Charles Curtiss died on March 26, 1928, managing the Fine Arts Building almost until his death. Its success must have exceeded his wildest imaginings: his creation was not just a home for Chicago’s working artists and crafters but a performance showplace, the city’s most popular destination for musical instruction, and a hotbed of intellectual ferment where artistic ideas and social movements were born. And he had accomplished all of it while turning a profit.
But there were signs the building’s influence was starting to wane. Many of the more bohemian artists had already moved out, some to form an urban art colony on 57th Street centered around two leftover concession buildings from the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Others relocated to spaces on the Near North Side, including the Tree Studios on Ohio Street and the Newberry Library on Walton Street. Music teachers were leaving, too. The numbers told the story: in 1903, the Fine Arts Building counted thirty-one artists and ninety music teachers; in 1927, the numbers had fallen to seventeen and forty-four, respectively. Lorado Taft had departed in 1910. The Little Review was gone. The Little Theatre was no more. Indeed, many of the most famous tenants had left by the mid-1920s—some of them a decade before.
Then, in October 1929, the Great Crash ushered in the Great Depression and the building began a long, slow decline. Patrons had less money to commission arts and crafts. Middle-class Chicagoans had less money to buy it. Artists found it harder to pay rent on studios. The Fine Arts Building became a less fashionable address as the excitement of its early years faded. Even the Little Room finally disappeared for good in 1931.
In the early days, when newspapers still chronicled comings-and-goings at the Fine Arts Building, one journal called it “the first art colony of Chicago.” At a time when artists were drawn to the building almost by sheer force of gravity, it’s easy to see how the idea took root. The phrase has been repeated so often, it’s accepted as truth. NPR referred to the building as “a vertical arts colony” and it’s featured in Keith M. Stolte’s book, “Chicago Artist Colonies” (2019). The building’s own marketing materials incorporate that claim. (Just last month, the Chicago Tribune went even further and called it an “artist’s commune.”)
But by most accepted definitions, it’s not an art colony. Historically, art colonies were spontaneous gatherings of artists, often in rural areas, seeking peace and quiet in which to work. Today, they are most often structured as nonprofits offering residencies—usually in the company of peers, usually in a bucolic setting—where creators are given time to focus on thinking deep thoughts and making great work.
But the Fine Arts Building has always been a privately held, commercially run operation that charges rent. Tenants, unless they are independently wealthy, must focus on earning a profit from their labors. So instead of picturing the Fine Arts Building as a utopian enclave where dewy-eyed artists contemplate and create, remember that most of its occupants hustle to pay the bills.
In “Little O’Grady vs. the Grindstone,” another novella from “Under the Skylights,” Fuller paints a sometimes hilarious portrait of Chicago artists in two buildings, the shabby Warren Block, or “Rabbit-Hutch” (presumably the Athenaeum), and the lofty Temple of Art (the Fine Arts Building) as they compete for commissions at the soon-to-be-built Grindstone National Bank:
“By this time every ‘art circle’ in the city knew from its centre to its circumference that the Grindstone National Bank was moving toward the elaborate decoration of its new building and that the board of directors was thinking of devoting some twenty thousand dollars or more to this purpose. The Temple of Art took on its reception smile; the Rabbit-Hutch began a nervous rummaging for ideas among cobwebs and dusty portfolios and forgotten canvases; decorators of drawing-rooms and libraries put on their thinking-caps and stood up their little lightning-rods; and one of two of the professors at the Art Academy began to overhaul their mythology and to sketch out broad but hazy schemes for a succession of thumping big masterpieces, and to wonder whether the directors would call on them or whether they should be summoned to meet the directors.”
It was ever thus.
As commercial vacancies in the Loop prove, real estate is a precarious business; even temples sometimes struggle to find tenants. Each time the Fine Arts Building changes hands is a pointed reminder that it is indeed a for-profit enterprise depending on benevolent landlords. Just as artists need patrons, so, too, does an arts building. The building’s tenants—and Chicago—have simply been extremely fortunate to find one owner after another who believes in the mission—or at least tolerates it. Things could have gone south at any time.
