Hollow Tree Promises | Feature | Chicago Reader

Hollow Tree Promises 

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In September 2000, during a hearing at which the city's Community Development Commission would approve the Medinah Temple-Tree Studios redevelopment project, James Stola, a board member with the Chicago Artists' Coalition, took the microphone and said, "There's a lot of artists that just feel that this is the last blow to the ability to find space where they can work and live. They cannot afford separate spaces to live and work....And eliminating that working and living space is really sending a message to artists to get out of town."

Almost all of the Tree Studios artists are now gone, and renovation work, scheduled to be completed by the end of next year, has already started on the 107-year-old building. "This has been hard on everybody," says Barton Faist, who has lived in the building for two decades and has done more than anyone to keep the spotlight on Tree Studios and its former inhabitants--a list that includes muralist John Warner Norton, sculptors John Storrs and Albin Polasek, illustrator J. Allen St. John, and actors Charles Laughton and Peter Falk. Faist has given slide lectures, led tours, badgered reporters and City Hall, and organized exhibits, such as the Chicago Cultural Center's "Capturing Sunlight: The Art of Tree Studios." "If they can do what they're doing to this building with all of its designations," he says, "then everything in this city is in trouble."

The original Tree Studios Building, which had 34 studios on the 600 block of North State, was built in 1894 by philanthropist Judge Lambert Tree and his wife, Anna Magie Tree, to entice out-of-town artists working at the World's Columbian Exposition to stay in Chicago. The Ohio and Ontario street annexes, whose eight studios enclosed a landscaped courtyard, were added in 1912 and '13, and the Medinah Temple--designed to accommodate conventions, circuses, and concerts--was built by the Shriners in 1913 on the former site of the Trees' house. Seven sculptors' studios were added to the courtyard side of the State Street wing in 1917.

The Tree Studios complex was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency's register of historic places in 1987. Preservationists wanted the whole complex protected, but in 1997 the City Council voted to designate as a landmark only the buildings' State Street facade. Two years later the World Monuments Fund, a New York-based preservation organization, added the complex and the Medinah Temple to its list of the 100 most endangered sites in the world.

The Shriners put all the properties up for sale several years ago, and in 1999 developer Steven Fifield proposed tearing the temple down to build a parking garage and a 49-story condo tower. Faist and other Tree Studios supporters organized a letter-writing campaign. Mayor Daley nixed Fifield's plan, then negotiated a new deal with a group of investors headed by developer Albert Friedman, Historic Preservation Associates, that would save the Medinah and Tree Studios exteriors. HPA paid $21 million for the properties this past April and will receive $12.5 million from the city through a Tax Increment Financing incentive and another $2 million from the state. The rest of the renovation cost will be shared by HPA and Federated Department Stores, which will gut Medinah to make way for a Bloomingdale's home-furnishings store, the company's first such outlet. As part of an agreement reached by the developers, the Department of Planning, and the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, the Medinah-Tree complex has been designated a city landmark, which means that at least the buildings' shells can never be obliterated.

City officials insist they worked out the best, most economically viable compromise they could, but Faist, who's refusing to move out of the building, and others are disturbed by the plans for the interiors of the buildings. According to those plans, only the "entry vestibules, stair halls/landings, and second-floor corridor" of the original State Street building will be protected as "significant historical and architectural features," along with "certain interior features of the Tree Studios annexes, to be mutually determined" by the developer and city and state agencies. In a deal worked out by Tree Studios artists, the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, the IHPA is supposed to hold public hearings to determine which interior features have historic value; the first has yet to be scheduled.

Faist thinks the Tree Studios interiors should be left intact so that people can see the environment in which the buildings' artists lived and worked for over a century. "When they give cultural tours of the building," he says, "are they going to point to a cosmetics boutique and say that's where John Storrs's studio used to be?"

But the redevelopment plan guts all seven sculpture studios to accommodate shops, and it reportedly removes all of the kitchens and bathrooms from the studios in the State Street wing. The city and the developer say that the State Street studios were never designed to be living spaces and that the developer is just going back to the original plans, re-creating a retail and work-space building. At the September 2000 Community Development Commission meeting, the Chicago Historical Society's curator of architecture and design, Tim Samuelson, testified that he'd pored over old drawings and fire-insurance atlases and found "that the original intent for the original 1894 part of the building was to be a work-only situation...studios and commercial." Each room had only a sink, and there were common bathroom facilities. Samuelson did acknowledge that by 1900 "approximately two-thirds of the tenants of the building [were] occupying it as their designated home."

Faist, who's considering hiring a lawyer to make sure the developer follows IHPA guidelines during the rehab, points out that the 1900 census lists 35 artists as living in the building's 34 spaces. "So they're gonna take our bathrooms and kitchens out of here and go back to the so-called original way," he says, "but in the 1890s, how many apartments even had bathrooms?" And if the original design is so important, he says, why is the developer excavating a basement under the courtyard to provide more retail space and gutting the ground-floor shops?

The redevelopment plan says that the rehabbed spaces on the second and third floors will be "leased solely for Artist work space, or classroom studios or Arts-Related Businesses"; the businesses can include advertising agencies, auction houses, camera-repair shops, framing services, and Web designers, and "arts, preservation or cultural organizations" will also be allowed. According to the city's deal, at least a quarter of the rehabbed spaces must be rented at below-market rates, though only for ten years. All eight annex units may remain live-work spaces, but this too has been left open.

"I don't believe they're gonna let one artist in here, because they don't really need to under the plan," says Faist. "But they go to the newspapers and say that artists will be able to come back again. The plan says [the annex units] could be for retail use and/or living and working spaces. They'll get more money for commercial." And he doubts that many artists will be able to afford any of the building's renovated units anyway.

The redevelopment plan says that the below-market-rate units must be offered first to artists who were forced out of the building. It also says that the city's Cultural Affairs Department, an artist chosen by the department, and the developer will determine which artists will be allowed into these units when the project's finished. But the plan also says that if this committee can't find "qualified" artists, the owners can lease the units to arts-related businesses.

All this makes Faist skeptical about the Cultural Affairs Department's current campaign to create and protect artists' spaces around the city. "It's all a charade," he says. "The city is looking everywhere to figure out where they can convert buildings into artists' studios, and they're acting like they're helping us. But why would we want to move to a makeshift artists' colony when we have the real thing? We have the most famous and oldest one--the richest in history--right here."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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