, a Loop-based lawyer named Paul Ankin did march into court and announce that from then on he represented the Granada's owner.

One year later, however, Ankin asked the court "for leave to withdraw" from the case. His clients, Ankin claimed, never returned his phone calls.

"How can you represent someone who won't return your phone calls?" Ankin says. "They don't accept certified letters, they don't answer the phone; it's the strangest thing I've ever seen. I have no idea why they stopped talking to me. I have no idea why they hired me. Believe me, sometimes I wonder why I ever took the case."

"I don't know anything about the Granada case," says another lawyer who has represented Goldberg in other matters. "These guys are a little different. They do all of their business out of the trunk of a car."

Frustrated by the delays, the Rogers Park Community Council asked Gaynes to come on the case in June. Within a few weeks, he requested and received his investigation warrant.

"We're finally getting around to doing what the judge wanted done a year ago," says Gaynes, as he rips open the hasp that binds the front door, and leads his crew into the Granada.

What they discover in the front lobby is, at first, overwhelming. Thick marble pillars rise almost 100 feet to the ceiling, guarding a hallway almost a football field long. The lobby is filled with dusty but elaborate paintings, a settee, vases, even a medieval griffin.

They step over piles of sawdust and navigate around shards of broken glass. The air is musty. The glass-encased candy counters are streaked with grime and cobwebs. With only the feeble light of Gaynes's flashlight to follow, they plunge into the darkness of the theater itself.

"Look, on the floor," says Orr, pointing to heavy piles of plaster dust.

"It comes from the ceiling," Doyle notes. "There must be a slight leak. Water seeps in and overloads the plaster. It gets heavy, and then it falls."

Bam! A door kicks open. A flashlight beam shoots through the dark. "Who are you?" a voice booms out. "What do you want?"

They freeze, unable to see anything other than the flashlight beam.

"I said, what the hell do you want?" the voice yells louder.

"I'm an official from the city," says Gaynes. "Who are you?"

"What gives you the right to break into here?" the voice demands.

"I have a warrant," says Gaynes.

"I'm the alderman," says Orr.

"Come on, all of you," the voice commands. "Get in the light. Where I can see you. Where we have the cops."

They stumble, squinting and rubbing their eyes, into the lobby, where they meet a wiry, short man in khaki shorts and running shoes.

"My name is Mel, and I work for the manager," he snarls.

"Well, we've called and written the owner many times," Gaynes replies. "We have a warrant to look and see that this building is not falling apart."

"Well, I didn't know who you was. You could've been a robber, for all I know. I'm sitting in my office, and I hear the alarm. So I come by and see the lock is off. Last time I caught some kid in here. He was taking pictures. I took him to the police. I ain't kidding."

"Well, just let your boss know that we'd like to see him sometime," says Gaynes. "This building's in court, you know."

Mel mumbles, and the Gaynes gang climbs to the second-floor lobby (also cluttered with rubble), across the balcony, and into the projection room. A window there is broken, and the room is lined with pigeon feathers and dung.

"There's a leak in the roof. I don't like the peeling plaster," says Doyle, after the inspection. "There are leaks in the bathroom, and some of that litter and junk on the floor is hazardous. But structurally it is sound. We don't have to tear it down. Just as long as they keep it boarded up, so the kids can't get in."

The next week, Doyle and Gaynes deliver that message to a judge. The judge issues an injunction ordering the owner not to rent, lease, use, or occupy the Granada until the necessary repairs are made.

"The judge also ordered Goldberg to, in effect, explain why he has not complied with the court's previous orders, and why he should not be fined or sent to jail for contempt of court," says Gaynes. "He could get as much as six months for contempt of court."

Meanwhile, Orr and the Rogers Park Community Council entertain phone calls from developers with grandiose dreams (and, it seems, little money) to revive the Granada as a theater.

"There's all sorts of talk, but few concrete plans," says Orr. "Let's face it: the Granada would be a tough project to get off the ground. It will take much more time to resolve. My hunch is that the owners will hold out until they get the price they want. It's their property; they have the right to ask what they want. We may not like it, but that's life."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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