The five Studebaker brothers were the first sympathetic owners, but by 1915, controlling stock in the Fine Arts Building Corporation had passed to thirty-one Studebaker heirs and Curtiss and the other stockholders were forced to dissolve the corporation. The property was sold to the family of the late Charles Chapin, a Chicago businessman, for $3,000,000, at that time the largest single real estate transaction in Chicago history. “The Fine Arts property has long been regarded as one of the most valuable in the Loop,” observed the Chicago Tribune, but it would be ninety years before the building attained that value again—even without adjusting for inflation. The building would be sold again and again for less and less money as business partners squabbled, defaulted on tax bills, or simply tried to escape what they saw as a sinking ship.
Emily Chapin seems to have taken a special interest in the building. A philanthropist and gifted amateur artist, she took a suite on the tenth floor with her sons Homer, Henry and Lowell, while allowing Curtiss to continue managing it as always from studio 528. But her time as caretaker was relatively brief—she died in 1925, and in 1937, her heirs filed for bankruptcy.
Ownership remains murky until 1945, when wealthy lawyer Abraham Teitelbaum (who described his former client Al Capone as “one of the most honorable men I ever knew”) partnered with Paul R. Simon, another lawyer, to buy the building for $750,000 after the Bureau of Internal Revenue filed liens for delinquent tax and agreed to become a party to the sale. In 1952, Teitelbaum himself had to put his share of the building and both annexes on the auction block to make good on a delinquent income tax claim. His interest was purchased by paint manufacturer and realtor Arnold A. Schwartz.
In 1960, Simon’s widow, Bessie, brought a court action to force the sale of the building. Superior Court Judge Grover Niemeyer ordered its sale, with the proceeds divided between her and Arnold A. Schwartz. Schwartz, who had owned half the building, now became sole owner with an offer of $925,105. When Schwartz died in early 1964, ownership passed to three heirs—his wife, Selina, her sister, Dora Rosenberg, and one still unknown—who appear to have been reluctant landlords.
The Fine Arts Building continued its slow, protracted decline, and as tenants moved away or died, the owners made little effort to replace them. Management collected rent on the remaining studios while making only the most urgently needed repairs. In 1972, the Tribune published an item noting that the building had been offered for sale, valued at $894,623, “in a ‘discreet’ offering circulating only to qualified buyers.” In keeping with the general attitude of unwantedness, the article’s author suggested the land may have been more valuable than the building, adding, “That could mean potential buyers would be more interested in redeveloping the site than retaining the present building.”
But even the attraction of a prime Michigan Avenue parcel wasn’t attractive enough. No one bought it.
The sense of imminent danger to one of Chicago’s cultural and architectural treasures did prompt the first efforts to preserve the Fine Arts Building. On August 11, 1975, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places—which, although it conferred no specific legal protections, was at least a start.
This, too, ushered in a period of hand-wringing about the building’s future. From that time until the present, every few years local newspapers sent reporters to wander the halls, soak up the atmosphere, and chronicle the building’s condition. “Many of the studios are dark now, but kids still flock there for lessons,” wrote Paul Weingarten in the Tribune. “Aspiring artists still paint in a few studios. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra practices there, and the Studebaker Theater attracts audiences, even though it can’t compete with bigger theaters… And the building still offers much. You can buy a violin, have one repaired, or learn to play the instrument there; talk to a representative of the World Federalists’ Association, or the Daughters of the American Revolution; worship at one of two churches; learn to sing, dance, design, or watch a scribe letter parchment.”
As Weingarten wrote those words in 1977, the Schwartz heirs were debating whether to accept Chicago Landmark status from the Chicago Landmark Commission, a designation that would protect the building from demolition or alterations that might compromise its character. Reportedly, two of the three heirs were inclined to decline—they wanted to sell to developers, even if the building would be torn down—but the third disagreed. If they remained deadlocked, the Chicago City Council would hold a public hearing, and with a recommendation from the Landmark Commission, make the final decision.
Chicago Tribune architecture critic Paul Gapp wrote, “Listening to the recent landmarks hearing on the Fine Arts Building was much like attending the wake of a distinguished old-timer who has made a lot of history and outlived most of his friends… the old masters are gone, and the culture is fading. One might almost say it carries the scent of death.”