Act Four of a ten-part series.
Read the Intro here with links to the entire series. Read Act One here. Read Interlude One here. Read Act Two here. Read Interlude Two here. Read Act Three here. Read Interlude Three here.
As the Grahams tell it, the day after the August 2004 issue of Chicago magazine hit newsstands with an article about the Fine Arts Building (“House of Muse”), Bob Berger was on their doorstep, asking to buy it. The article may have been the catalyst, but according to Bob’s daughter, Erica Berger, he had long wanted the building. And the move made sense: Berger Realty already owned the Flatiron Building in Wicker Park, where the artist studios made it kind of a Fine Arts Building in miniature.
As Berger courted the Grahams, telling them the building would “keep him young,” another offer arrived. The nonprofit Fine Arts Building Foundation, led by Jan Kallish, former executive director of the Auditorium Theatre, had been working quietly on an ambitious plan to buy, restore and transform the building and its theaters into an arts center with a strong educational component and close ties to local institutions. Representatives believed their offer was competitive, but their financing was more complicated, and Berger—who said he was unaware of the competing bid—paid cash. The sale closed in 2005 for a reported $10.4 million.
Mary hated to leave, but Tom had grown tired of the perpetual refinancing and was ready to retire. Eighty-one-year-old Marj stayed on for three months to complete the bookkeeping, still working in pencil and hunched over her ledgers like Bob Cratchit in “A Christmas Carol.” When her work was finally done, “she went home and died,” says Mary. The building had been her life. (A tenant swore he saw her on the stairs a couple of months later—so maybe she went back.)
Berger claimed he wouldn’t change anything, as many new owners do, but naturally, he had his own ideas. He floated plans to stream performances online, to create a recording label, maybe publish a coffee-table book about the building. Some tenants may have felt nervous about the new regime in light of a 2001 kerfuffle at the Flatiron when, perhaps inspired by MTV’s “Real World Chicago,” Berger installed cameras in the hallways to livestream tenant activity. Most of his big ideas did not come to pass, although, much to Mary Graham’s chagrin, he did not support the fourth-floor Artist’s Cooperative Gallery and it closed in 2006.
Berger’s style was indisputably different from Graham’s. Where Graham was laid back, Berger leaned forward, acting more like the owner he was and clashing with some of his tenants. But in other ways he suited the building perfectly. He carried a harmonica in his pocket, and at least once, surprised a Chicago Architecture Foundation tour group by bursting out of a studio playing a trumpet.
Like Graham, he seems to have truly loved the building, and it continued to teem with activity under his ownership. He also brought the Studebaker back to life, bit by bit. Around 2015, he engaged the services of Milad Mozari, then at the School of the Art Institute, to 3D print the shapes necessary to restore the theater’s ornate but water-damaged ceiling. Starting in 2016, the theater hosted performances by building tenants Chicago Opera Theater and Chicago Jazz Orchestra, as well as Chicago Humanities Festival Events such as a talk by filmmaker John Waters. Bigger things seemed to be around the corner: in 2019, the producers of “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” the NPR news quiz show produced in conjunction with WBEZ, declared their interest in moving into the Studebaker. To meet the show’s standards, Berger committed to a full technical renovation.
Then came the annus horribilis.
On March 21, 2020, with COVID-19 spreading around the globe, Chicago went into lockdown. Like everyone else in the city, tenants of the Fine Arts Building were forced to stay home. Except for two building engineers who came in daily to keep the building operational—navigating raised bridges and crossing police checkpoints during the summer riots—the halls fell silent for the first time in more than a century.
On November 6, building manager Blake Biggerstaff, a valuable longtime employee of Berger Realty (he had been instrumental in helping the Flatiron win the Chicago Landmarks Commission Preservation Excellence award) died unexpectedly at the age of forty-four.
Erica Berger stepped in to help out the family business, and with a closer perspective, quickly recognized that too many things were being done in an ad hoc fashion. She was surprised to learn that tickets to Studebaker performances were being sold via PayPal. If the theater was going to succeed, she knew, it needed a comprehensive vision—and a full-time staff. Treating the business like a startup, she went about assembling a team, and after an extensive search hired Jacob Harvey, formerly of Cirque du Soleil and Greenhouse Theater, as managing artistic director in May 2021. Harvey was tasked with building a theatrical and artistic strategy and hiring a team of full- and part-time staff to ensure visiting productions would be professionally supported. One of his first hires was Alexander Utz, an accomplished playwright, as marketing manager.
