Fine Arts Building, Chicago
by: chicago designslinger
[Fine Arts Building (1898) Solon S. Beman, architect; Studebaker Brothers Carriage Company Building, (1885) Solon S. Beman, architect /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
It has been called Chicago's - and the country's - first retrofit.
[Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
It all began when the South Bend, Indiana based Studebaker Brothers Carriage Company came north in the mid-1880s on the hunt for a location to open a Chicago branch, and found a site on Michigan Avenue between Van Buren and Congress Streets. This stretch of Michigan had once been lined with the homes of some of the city's wealthier citizens, but by the time the Studebakers showed-up on the scene the residential character of the block was changing. Burnham & Root's building for the Art Institute of Chicago had appeared on the southwest corner of Michigan and Van Buren just north of the Studebaker site in 1885. And architect Solon S. Beman's recently completed design for the Pullman Palace Car Company Building, just-up the block at Adams Street, was heralded by the Chicago Tribune as one of the latest additions to the new Chicagoesque School of architecture which the paper defined as having Romanesque features "with Chicagoesque improvements."
[Fine Arts Building, City of Chicago Landmark /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Perhaps this was the reason the folks from Indiana picked Beman to design their Chicago branch. This was the company's first foray outside the friendly confines of their home base, and what better way to make the statement that they had arrived than by choosing the Pullman Building's designer.
[Fine Arts Building, Historic Michigan Boulevard District, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Business boomed for the Studebakers, and they were bursting at the seams in Beman's great, solid, rusticated rock-faced structure. They purchased the single family home that stood between their property and the Art Institute Building, tore the house down, and had the architect design a 5-story structure with a rough rock facade that tied in nicely with its next door neighbors. By 1897, and with no more room to expand, the company began looking for a new home. They didn't want to give-up their prime Michigan Avenue location however, and began exploring ways to reuse the building while generating income. The first scheme proposed was to turn the structure into a traveling men's hotel. Three years after the Studebaker Building was completed in 1886, the magnificent Auditorium Building had opened next door, and an exclusive hotel for the "elite" business traveler would offer a nice alternative. Then, totally shifting gears, an idea was put forward to turn the building into a fine arts complex, offering office and studio space to creative types. In order to produce even more revenue, two theaters would be wedged into the existing structure, one holding the 1,500-seat Studebaker Theatre, and the second, the smaller 500-seat Playhouse Theatre, a concert hall venue that would straddle the property line between the 1886 building and the smaller 1895-era annex.
[Nymph with Angel and Bird (1898) Oliver Dennett Grover, artist /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
In 1915 the Studebaker Theatre began presenting a new art form - the motion picture. In 1917 the space was leased to New York's Shubert brothers who hired Chicago architect Andrew Rebori to gut the interior - except for the ceiling - and redesign the auditorium in a classically signature Schubert style. The Playhouse became the World Playhouse in time for the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, and by the 1960s began showing XXX adult films. The Studebaker held on as a live theatrical performance venue until the late 1970s, and then in the early 80s the Studebaker and the Playhouse were converted into the Fine Arts Theatres which showed art-house films until closing in 2003, and remain vacant. For the past 114 years on the other hand, the upper floors of the Fine Arts Building have continued to serve the needs of musicians, composers, dancers, instrument makers, sheet music retailers, artists, architects, teachers, and students, all whisked from floor one to ten by Chicago's only original, still manually operated, elevator.