Not long ago, I wrote a paper on Chicago Art and Literature for a course I was taking at DePaul University. That’s a very broad topic, so I narrowed it to the shared artistic vision of sculptor Lorado Taft and writer Henry Blake Fuller.
Taft, I'm sure you recall, was the artist responsible for the Fountain of the Great Lakes located at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Fuller was author of The Cliff-Dwellers, among other books and articles.
I am a big believer in “hands-on learning,” and often try to visit locations pertinent to my research. So, I decided to pay a visit to The Fine Arts Building in Chicago, home of The Little Room, the famous literary and arts club that thrived at the turn of the twentieth century. The building sits rather unobtrusively at 410 S. Michigan Ave. in Chicago, a shabby architectural grande dame that shelters the ghosts of many of the cities’ artistic, literary and social giants.
As I began work, I discovered that Taft, Fuller, Hamlin Garland, Harriet Monroe and others had all frequented the building and it still existed almost completely intact since its transformation in 1898 from the old Studebacker Carriage building to the Fine Arts Building as it is today. Only the occupants have changed. Entering this gem would be a walk back in time. I could walk the oak floors that they walked. I would see the rooms as they did. There was supposed to be a theater on the first floor and murals on the tenth. My romantic literary heart was all a flutter! I had “great expectations.” But, to my chagrin, what I found when I visited the building was the architectural equivalent of Miss Havisham’s wedding dress.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, The Fine Arts Building was the center of activity for Chicago’s literati. The building has a motto – “All Passes-Art alone Endures.” And what was created there has endured, in memory and legacy. Walking into the building is indeed a bittersweet “looking backward” moment. The brass is tarnished, the marble is dirty, electrical wiring is exposed and often a single uncovered light bulb illuminates a passage. But one can imagine its former beauty. The first floor hosts the Little Theatre, one of the first in America. It is supposed to have only 91 seats arranged to “resemble a miniature Grecian temple,” but the glass doors are covered with curling brown paper so it isn’t possible to see very much. The Box Office door is amazingly narrow and one wonders at the physical size of the early Chicagoans.
I was eager to see more of the building’s highlights so I took the elevator to the fourth floor to see the Art Gallery and the Venetian fountain court. Frank Lloyd Wright had once designed a bookstore for the fourth floor but, unfortunately, it has been demolished. The Art Gallery shows works by many of the building’s current artistic residents. It isn’t very large, the walls have been painted and the light is better. But, the floor and moldings are original and the wonderful smell of history is in the air.
As I walked to several other floors, I heard the hesitant playing of some piano student on one floor, and a more practiced hand coaxing notes from a violin on another. The sounds were the same as they were in 1900. If you closed your eyes, you could be somewhere else in time.
I couldn’t wait. I knew the tenth floor was where the Little Room had been and that the murals were still there. I entered the somewhat scary elevator. The elevators are original and continue to be run by actual operators. So, when we reached the 10th floor I asked if he could tell me which of the rooms was the famous “Little Room.” To my surprise, the man had no idea. Luckily another gentleman was walking down the hall and the elevator operator referred me to him. Posing my question again, the man, a resident of the building, turned out to be architect David Swan. Mr. Swan wasn’t sure but said he would be happy to look it up for me. I found this surprising, to say the least. It turned out that he was working on a history of the building and a book on the Pond brothers, Irving and Allen.
Mr. Swan invited me to his end of the hall studio and it was while we were taking the few steps down the hall that I noticed the plaques next to the doors: Frank Lloyd Wright, Lorado Taft and the one next to Swan’s studio (Room 1022) was John T. McCutcheon, the famous Chicago Tribune cartoonist. (It should be noted that the 10th floor studios are highly prized for their skylights, just as they were at the turn of the nineteenth century.) McCutcheon was the artist responsible for the famous cartoon titled “Injun Summer.” I had seen his work hundreds of times and now here I was sitting in his studio. McCutcheon’s cartoons ranged in subject matter from the political to those depicting rural life, and he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Cartoons in 1931.
For over an hour Mr. Swan told me stories of 19-year-old Irving Pond who had done the initial drawings of the Pullman planned community under Solon Beman. Wishing I had had a tape recorder, I tried desperately to concentrate and make mental notes of people and topics I needed to investigate later.
The Pond brothers were also members of the Little Room, close friends of both Lorado Taft and Henry Blake Fuller, and were part of Taft’s Eagle’s Nest Association. Both were equally passionate concerning the promotion of the arts. Irving had also designed some of the buildings for Jane Addams’ Hull House complex and she too participated in the meetings in the Little Room.
Mr. Swan finally located the room that was once “The Little Room.” I had, of course, passed it when I got off the elevator. Thanking Mr. Swan profusely, I walked down the hall. And there it was; it even had its own plaque next to the door. I stood there for quite awhile thinking of the people who had entered that door and what they strove to do for the wild prairie phoenix that had made making money almost an art form unto itself. And yet, it wouldn’t be that long before H. L. Mencken would declare in 1920 that Chicago was.“the literary capital of the United States.”
I turned away, preparing to take the elevator down to the first floor. But then I saw another open door and decided to investigate. I entered a rather large room that appeared to have once been a dance studio and contained a piano. At the far end of the room were windows and as I looked out, I saw the fruit of the seeds that had been planted in that “Little Room.” Before me was Grant Park and further down Millennium Park.
Pre-dating the 1909 Plan for Chicago, came the Columbian Exposition and the City Beautiful movement. Daniel Burnham spearheaded all three. Lorado Taft also had ideas and plans for the city. Henry Blake Fuller echoed many of Taft’s ideas for public spaces, inspiring sculpture and vast green areas in the city to counter the congestion and grime of urbanization. There were many others and some disagreed on style or themes or locations. But, they did agree that public spaces and art were important for the health of a city and its citizens. What would they say if they could see what has become of Chicago’s lakefront? Would Taft hold to his inspirational classic beaux-arts style or would he applaud the fact that today in that park is a public sculpture that quite literally IS the public. I think he would be pleased. I think they all would.
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