“The first things you notice when you get off the elevator or walk up the stairs are the sounds: the tinkle of a piano perhaps or the voice of a soprano reaching for the highest of notes. Students patiently wait for their music lessons, sitting on wooden benches. The place looks old and feels old in a timeless way. The long hallways, dimly lit, echo an earlier era, offering a glimpse into another century.
“The Fine Arts Building looks as if it has been at 410 S. Michigan Ave. forever even though tenants have come and gone, of course. Consider a few: the mid-century Piccadilly, an elegant restaurant on the fourth floor, catered to tenants and non-tenants alike (“all sandwiches served on your choice of bread”); the (still) much-missed Fine Arts Theatre had a good run, from 1982 to 2000 (fun fact: the last movie I saw there was Joe Gould’s Secret); the popular Artist’s Café closed in 2019, after nearly 60 years.
“But the building itself remains a constant presence, seemingly living up to the inscription etched in the entranceway: ALL PASSES—ART ALONE ENDURES. Tenant Blair Thomas acknowledges the significance of the building by asserting that it is “more powerful” than any one person; that it is “greater than the individual artist.” He pauses for a moment to offer his own take on the motto. “I don’t think all art endures,” he says, “but artistic impulses endure. Creativity endures.” He pauses again. “We’re all temporal.”
“In October, the building, which was declared a Chicago landmark in 1978, will celebrate its 125th anniversary with public events that will include a free concert in the Studebaker Theater as well as additional performances and demonstrations throughout the building. Mayor Brandon Johnson even proclaimed October 13, 2023, to be Fine Arts Building Day in the city. For those who want to learn more about the building’s past, a permanent exhibit on the fifth floor chronicles the history of the building while historic plaques are mounted outside many of the studios.
“The Fine Arts Building was one of two arts colonies in Chicago when it opened in 1898. The other was the Tree Studios in a neighborhood once called Towertown because of its proximity to the historic Water Tower. (Today we know it as the more prosaic River North.) The Tree Studios lost its art colony status years ago while Fine Arts retains its landmark status and its link to arts-related businesses.
“The building owes its existence to the Studebaker Brothers, wagon and carriage makers based in South Bend, Indiana––the same family that manufactured the famous Studebaker cars. The Studebakers acquired the land that the building stands on in 1885. The following year the family hired renowned architect S. S. Beman—who designed the Pullman community on the far South Side as well as the still-standing Kimball Mansion in the Prairie Avenue Historic District—to build them a showcase building that would attract attention. And a showcase it was: an eight-story architectural wonder consisting of four stories for their showroom and four stories where the brothers could assemble their carriages. An annex was built next door but even so the success of their carriage business outgrew the space, which led to a larger building on South Wabash Avenue to store and display their carriages, leaving Beman’s masterwork essentially empty. Enter Charles C. Curtiss.
“In 2005, Bob Berger purchased the building for more than $10 million. More than a dozen years later, in 2021, the Berger Realty Group embarked on a $3 million renovation. Also in the same year, Jacob Harvey, formerly the artistic director of the Greenhouse Theater Center, was hired as the “first-ever” managing artistic director of theaters in the building. Prior to that the Studebaker Theater reopened in 2016 for live performances; since then it has presented work by Chicago Opera Theater, the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, Chicago Jazz Orchestra, and the Lloyd Price musical, Personality. In 2022, the NPR quiz show, “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me,” hosted by Peter Sagal, took up residence with live tapings.
“Today the Fine Arts Building is 98 percent leased, according to Harvey, with 110 tenants. They include architects, dancers, photographers, literary agents, piano teachers, voice instructors, and individual authors as well as such prominent companies as the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras, the Jazz Institute of Chicago, Performers Music, William Harris Lee, maker of fine stringed instruments, and Bein & Fushi, dealer and appraiser of rare violins.
“And yet even the Fine Arts Building has had to change with the times. (Sawyers, Third Coast Review, 9/8/23)