Frank Lloyd Wright and the Fine Arts Building

Posted by George Pudlo on December 17, 2011 at 6:55 PM

The Fine Arts Building is one of the oldest standing high rises in Chicago, built in 1885 by Solon S Beman. The building was originally designed as the Studebaker Building, where the young Studebaker company, later known for their cars, opened an office in Chicago for the purpose of showcasing and manufacturing their carriages. The windows of the first several floors of the building are quite large for the time period, as their function was to display the carriages. By 1898, the Studebakers has outgrown the building, but instead of selling the building, they were persuaded to convert it into the first artist colony of its kind in Chicago: The Fine Arts Building. To this day, the Fine Arts Building is still dedicated to the arts.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s first foray in the Fine Arts Building was a commission that came from Francis Fisher Browne for a bookstore that became known as Browne’s Bookstore. Wright and Browne would have met through their mutual membership of the Caxton Club of Chicago. According to the Caxton Club’s website, this progressive literary club maintained private clubrooms in the Fine Arts Building from 1899-1918. They formed to publish books in the spirit of the Arts and Crafts Movement, of which Wright was tightly associated. Browne’s Bookstore opened in 1907, and was fully designed by Wright with furnishings and bookshelves. Unfortunately, the store only remained open for five years before it was dismembered. Some of the Frank Lloyd Wright designed chairs found their way to the Unity Temple and can be seen today. Browne’s Bookstore was located in studio 706, currently occupied by architects Vincent Lynn & Lee. The Caxton Club of Chicago remains alive to this day, based out of the Newberry Library.

Frank Lloyd Wright further entwined himself with the Fine Arts Building by opening up an office in the building. Wright occupied Studio 1020 of the Fine Arts Building for his architectural practice in 1908 and 1910-1911. Though he had his own in-home studio, the Frank Lloyd Wright Studio in Oak Park, Wright likely took up this space in the Fine Arts Building because of escalating marital tensions with his wife Kitty. It would be in late 1909 that Wright abandoned his wife and six children and moved to Europe for a year with his mistress Mamah Cheney to publish the Wasmuth Portfolio. Wright reoccupied Studio 1020 of the Fine Arts Building after his European retreat was over in 1910, likely as a transitional space before fully moving his practice to Taliesin in 1911. During this second phase of practice at the Fine Arts Building, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park Studio would have been under construction as he was converting it into living quarters for his family. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park Home was then under conversion into two rentable apartments to subsidize the living costs of his family that he was leaving behind for Mamah.

In 1909, Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned to design the W. Scott Thurber Art Gallery, sometimes shortened to the Thurber Art Gallery. This must have been one of his final projects before moving to Europe in October of 1909. The gallery was located on the fifth floor of the Fine Arts Building Annex, attached to the north side of the Fine Arts Building in 1891. Though the Fine Arts Building is ten stories, the annex is only five. Thus, Wright took the opportunity to build art glass skylights into the roof of the Thurber Art Gallery. Nothing remains of the Thurber Art Gallery today, as it moved out of the Fine Arts Building in 1917. Today, the fifth floor of the Fine Arts Building Annex is occupied by William Harris Lee & Co., makers of hand crafted violins, violas, and cellos.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s final commission in the Fine Arts Building was for the Mori Oriental Art Studio, located in Studio 801. This was the largest of Wright’s projects in the Fine Arts Building, and he most likely took great joy in its design being that he was a collector of fine Japanese woodblock prints. Unfortunately, no photographs of the Mori Oriental Art Studio survive. The former Mori Oriental Art Studio is now occupied by the violin-centric Elizabeth Stein Company.

In the hallway of the second floor of the Fine Arts Building, a beautiful art glass window hangs. It is the only tangible remnant of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work in Chicago’s first artist colony. This was salvaged from the space he occupied in Studio 1020, and was likely a skylight.

Categories: Frank Lloyd Wright Chicago (IL), Remodeling/Renovation

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