“Every building hides a world behind its doors—even blank-faced office blocks have a history and a social life—but perhaps no Chicago building hides more worlds than the Fine Arts Building.
“Located at 410 South Michigan Avenue between the broad shoulders of the Auditorium Building and the Chicago Club, the Fine Arts Building celebrated its quasquicentennial anniversary last month in style, with an open house, free concerts, gallery showings and workshops. Mayor Brandon Johnson declared October 13 as Fine Arts Building Day. The birthday celebration was well-deserved: one-hundred-and-twenty-five years after its dedication, it remains defiantly unmodernized, and however improbable, still devoted to its original mission.
“From the sidewalk, it’s not obvious how much is happening inside, despite ornate display cases holding posters for events at the Studebaker Theater. The soaring shop windows are papered over with banners advertising the building’s anniversary, available studio space and coming attractions.
“For six decades, the building had a front room: George Mitchell’s Artist’s Cafe, its singular apostrophe a landmark in neon and runner lights. It closed in 2019, as though its owners sensed the coming pandemic. Almost all the building regulars agree the food was average, the service indifferent, the prices exorbitant. But almost all of them miss it.
“The green-painted iron framing the windows and doors shows some rust, the lyres on the ornamented kick plates are tarnished, and the varnish on the inner doors is chipped from heavy use. But go under the inscription “All passes—art alone endures” and push through the door into Durkin Hall. There, you’ll experience a subtle pressure change as though you’ve just stepped out of a time machine.
“The lobby of the Fine Arts Building has a high, gracefully vaulted ceiling. The walls and ceiling are elegantly covered in light ochre scagliola, plaster treated to resemble marble. A scrollwork clock keeps accurate time. A long crack runs north to south in the terrazzo floor, as if tectonic plates under the building have shifted since its construction.
“Whether you climb the scalloped marble stairs or ride up in the human-operated elevators, you’ll be exploring a warren of hallways that don’t look all that different than they did in 1898.
“Other Chicago landmarks have more stunning architecture or are more perfectly restored, but no building in Chicago has aged so well—because in the Fine Arts Building, it’s the work that has been preserved. Two centuries have turned and its purpose remains the same: to provide artists and crafters not only a space to pursue their callings, but community with other artists, a living demonstration that something good happens when so many artists work so closely to each other.” (Graff, NewCity, 10/30/23)
- Enduring Art: After 125 Years, the Fine Arts Building Is Defiantly Unmodernized and Ready for Its Next Act, Keir Graff, NewCity, 10/30/23
- Fine Arts Building Act One: The Golden Age, A Building Reborn, Keir Graff, NewCity, 10/30/23
- Fine Arts Building Act Two: Depression and Decline, Charles Curtiss Dies, Keir Graff, NewCity, 11/6/23
- Feature: The Fine Arts Building—A Monument to Dreamers—Celebrates 125 Years, June Sawyers, Third Coast Review, 9/8/23