Spoiler alert: the Fine Arts Building was not sold to a developer and demolished. On June 7, 1978, it was designated a Chicago Historic Landmark. And the following year, it fell into the hands of its next benevolent owner.
Tom Graham was an unlikely patron of the arts. Then thirty-eight years old, he was a loan officer at the First National Bank of Chicago whose work sometimes involved financing architectural restorations. On the side, he was a budding developer who had bought and sold several Evanston buildings. At the bank one day, he was arranging a loan for Selina Schwartz and Dora Rosenberg, who mentioned that they were still looking to unload the Fine Arts Building. The way he tells it now, the words came out of his mouth almost before he knew what he was saying: “I’ll buy it.”
Their eyes must have lit up.
Partnering with Horn Chen (a fascinating entrepreneur who founded the Central Hockey League, among other ventures) and a small handful of limited partners, Graham became the face of a group that ponied up just over a million dollars to close the sale. Graham quit his job at the bank in order to devote himself full time to the Fine Arts Building.
When he moved into his office in studio 812, Graham found himself in a building with only forty percent of the studios leased, one working theater (the Studebaker), one shuttered theater (the World Playhouse), and one major tenant (the Harrington Institute of Interior Design). He also inherited Marjorie Pekar, a slightly eccentric bookkeeper who became devoted to him; Tommy Durkin, a colorful elevator operator who was fiercely protective of the building; and a crew of building engineers longtime tenants referred to, not necessarily fondly, as the “Irish Mafia.”
(The union kept sending him Irish engineers, which was fine enough until one of them started making a habit of hiding out in artists’ studios while the tenants were away, even making himself at home in Graham’s office at one point. When Graham was confronted by angry tenants who’d discovered evidence of the intrusions, he took the fellow by the collar and dragged him out of the building. Even though he was of Irish descent himself, he called the union steward and furiously ordered, “Don’t you ever send me another Irishman again!” The next guy was Italian.)
But Graham was in his element. He seems to have fallen in love with the building and its tenants. Now elderly, his memory falters on some of the fine points, but his eyes sparkle at the mere mention of the Fine Arts Building.
“I used to enjoy going around and visiting everybody, to see if everything was working out, or if anybody had any complaints,” he recalls. “I used to like to go to the top of the building and make my way down, talking to everybody. My office was always open.”
Watching Graham listen to a particularly difficult tenant, his head engineer Frank O’Connor told him, “You have the patience of a saint.”
Graham’s feelings for his tenants were reciprocated. He seems to have been liked, even loved, by them, which clearly aided in his efforts to fill the empty studios. But even with a strong financial motivation to find renters by any means necessary, the new landlord didn’t let just anybody in: he discouraged rock musicians and directed business types to the IBM building, telling a newspaper, “This building is for artists, and I want to keep it that way.”
While Graham’s big plans for improvements often fell short due to lack of funding over his twenty-six-year tenure, there is no question he breathed life into the building. If its light had dimmed before, now it brightened, casting its shabby elegance in a new and flattering glow. The building bustled with new activity as tenants began to return.
Adding to the good vibes, in early 1990, Tom met painter Mary Muskus when he dropped into a tenth-floor studio to find out who was subletting the space—her co-tenant was the very one who had established his sainthood. After their marriage the following year, Mary Graham began to play an active role in many of the positive things happening at the building. For years, she worked out of studio 206, a stunning space overlooking Michigan Avenue, currently occupied by L. H. Selman, Ltd., purveyor of fine glass paperweights. Eventually, she would even be drafted into supporting Tom in management, entering Marj’s meticulously handwritten bookkeeping into a computer.
Married to an artist tenant, Graham became perhaps an even better landlord, and with Mary’s encouragement and help, he began to promote the artists and their work. Starting in 1992, they held annual art shows in Curtiss Hall, and in 1995 created a space for the Artist’s Cooperative Gallery on the fourth floor, facing the Venetian Court, where tenants’ work could be shown and sold. The rapidly filling building grew even more lively.
“We used to have great parties,” recalls Mary wistfully. “One Christmas it snowed a lot. His staff shoveled the snow in the Venetian Court, put a tarp over it, and stuck champagne bottles in the snow around the fountain.”
If the turn-of-the-century Fine Arts Building had been elegant and high-toned, emulating the sophistication of the East Coast and Europe, it now hit its stride in a more egalitarian Chicago mode, where artist tenants and building staff mingled convivially. The best-remembered party host was none other than elevator operator Tommy Durkin.
After immigrating to Chicago at the age of sixteen from County Mayo, Ireland, in 1948, Durkin soon found work as a teenage elevator operator at the Fine Arts Building, sending part of his modest paychecks to family back home. On the job since 1950, he had been a guardian of the building even during its years of management neglect, screening visitors with a cheery smile and a gimlet eye. He was known to menace the city’s elevator inspectors by stopping the car between floors and intoning, “Now, you’re not going to give us any trouble.”
Sometime during the 1980s, Graham gave Durkin tickets to a Notre Dame football game and Durkin was immediately smitten with the Fighting Irish despite having never followed the sport. He turned a corner of the basement (which he called the “Corporate Level”) into the “Notre Dame Room” and filled it with pictures and memorabilia that included a football signed by alumnus Joe Montana. He was reputedly so fond of his shrine that he came in on his days off just to dust and tidy his displays—or maybe simply to hang out with his work family.
Durkin hosted annual parties. His St. Patrick’s Day corned-beef-and-cabbage luncheon was exclusive, with invitations extended only to his favorite tenants, maybe twenty in the early days with the number increasing as time went by. Durkin cooked corned beef and cabbage all night on an old-fashioned two-burner hot plate in the boiler room before serving it to his guests on Belleek china.
But the Christmas party was a blowout, with anyone and everyone welcome to attend—sometimes as many as two-hundred tenants and guests. Durkin, the consummate host, spent days repainting and decorating the boiler room. During the party, he made the rounds, refilling the guests’ wine glasses and directing them to the bathroom down the hall, which he called “the Illinois Room.” When guests thanked him for throwing such a wonderful Christmas party, he answered: “This isn’t a Christmas party, this is a Notre Dame party. We wouldn’t go to all this trouble just for Christmas!” It was the event of the year at the Fine Arts Building—even the owner adjusted his travel plans in order to attend.
In 1998, tenants honored him with a bronze plaque of his likeness dedicating the lobby as Durkin Hall. He tried to retire in 2000, but allowed himself to be coaxed back part-time until quitting for good in 2010.
Tommy Durkin died in 2013, aged eighty-one, from complications related to ALS. Today, all that remains of the Notre Dame room are a handful of curled photos taped to the wall, a green-and-gold “Notre Dame” and shamrock painted on a sunless window, and a green-and-gold logo painted on the floor. And, of course, the memories of those attending his parties.