Then, on June 19, 2021, Bob Berger died at the age of eighty-six. And suddenly, Erica Berger found herself as the owner of the Fine Arts Building.
Her path had seemingly been leading her away from the family’s real estate business: after studying international relations and business at UCLA, she leveraged a strong background in environmental issues and environmental policy in her work as a journalist, media executive and documentary filmmaker. She made and exhibited art, too, became a KRI-certified kundalini yoga teacher, and even performed comedy. She no longer lived in Chicago full-time.
Yet the fifth-generation Chicagoan had grown up in a household where supporting the arts was important. She took seriously the stewardship of the older buildings in her father’s portfolio. (A passionate environmentalist who proudly cites her family’s work in soil remediation and grows excited discussing her forthcoming documentary about hemp, she sees old buildings as the best use of existing resources.) And she remembers the excitement in his voice when he called her at college to tell her he’d bought the Fine Arts Building. She had visited it many times and knew how much he loved it.
Seeing the place as both Bob’s and Blake’s legacy, she dropped everything and rolled up her sleeves. Somewhat guarded when discussing business, she grows animated when talking about the Fine Arts Building’s potential.
“I felt like we were in the middle of something and we couldn’t just pull the plug. Nor did I want to,” she recalls. “We had Chicago Opera Theater, a ballet company, and Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras, all these people who were used to presenting with us before COVID.”
Working with house architect Brian Hammersley, a Fine Arts Building tenant himself (studio 914), theater specialist firm Schuler Shook and Threshold Acoustics, Berger and Harvey forged ahead with the theater restoration in 2021 and 2022. Performances resumed the second year, although the theater briefly went dark again in early 2023 for the installation of automated rigging, new curtains and the final touches on the A/V and lighting systems. Wanting to ensure the job was done right, they hired union contractors even as construction costs spiked due to COVID. Although Berger demurs on an exact figure, she says she has invested “many, many millions of dollars” refurbishing both the theater and the building.
Berger Realty sold the Flatiron Building in 2022, but if anything, that seems to have redoubled her commitment to the Fine Arts Building. Asked about the future, she remains focused on making the Studebaker successful. Carriage Hall, the smaller space, which had been partly demolished when she walked into the job, will have to wait. Most urgent is finding a restaurant to replace the Artist’s Café and give the building the street-facing amenity it badly needs. It’s a tough time to open a new restaurant in Chicago, but Berger is optimistic, citing the building’s morning-to-night traffic, as well as the foot traffic from the Art Institute, Columbia College, Roosevelt University, and the packed summer schedule in Grant Park. According to Jacob Harvey, the space is currently under renovation to make it fully accessible, a necessary step before finding a tenant who can represent the culinary arts.
Is investing in the Fine Arts Building a risk? “I don’t think it’s a risk to put some really innovative, interesting programming into one of the most beautiful theater spaces I’ve ever seen,” says Berger. “And I don’t think it’s a risk to open a restaurant in a building that’s completely filled and has people coming and going all day long into the late hours of the evening across from one of the most beautiful parks in the country. To me it’s a no-brainer.”
She’s thoughtful as she talks about curating the Fine Arts Building as “a living, breathing museum,” mindful that the present should not be subordinate to the past—or the other way around. Laughing, she cites Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” in which Owen Wilson’s Gil becomes utterly convinced that the 1920s were Paris’ golden age—only to fall in love with Marion Cotillard’s Adriana, a woman who passionately believes Paris in the 1890s, the Belle Epoque, was much better. The film’s punchline is delivered when Gil and Adriana meet Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Degas, who all insist the truly greatest era was the Renaissance.
“The idea is to have it feel like you’re going back in time, but still feel grounded in the present, while looking toward the future,” Berger concludes.
Erica Berger may be an accidental owner, but she may also be the most passionate owner yet, with a powerful vision for what she wants to achieve.
“This is first and foremost about creating a great place for art to happen, but also to ensure the Fine Arts Building maintains its place in the cultural fabric of Chicago,” she says. “With our Studebaker Theater, we’re trying to become a place where people from different backgrounds, from all over Chicago, can come to tell their stories. And that’s very deliberate. That’s not the most profitable thing to be doing, but our city needs some serious healing. And it needs buildings like Fine Arts that have been historically these points of reference for community and engagement and magic, right?”
Magic—that’s the word. Because this particular form of time travel is available to all Chicagoans. All you have to do is walk in off Michigan Avenue, under the building’s motto, and into one of the manually operated elevators. Where you take it—the past, the present, or the future—is up to you.