From Carriages To Radical Writers: History Highlights From The Fine Arts Building

Fine Arts Building
The Fine Arts Building at 410 S. Michigan Ave. has been a work space for artists and writers for more than 120 years. Jason Marck / WBEZ
Fine Arts Building
The Fine Arts Building at 410 S. Michigan Ave. has been a work space for artists and writers for more than 120 years. Jason Marck / WBEZ

From Carriages To Radical Writers: History Highlights From The Fine Arts Building

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From architect Frank Lloyd Wright to sculptor Lorado Taft, the Fine Arts Building has provided a community for artists, writers and cultural critics since 1898.

The elaborate, 10-story building at 410 S. Michigan Ave. was built in 1885 as a factory and showroom for Studebaker carriages. But less than a decade later, and it was out with the wagons and in with the arts.

Here’s a look at the building’s humble beginnings, the famous artists who’ve walked the halls and its role in an intriguing discussion about society’s tolerance of same-sex relationships, decades before the first Pride Month.

Built to sell carriages

The building was originally a factory and showroom for Studebaker, a carriage company that famously made cars. It was designed by Solon Spencer Beman, the architect best known for designing railroad magnate George Pullman’s company town on what’s now the Far South Side.

The eight-story building had four floors of showrooms and four floors of manufacturing space. That division is still noticeable today. The former showrooms have large picture windows between pillars that were good for displaying merchandise while the former manufacturing floors have much smaller windows.

Fine Arts Building
Large windows on the lower floors of the Fine Arts Building were once used to display carriages. Today, it’s home to the Windy City Dance studio. Jason Marck / WBEZ
Fine Arts Building
The upper floors of the Fine Arts Building were once home to a carriage factory. The windows are smaller and more narrow than the display windows on the lower floors. Jason Marck / WBEZ

When the company moved to Wabash Avenue in the 1890s, the Studebaker family decided to convert the space from a factory into the Fine Arts Building. They added two floors to the top, built two theaters on the ground level, and turned the upper floors into studios and galleries for artists. The renovation was complete by 1898.

The radical publication on the 9th floor

Margaret Anderson
A portrait of Margaret Anderson in 1951. Anderson was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame in 2014. Dick DeMarsico / Library of Congress
In 1914, Margaret Anderson began publishing The Little Review from room 917. The periodical would go on to publish now-famous authors and poets such as Carl Sandburg, Djuna Barnes, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. The Little Review was also the first to publish James Joyce’s controversial novel Ulysses.

But Anderson (along with her business and romantic partner Jean Heap) also published articles advocating for anarchism, women’s advancement and tolerance.

In 1915, Anderson criticized a speech given by British writer and lecturer Edith Lees Ellis at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall on Feb. 4, 1915. That speech has been cited as the first lecture defending homosexuality.

In her speech, Ellis liked natural creativity to homosexuality, and put forth the idea that clamping down on homosexuality would rob the world of artistic genius.

But Anderson said Ellis had a moral obligation to go further, that tolerating homosexuality only in artistic geniuses wasn’t enough.

“Love is just as punishable as murder or robbery,” Anderson wrote. “Mrs. Ellis knows of men and women tortured or crucified every day for their love — because it is not expressed according to conventional morality.”

In 1917, Anderson and Heap moved the Little Review out of the Fine Arts Building, though the magazine remained in print until 1922.

A working space for the arts

Other luminaries who worked out of the Fine Arts Building include architect Frank Lloyd Wright, sculptor Lorado Taft and Wizard of Oz illustrator W. W. Denslow.

The Fine Arts Building has also held the offices of influential publications like Poetry magazine and political review and literary magazine The Dial, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago. The Illinois Equal Suffrage Association — which led the way for Illinois to be the first state east of the Mississippi to grant women the right to vote — also had offices in the building.

Today, the building remains an artists’ community, occupied by everyone from piano teachers to yoga therapists to paperweight makers.

Dennis Rodkin is a real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Morning Shift’s “What’s That Building?” contributor.