Chicago’s First Art Colony



By Judy Carmack Bross




The Fine Arts Building today (center), credit Alexander Utz


“Art Alone Endures:” each day for the past 125 years some of the greatest creators have met their mission over the entrance to the Fine Arts Building, now sharing its history with self-guided tours of significant sites, two public exhibits and special programming that highlights the artists and companies who have made the building an artist haven since its founding in October 1898.


Half-inch scale model of the Fine Arts Building, with design and fabrication by Eleanor Kahn and lighting design by Eric Watkins, credit Alexander Utz


Walking out of the original manual elevators onto the 10th floor hallway of the Fine Arts Building you can still catch the energy of long-ago tenants including architect Frank Lloyd Wright, sculptor Lorado Taft before he moved to his Midway studio, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz original illustrator William W. Denslow, who met for weekly office parties at artist Ralph Clarkson’s studios on the same floor.


The Fine Arts Building studio of sculptor Lorado Taft, ca. 1910, from The Book of the Fine Arts Building


Ralph Clarkson in his Fine Arts Building studio, 1924 courtesy Chicago History Museum


Peek into another 10th floor office where the Caxton Club, a private social club and bibliophile society founded in 1895, where Denslow was introduced to L. Frank Baum, Oz’s prolific creator. Imagine when poet Harriet Monroe arrived at the Little Room, for performances and parties in Clarkson’s studios, and mingled with artists and authors such as Hamlin Garland, Rose Chatfield-Taylor, and activist Jane Addams. Wright, whose office was there from 1908-1910, was an original member as well.


A Chicago landmark since 1978, the Fine Arts Building still buzzes with creativity and innovation. Originally built in 1887 and housing the Studebaker Company’s carriage assembly and showroom, the Studebakers turned to its architect Solon S. Beman to renovate it for art studios and theaters – making it Chicago’s first artist colony in 1898.


Home for over 60 years to the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras, hundreds of young people continue to take weekly classes there.


Art Nouveau murals from the late 19th century on the 10th floor of the Fine Arts Building, credit Eric Allix Rogers


Jacob Harvey, Managing Artistic Director of the Fine Arts Building, took us first to the Art Nouveau murals from the late 19th century, past floors of offices of the painters, musicians, booksellers, puppeteers, dancers, photographers and craftspeople who inhabit the building today. We saw the newly renovated Studebaker Theater, one of the city’s oldest and most significant live theatrical venues.


Managing Artistic Director Jacob Harvey


Jacob Harvey told us:


“For more than a century, the Fine Arts Building has been an artist haven and a hub for creative and intellectual innovation. As Chicago’s first building dedicated to all forms of artistic practice, this building was home to not only an array of artists’ studios, music schools and galleries, but also the women’s suffrage movement and the center of the Arts and Crafts movement in the Midwest. This variety of creative expression continues in the building today. As you walk through the halls of the Fine Arts Building, the buzz of creativity and multidisciplinary artistry is inescapable. The halls literally reverberate with music and history.”


Grace Wilbur Trout & representatives of the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association at the Fine Arts Building, 1910, courtesy Chicago History Museum


A historic plaque about the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association, based in the Fine Arts Building from 1911 to 1920, credit Alexander Utz


The Dial, a semi-monthly journal of literary criticism founded by Francis Fisher Browne, the Chicago offices of The Saturday Evening Post, and The Little Review were among the tenants. Frank Lloyd Wright designed a bookstore on the seventh floor for Brown as well as an art gallery and studios. Other former tenants included: The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Municipal Arts League, the Public School Arts Society, and the Daughters of the American Revolution. Although Poetry Magazine founder Harriet Monroe did not have a studio at the Fine Arts Building, she was an integral part of the artist community there for many years and was an active member of the Little Room where the vibrant artistic environment and the people she met there helped her launch her magazine. It was at the Little Room that writer Hobart Chatfield-Taylor suggested that Monroe ask Chicago businessmen to contribute $50 a year for five years, and Chatfield-Taylor contributed the first $50.


A display on early tenants of the Fine Arts Building in the Art Alone Endures exhibit, credit Alexander Utz


“Charles C. Curtiss was the building’s first manager and from the building’s inception, artistic cross-pollination was crucial,” Harvey said. “Curtiss felt that a wide variety of artists meant a thriving ecosystem, and we are honored and excited to be taking that idea and reinvigorating the Fine Arts Building as a home for the next generation of Chicago’s artists and innovators. Today, we have everything from architects, puppetry artists, dance teachers and musicians, to live performance organizations, art galleries, yoga studios, jewelry makers, and other offices and studios related to the arts. This is why our Second Fridays open studio events are such a special opportunity for the public to visit the building for free and engage with this community of artists that make up the Fine Arts Building.”


Venetian Court on the 4th floor of the Fine Arts Building_credit Eric Allix Rogers


The Studebaker Theatre entrance at the Fine Arts Building in 1956, courtesy Chicago History Museum


In the newly restored Studebaker Theater on the ground floor, legends such as Sarah Bernhardt, Bob Hope, Vincent Price, Henry Fonda, Yul Brynner, Eartha Kitt, Jessica Tandy, Peter O’Toole and Martin Sheen entertained. Established in 1898 to present opera and music recitals, it later expanded into large productions in the 1920s. It became the home of NBC Studios and its “Cavalcade of Stars” from 1950-1955, and it was also where Second City founder Bernie Sahlins ran the Studebaker Theater Company from 1956-1958. Throughout the decades, the Studebaker Theater has been known as one of the most important live theatrical venues in Chicago, receiving landmark status in 1978.


Last year, the Studebaker Theater underwent a major renovation led by Berger Realty Group, including all-new seating installed throughout the venue, enhancements and modernization to the theater’s AV and grid systems, a state-of-the-art technical booth, updated lobbies and a newly designed VIP lounge on the third floor. The revitalized 600-seat theater hosts nonprofit and touring productions and special events is the new home of the NPR comedy quiz show Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! which tapes the show in front of a live audience.


A historic plaque about the Chicago Women’s Club, based in the Fine Arts Building from 1899 to 1928, credit Alexander Utz


The new Art Alone Endures exhibit at the Fine Arts Building, credit Alexander Utz


A half-inch scale model of the Fine Arts Building, with design and fabrication by Eleanor Kahn and lighting design by Eric Watkins


The Fine Arts Building and Michigan Avenue 1945, courtesy of the Chicago History Museum


A source of civic pride for the last 125 years, the Fine Arts Building is the only building of its kind in the country. Pay a visit to learn more of its history.


New historic exhibits “Art Alone Endures” and “Staging Ground” and self-guided walking tours of the Fine Arts Building are free and open to the public during regular building hours: Monday-Friday from 7 a.m.-10 p.m., Saturday from 7 a.m.-9 p.m. and Sunday from 9 a.m.-9 p.m. In addition, Second Fridays open studios are free to attend on the second Friday of every month from 5-9 p.m., and include gallery openings, special performances, and artistic demonstrations.


For more information on Fine Arts Building exhibits and programming, visit