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.
Yes, there are inevitable reminders of 2023 in white plastic security cameras, in the metal conduit snaking over door mantles, in the cables clogging the glass-fronted mail chute, and computer screens that glow behind frosted windows in a few studio doors. But the halls reverberate with timeless music. Sopranos soar up to the high notes as violin bows draw tunes from taut strings. Someone plays a piano so busily it seems certain they have twelve fingers. Dancers’ feet thud against wooden floors. Somewhere, a tuba burps out “Ride of the Valkyries.” And more quietly, behind closed doors, painters paint, writers write, and luthiers shave soft ribbons from billets of spruce.
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.
Which is not to say it’s always been easy. What ever comes easily in the arts?
A Job with Ups and Downs (coming December 1)
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