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Life Intimidates Art

Are the Tree Studios private property or public treasure? A new landmarking dealdine closes in.

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By Ben Joravsky

It's been a busy time for the City Council since that day last March when they gave themselves a year to decide whether 30 historically valuable buildings should be preserved forever or left to the market.

In the last few months they've made landmarks of 24 of those buildings, but as their one-year deadline approaches preservationists are sounding the alarm for the remaining six.

For the moment most attention's focused on the Tree Studio Building, a near-north-side artists residence that encapsulates the preservation dilemma. Its pricelessness to preservationists is matched against its multimillion-dollar location. For every art lover or architect anxious to save it there's a developer eager to tear it down and make some big money.

Constructed in 1894 by Judge Lambert Tree and his wife Anna, the daughter of Marshall Field, it runs along the east side of State Street between Ohio and Ontario, just behind the Medinah Temple. The 50 studio apartments along a quiet courtyard were designed with stained glass windows, elaborate light fixtures, intricate carvings, and lovely bay windows. "If its walls could talk the secrets they would share," says Barton Faist, a painter and art dealer who lives there. "This is a home that nurtures arts. Everything about it is ideal for art--the high ceilings, the big bay windows, the light. When the sunlight streams in it's just precious."

In a city more respectful of its past the Tree Studio probably would have been landmarked years ago and opened for occasional tours. The guides might point to the rooms that housed J. Allen St. John, who illustrated Tarzan books, Robert Florsheim, who spurned the family shoe business to become an artist, and Marya Lilien, an eccentric Polish-born architect who studied under Frank Lloyd Wright and was the subject of an Antoni Michalak portrait, Lady of the Blue Gloves.

"In the old days they were restrictive about tenancy so only artists were accepted," says Faist, who moved to the studio in 1981 after graduating from the School of the Art Institute. "When I came to apply to live here, I brought my portfolio with me to prove to the real estate manager I was a serious artist. He laughed and said, 'No, things have changed, you don't really need to do all that.' But I wanted him to see my work. I wanted him to know that I belonged here."

Despite the Tree Studio's storied history, its future has long been insecure. In 1956 it was purchased for $750,000 by the Shriners, who own the Medinah Temple. According to newspaper stories at the time, Shriner officials said they bought the Tree Studio "primarily as an investment, and secondly to protect our present beautiful building from any kind of neighboring construction."

But within a few years there were conflicts between the Shriners and their tenants. At one point in the 60s several tenants chained themselves to a tree to prevent the Shriners from expanding the temple into the courtyard. And in 1982 the Shriners proposed to clear the building for a parking lot. That suggestion generated calls for preservation. The Commission on Chicago Landmarks held a hearing and then recommended that the City Council make the building a Chicago landmark. But the council took no action, largely because Burt Natarus, the local alderman, didn't want them to.

"I didn't move on the building for landmark designation because the Shriners were against it," says Natarus. "You see, owner's consent is very important to me. I think we should think long about having the government tell a property owner what he can and can't do with his property. In the case of the Tree Studio, it was just sitting in limbo after the commission recommendation. As long as there were no specific proposals to sell it or tear it down, there was no controversy."

But in a related case last year involving a north-side school, a circuit judge ruled that it was illegal to deny a demolition permit to a building's owner--even a historically valuable one--if the council had not made it a landmark. "The judge said denying such a permit amounts to an unconstitutional taking by city government," says Natarus. "A building is either a landmark or it's not--to keep it in limbo just clouds the picture."

So in March the council passed a new landmark law that managed to infuriate preservationists. For instance, it gives the City Council only one year to act on any Landmarks Commission recommendation. If the council denies landmark status or if after one year it hasn't acted on the commission's recommendation, the building can never be landmarked. Natarus says this provision was necessary to protect property owners from having to face repeated landmark proceedings.

But preservationists say the new law makes it impossible for the City Council to reconsider its actions. "What scares us is that there is no second bite--once the council fails to act, a building cannot be landmarked," says Lisa DiChiera, director of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois. "In effect, the council has a pocket veto. And that's wrong. The aldermen should be forced to act and be accountable on these things."

The new landmark law ignited a year of intense lobbying. The preservationists were helped by several articles in the Sun-Times, the Tribune, and even national publications ribbing the city for spurning the past. Embarrassed by speculation that the city might allow dozens of historically valuable buildings to be destroyed, Mayor Daley vowed to have the council landmark all 30 buildings on the commission's list.

But with just a few months left to landmark the six remaining buildings, the preservation effort seems to be running low on steam, particularly with regard to the Tree Studio Building. For one thing, few aldermen want to alienate the Shriners, a popular and well-connected organization. For another, the Tree Studio sits on hot property, coveted by many powerful and prominent developers. "To push this through means taking on the Shriners and downtown developers," says Jim Romano, an artist, antique dealer, and Tree Studio tenant. "That's tough. That's very tough."

Romano and the other tenants argue that if the building were demolished it would be an immeasurable loss to the city. "It represents our golden age," says Marcella Lattimore, an art student and tenant. "Once you tear it down it's gone--you can never replace it."

A lawyer for the Shriners says the group has no specific plans to demolish or even sell the Tree Studio, but they don't want any future plans inhibited by landmark designation. "There are no present development plans--for the foreseeable future the Shrine will be there," says Jack Guthman, who represents the Shriners on this matter. "They object to designation because that reduces the value of the building."

A key person in the matter is Natarus, whose endorsement is crucial for designation (the council rarely opposes the local alderman on such issues). Natarus won't say how he'll vote, though his sympathies are clearly with the Shriners.

"All these landmark people lobbying for designation, they don't have responsibility to that building," says Natarus. "It's all right for them to stand on a platform and lecture us, but they don't have to pay the bills. I worry for the property owners. Don't they have rights?"

Natarus says the Shriners have been meeting with city officials to work out some sort of compromise. Neither Guthman nor Natarus will reveal what the Shriners are seeking in exchange for landmark designation, but the alderman says, "I'm confident that within the next two or three months something will happen."

Natarus adds that preservation can be expensive for the city and notes the history of the Chicago Theatre. "We landmarked the theater and the old owner went to court and proved that that designation cost him money because it broke up a real estate deal," says Natarus. "We wound up having to pay him $40 million for that building. These things aren't free. You have to ask yourself, is it worth it? And I'll tell you something--a lot of those new buildings that the preservationists don't like, you watch, down the road they'll want to landmark them too. These things grow on you, even though you might not like them now."

The council's landmarks committee plans to hold a hearing on the matter sometime in February. The preservationists say they won't go down without a fight. "People have been telling me, 'Oh, don't worry, the city's behind you, they won't let it die.' But I don't believe it," says Laurie Glenn, a publicist and Tree Studio tenant. "This is Chicago. On one side you have some developers. On the other are artists. Who do you think will win?" o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Laurie Glenn, Marcella Lattimore, Barton Faist photo by Jon Randolph.

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