Fine Arts Building: a Vertical Arts Colony and Madhouse of Creativity

Learn the story behind Chicago's vibrant crucible of artists, dreamers, and doers.

The Fine Arts Building in Chicago is one of the city’s biggest treasures. It’s a vertical arts colony that began as a carriage showroom. Read on for the whole story.

Late 19th century Chicago was a chorus of get things done.

It was industrial. It was mercenary. It was determined.

By the 1880s, Chicago had rebuilt from the devastation of the fires of 1871 and 1874 in spectacular fashion. The Studebaker Corporation, carriage makers from South Bend, Indiana, wanted to take full advantage of the excitement. Although they’d had a Chicago presence, it was time to ramp things up.

That meant a big, beautiful building in plain sight of their potential customers. They bought a lot on Michigan Avenue and hired Solon Spencer Beman, the architect of Pullman’s company town, to make it happen. Beman came up with an eight-story showplace that featured four stories of showrooms topped with four stories for assembly. 

When it was completed, the Studebaker Brothers’ Lake Front Carriage Repository was a tour de force of rusticated stone, limestone piers, and granite columns. There was an absurd amount of glass because the company needed gigantic windows to show off its wares. While it wasn’t the original intention, that glass made the building especially suited for what it would become.

Fine Arts Building: a Vertical Arts Colony and Madhouse of Creativity 1
Studebaker Brothers’ Lake Front Carriage Repository

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Studebaker outgrew its Romanesque repository in short order and hired Beman to create a new building on Wabash Avenue. Even though they were moving out, Studebaker also asked him to redesign its Michigan Avenue building.

At the urging of their friend Charles C. Curtiss, the Studebakers decided to turn the structure into a vertical arts center. To accommodate its new mission, Beman took off the top floor and added three.

He converted the showrooms, offices, and assembly facilities into studios. He gave the top floor skylights and 23-foot ceilings and the first floor two auditoriums. On the fourth floor, in the center of the building, he turned the lightwell into a Venetian Court featuring a fountain and fresh air.

Fine Arts Building: a Vertical Arts Colony and Madhouse of Creativity 2

Would this work? Could a city bent on commerce and industry welcome an artist colony, especially in some of its most valuable real estate?

The answer was a resounding yes. Completed in 1898 and renamed the Fine Arts Building, the location meant tenants had easy access to the Art Institute of Chicago and the Auditorium Building. Architects would be near their clients. Most importantly, the artists would be near each other.

Curtiss, whose father was a former two-term mayor of Chicago, knew that artists gravitated towards one another. He’d been watching the Tree Studios arts colony that Judge Lambert and Anna Tree had started north of the river. He himself had built Weber Music Hall, “reputed to be the first building in the city designed exclusively for musicians’ and artists’ studios,” according to the City of Chicago Landmark Designation Report.

Even though he believed in the concept, you have to wonder if Curtiss had any idea of what a hotbed of creativity and controversial characters it would become.

In its early years, the Fine Arts Building was a crucible of talented artists, writers, and publishers, of strong personalities and social justice. L. Frank Baum and William Denslow met in their studios to collaborate on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Illustrators (and brothers) Frank X. and Joseph C. Leyendecker convinced fellow artists to paint murals on the tenth floor.

The 10th floor of the Fine Arts Building features murals by artists that had studios near the turn of the 20th century, including Frank X. and Joseph C. Leyendecker .
The 10th floor of the Fine Arts Building features murals by artists that had studios near the turn of the 20th century, including Frank X. and Joseph C. Leyendecker .

Jane Addams met with another set of brothers; Allen and Irving Kane Pond designed most of the Hull-House buildings. Irving, who’d worked for Solon Beman on the initial design of Pullman, was a circus fan known for doing backflips, especially after waltzing with Isadora Duncan. 

That last bit happened at a meeting of The Little Room, a social group that grew out of the habit of gathering in Ralph Clarkson’s top floor studio for tea and conversation.

On Friday afternoons, Theodore Thomas’s Chicago Orchestra performed at the neighboring Auditorium Theatre, and afterward, the artists would cross the bridge that connected the buildings on the tenth floor. This became quite the get-together and continued after the orchestra moved up the street to its new hall in 1904.

William Harris Lee & Co. Fine String Instruments inside the Fine Arts Building in Chicago
Inside William Harris Lee & Co. Fine String Instruments

The artists and writers would discuss, debate, and put on plays for each other. The afternoon soirees would often last into the wee hours, and one can only imagine the shenanigans these creative types got into. If you were a member of The Little Room, you were definitely one of the cool kids.

This was a place that welcomed all, whether they got along or not. Francis Fisher Brown published the conservative literary journal The Dial from its halls. Poetry, founded by Harriet Monroe, printed work by Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, and Carl Sandburg.

When Monroe published Sandburg’s “Chicago,” editors at The Dial mocked the poem and called the magazine a “futile little periodical.” Monroe wrote a scathing reply, and the proof is in the Poetry: her magazine is still around and The Dial died in 1929 (although the current bookshop in the Fine Arts Building is named for the publication.)

The Little Review also pushed boundaries, and so did Margaret Anderson. Her avant-garde publication gave voice to writers who became legends, like Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce.

The latter got Margaret and her partner, Jane Heap, arrested. Jane had joined Margaret in 1916 and the couple moved to New York City in 1917. They began posting excerpts from Joyce’s Ulysses and the people of New York thought that was scandalous – scandalous enough to arrest them. The women were convicted of obscenity and fined $50 each.

Other tenants included Lorado Taft, Frank Lloyd Wright, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and both the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association and the Cook County Woman’s Suffrage Party. Those two organizations helped Illinois become the first state east of the Mississippi River to grant women the right to vote. Rose Farwell Chatfield-Taylor, Vice President of the North Side Branch of the Illinois Woman Suffrage League and Western Women’s golf champion, opened a book bindery.

The Fine Arts Building was simply a madhouse of people who made things and made things happen.

Entrance to the Fine Arts Building from Michigan Avenue

In 1928, Curtiss died and in 1931 The Little Room disbanded. The party didn’t quite end, but things quieted down.

The building changed hands multiple times over the next several decades, but surprisingly the only part that went through any sort of upheaval was the theaters. Various owners tried to make them work, even turning them into a movie theater multiplex with four screens. The lowest point was in 1971 when the foreign films were augmented with adult films.

Through it all, though, the Fine Arts Building continued to be eponymous and it remained a home for creativity and social justice.

Fine Arts Building photo circa 1900
Fine Arts Building, circa 1900

Fine Arts Building Today

The Fine Arts Building of today is very much, at its core, similar to what it was in the early 1900s. It is a place of art, creativity, and connection.

The directory categories are architecture, design, dance, music, visual artist, restorer, piano studio, instructor, therapist, and “other.” The on-site bookstore is named The Dial, after the literary magazine that was once headquartered in the building. The elevator is still operated by a real person.

Fountain in the Venetian Court in the center of the Fine Arts Building.

The building is open to the public, seven days a week, but if you want a real treat stop by on the second Friday of the month. That’s when the tenants open their studios, and you can see where the magic happens. Renovated in 2016, the Studebaker Theatre once again presents live performances. 

Fine Arts Building; 410 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois