BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
For almost the last 70 Junes, Old Town neighbors have woken up to the sight of artists displaying their wares in front of their homes built by famous architects from Louis Sullivan to Stanley Tigerman and Harry Weese.
As music fills the air and smells of summer favorites like lobster rolls, tacos, and brats—don’t miss the grills at the Church of the Three Crosses Garden—garden parties flourish and children play, creating their own art at the Children’s Corner.
It is no surprise to residents and guests that it was recently voted, yet again, the number one art fair in the country.
To be held June 10-11 this year, the Old Town Art Fair was the first juried art fair in the country. The vetting of art is a significant reason why over 30,000 people visit the Fair—of the 250 artists who are on display this year, 100 are new.
Declared a historic district over 40 years ago, Old Town has one of the best displays of Italianate houses, cottages, and wooden two- and three-story homes from 1870-1900, including the historic father-and-son Wacker homes on Lincoln Park West, as well as modern dwellings by some of Chicago’s most renowned architects.
In Old Town, people know not only the names of their neighbors but of their dogs, too. At night, often the only sounds you hear are the bells of St. Michael’s Church. That changes at Art Fair time when the neighborhood buzzes with energy and creativity.
Former alderman Vi Daley, serving as co-chair with Lynn Smith for the second year, described the preparation:
“For weeks before, people clean, paint, and fix up their houses; there is a lot of neighborhood pride. We want to show Old Town at its best. We recruit almost 700 volunteers, some of whom have worked the Art Fair for 50 years.”
Landscapers and garden vendors line the alleys, unloading countless flats of perennials to punch up the 50 urban oases on view. One shade garden has a book of Andrew Marvell poems on a wrought iron table, open to the verse “While all flowers and trees do close to weave the garlands of repose.”
Noted for its tree-lined one-way streets that belie that the expanse of Lincoln Park and large thoroughfares like Wells Street are close by, getting the booths set up quickly and then taken down again can be quite a challenge as co-chair Lynn Smith reports:
“For 20-plus years, Jeff Pines and Phil Graff have handled the traffic committee, one of the hardest of our 32 committees, ushering quickly in and out.”
Many neighbors practically adopt the artists whose booths are outside their homes. Often they feed them and hang out way into the evening, welcoming them into their homes, even at times to spend the night. The garden parties might remind you of progressive dinners as neighbors try to stop by for at least one more party.
Former Art Fair chair Lucy Baldwin commented:
“Residents sometimes feel like ambassadors for the neighborhood. Neighbors who hate the Fair just leave for the weekend. I just love going to homes around the neighborhood at that time, and everyone shows off the art they have acquired at the fair over the years. Many have framed their favorite Art Fair posters.”
“It is entirely volunteer-run and a non-profit event. Our money is donated to the Menomonee Club and other charitable organizations in our area. We feel a great sense of pride because of that, and that’s what sets our ambiance apart from other fairs.”
Old Town Triangle Association archivist, David Pfendler, pinpoints the neighborhood’s longtime artistic tradition:
“The presence of artists in Old Town goes way back to the Columbian Exposition of 1893. The city felt that Chicago’s cultural development wasn’t as rapid as that of Boston and Philadephia, so the powers that be encouraged Lambert Tree to set up the Tree Studios near Michigan Avenue, where artists who had been part of the World’s Fair could both live in and have studios and galleries.
“In the 1920s and ‘30s, that area became too expensive and artists came to Crilly Court because it reminded them of the Tree Studios. In the first 10 years of the Art Fair, at least 126 artists lived within our triangle area between Clark, North, and Ogden, and another 130 within a mile of the triangle.”
Community historian Shirley Baugher relates:
“The first Art Fair did not begin as an art fair at all. It started in 1950 as a big neighborhood party, and it was called The Old Town Holiday. The first artists were actually party guests: neighbors, friends, volunteer workers, and a few outsiders. Neighbors served as both hosts and exhibitors. Participants displayed their art on fences and tables on Lincoln Park West and its two adjacent alleys.
“The first fair featured the work of 70 artists, and the term ‘art’ was loosely applied. Exhibitors showed everything from crocheted potholders to high-quality oils and watercolors. We featured only local artists, and now they come from all over the world. It was held for one day only. Neighbors put up their exhibits the morning of the party and took them down at the end of the day. The Fair now lasts two days and covers several streets.”
Shirley tells of other changes over the years:
“There was no outside entertainment at the first fair: the entertainment was the camaraderie of neighbors and the art itself. Now local musicians also vie for entry into the fair and add to the festive atmosphere.
“Refreshments for the first fair were supplied by neighbors and were very simple: cut-up fruits and vegetables, hot dogs, and homemade pastries. Today, professional food vendors from Chicago and across the country provide sophisticated fare ranging from ethnic foods to gourmet sandwiches and exotic ice creams.
“In the early days, people ate while strolling past the artists. Today, tables have been set up in front of the Old Town Triangle Center. The first fairs were non-alcoholic, but now we have craft beers alongside soft drinks.”
Watch this year for the delicious fare from Adobo Grill, Anthony’s Italian Ice, the 1959 Kitchen and Grill, DaLobsta, Pinstripes, Randalls, and El Campeon, and don’t forget the limeades on North Park.
“When the fair began in 1950, we were the only game in town. Today, nearly every Chicago neighborhood holds an art and/or arts and crafts fair, beginning in late May and running throughout the summer. Even with the proliferation of such events, Old Town remains the doyenne of art fairs.”
Archivist Pfendler salutes the four women who founded the fair:
“Eleanor Buhl was a real force in the neighborhood, and four years before the first fair, she hosted the Jungle Gym Jamboree, which was a precursor. She and Mrs. Pierre Blouke, Mrs. Charles McDaniel, and Mrs. Glenn Ransom started it all.
“Many people think that Old Town loves its architecture first and foremost, but art has been its major focus since the first days. Because of funds raised through the fair, we were able to build an art center in 1956, and highly talented artists from the neighborhood were the first teachers.”
The last word remains for the late Paul Angle, Old Town resident, author, historian, and director of the Chicago Historical Society, as it was known at the time, who noted this in the 1954 Holiday Program booklet, “It is hard to walk a block without meeting a first-name friend, and anyone who wanted to bring together a good-sized party of congenial people can do so in a half-hour’s notice.”
That spirit lives on in the Old Town Art Fair today—all visitors are welcome!
Old Town Art Fair
Old Town Triangle Association