Art Institute of Chicago
by: chicago designslinger
[Art Institute of Chicago (1893) Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, architects; Edward Kemeys, sculptor /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
On April 25, 1890 U.S. president Benjamin Harrison signed a piece of Congressional legislation that authorized the city of Chicago to go ahead and make plans to host the 400th anniversary celebration of Columbus' 1492 journey to the New World. It had been a heated battle between New York, Chicago, St. Louis and Washington D.C., all vying for a prize that could bring in tons of free publicity and millions of visitors. In the end it came down to not only which city could raise the most money to cover expenses but also which one could have the massive operation ready for dedication day October 1892. New York and Chicago were the last two left standing. Big guns like J.P. Morgan raised millions of dollars to secure the World's Columbian Exposition for New York, but Chicago businessmen, determined not to be outdone by their east coast rivals, swept in with an offer of several million more raised in just 24 hours by Chicago banker Lyman J. Gage, president of the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition company. The effort by the scrappy Chicagoans convinced Congress that they deserved the prize, which prompted the befuddled, quite put-out, and sore-losing editor of the New York Sun Charles Anderson Dana to claim, that Chicago won because of the blowhards in "that windy city." It was quite a coup.
[Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Lyman Gage was also the treasurer, a trustee, and one of the founders of the city's Art Institute. The organization had been around in one form or another since the 1860s, but in 1882 Gage and his close friend financier Charles L. Hutchinsion, organized the Art Institute of Chicago and formed a Board of Trustees, on which Hutchinson would serve as President for the next 42 years until his death in 1924. When the city was awarded the fair prize in 1890 the museum and its school were housed in a Richardsonian Romanesque building on Michigan Avenue, and when the Exposition announcement was made that April, Gage and Hutchinson saw an opportunity. Both were directors of the Exposition company, as were several of their fellow Art Institute trustees, and set to work on trying to get a new building for the museum and school included in plans for the World's Fair.
[Art Institute of Chicago, Michigan Avenue, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
There were two problems to overcome. First, the Fair site was located much farther south than the trustees wanted for their museum. Secondly, the Fair's buildings were to be temporary structures as mandated by the Illinois state legislature charter thereby giving the Exposition company the authority to use eminent domain to secure whatever land was needed for the enormous undertaking. Gage, Hutchinson and friends wanted to remain in the downtown business district area, preferably on Michigan Avenue, and in a permanent building. There was no time to lose. To get things rolling the trustees set their sights on a piece of property located on the east side of Michigan at the foot of Adams Street where the Inter-State Industrial Exhibition building had been standing since 1874. The large exhibition hall had been built as a "temporary" structure used to promote the city's renaissance after the 1871 fire, but it was still standing 15 years later adjacent to two armory buildings that had been constructed by the State of Illinois. All of this in spite of a notation on one of the first city maps dictating that this section of the lakefront was public ground to remain forever free and clear of buildings. In 1888 a lawsuit was filed by Michigan Avenue property owner and hotelier Warren Leland to stop the Inter-State company owners from constructing a power plant. At the time Leland had no idea that an even more permanent proposal was just around the corner.
[Art Institute of Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Gage and his fellow trustees used their clout, the excitement over the Fair, and the legislative power of eminent domain to secure the recently demolished Inter-State building site for their new structure. In September, 1891 the Institute's governors hired architects Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge to design a building whose exterior would conform to the classical Beaux-Arts traditions established by Fair's lead designer Chicago architect Daniel Burnham. Then the trustees of the got a $200,000 commitment from their fellow Exposition board members to help defray the cost of the new building. How could the Fair put money toward a building that was not only permanent but going to used as an art museum as well? If the Fair were to build a temporary structure as designed, it would cost organizers about 200 grand anyway. And if during the run of the exposition the building were to be used for Fair sanctioned events only, it would be money well spent. With the $200,000 in pocket, the trustees kicked-in an additional $400,000 and construction got underway. This news did not make Mrs. Sarah Daggett very happy. She was another Michigan Avenue property owner and she joined the Leland suit in order to stop the construction of a planned permanent building - a blatant act in defiance of the map's mandate. $30,000 in concrete foundations had already been poured when the court imposed an injunction, and construction came to a screeching halt. On June 28, 1892 the court ruled that although the map said forever free and clear because the "land" the Art Institute building would sit on had once actually been in the lake, and because the building was meant for the public good, construction could continue. The classical revival structure enclosed a large central court area that contained with two temporary lecture halls, which after the Fair was over, were torn down. Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge expanded the museum's exhibition space, designed a grand staircase, added school rooms and a library, projects that kept the firm busy for the next 23 years.