At Chicago’s historic Fine Arts Building, a story at every turn

SHARE At Chicago’s historic Fine Arts Building, a story at every turn

The Fine Arts building’s chief janitor, known simply as Barbara, at the entrance to the historic building at 410 S. Michigan Ave. | Santiago Covarrubias / Sun-Times

A cotton-candy pink sun rises beyond South Michigan Avenue, melting the shadows in the hollows and grooves of one of the city’s oldest and grandest facades.

Waclaw Kalata, the morning-shift elevator operator, slides a key into a padlock and rattles loose the chain on the front doors, and the Fine Arts Building — built to display and repair Studebaker carriages and wagons — is open for business.

When it first opened in 1887, news reports called it a “magnificent palace,” comparing its Romanesque grandeur to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Today, cracks wander across the lobby’s vaulted ceiling. The brass fixtures no longer gleam. Bundled electrical wires snake around the mantel clocks on each of the building’s 10 floors.

But while some might prefer the sleek orderliness of downtown’s modern office towers, the Fine Arts Building has its own, less predictable charms. All but one of the building’s 200 or so studios are filled — with painters, cartoonists, a corset maker, architects, booksellers, violin makers, voice teachers, yoga instructors, among others.

The main first-floor hallway of the Fine Arts Building. | Santiago Covarrubias / Sun-Times

The main first-floor hallway of the Fine Arts Building. | Santiago Covarrubias / Sun-Times

Low rent — about $675 a month for a 400-square-foot studio — is part of the appeal. So are the city’s only remaining manually operated elevators. Tenants tolerate a building with no central air-conditioning — except, peculiarly, on the fourth floor. And while some retreat behind their frosted-glass doors rarely to be seen, most embrace the camaraderie of a place where it’s not uncommon for someone to say: “Oh, yes, hard to believe, I’ve been here 40 years.”

The compact woman strolling in this morning in a navy work coat and sensible black shoes hasn’t been there quite that long — only 22 years. Her title is “working supervisor.” But “Barbara,” as everyone knows the chief janitor here, is more house mother for the building, its heart and soul and best ambassador.

“This building is, in its own way, amazing,” says the 59-year-old Polish transplant who learned to speak English decades ago by watching the soap opera “One Life To Live” and, in her spare time, teaches violin to children in the west suburbs.

Other city buildings might dazzle and seduce — but they’re not the Fine Arts Building, Barbara says.

“None of them is as special as this one,” she says before issuing the first of several orders during a tour of the building: “Write that down.”

Inside the dimly lit lobby, the rumble and hiss of Michigan Avenue feels a world away. In an hour or so, the floorboards will creak with the thump of calloused dancers’ feet, violin bows will rise and fall, and somewhere the notes from a singer practicing scales will flutter down a hallway.

For now, though, the only noticeable sound comes from the elevator — the dr-r-r-ing of the bell to summon a car and a noise that resembles a seriously off-kilter washing-machine drum as the elevator shudders to a halt on each floor.

Kalata, the man who unlocked the front doors, doesn’t say much as the elevator rises.

“How old is this elevator?” a passenger asks.

“Old,” he mumbles.

The building has three elevators, which are in constant need of maintenance, and five elevator operators.

A previous elevator operator enjoyed belting out arias when he rode the car alone.

“It’s a nice resonant chamber,” says Lee Newcomer, who sells sheet music, books and other supplies on the ninth floor. “It’s like singing in the bathroom.”

The elevator stops on the fifth floor — actually, about two inches above it.

“Uh-oh,” Kalata says with a wink, then makes the necessary adjustment and pulls open the gate.

Master luthier Gary Garavaglia explains how to build a violin while he works in one of the instrument stores at the Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Ave. | Santiago Covarrubias / Sun-Times

Master luthier Gary Garavaglia explains how to build a violin while he works in one of the instrument stores at the Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Ave. | Santiago Covarrubias / Sun-Times

At William Harris Lee & Co., glossy violins in varying states of repair hang from hooks all in a line, like roasted ducks in the front window of a Chinese takeout joint. At a wooden workbench, gouged and chipped from years of use, master luthier Gary Garavaglia runs his fingers over a hand-carved maple scroll that he will soon attach to a cello. It takes Garavaglia about a month to make a single cello, which will sell for $25,000 to $30,000. He works in the building seven days a week.

Some say there are people who never leave the building. In the basement, amid a collage of fading snapshots of past and present tenants and employees, there’s one of a tiny woman with flyaway hair. Her name was Margie, and she was a secretary in the building for 40 years. She rarely spoke to anyone. If she had family, no one knew it. She worked in the building until she was 80.

After Margie retired, Barbara gave her a key to an unoccupied studio on the 10th floor.

“If you’re ever downtown, come here for a rest,” she told her.

“Everyone said, ‘If she stops working, she’s going to die,’ ” Barbara says. “She died a month later.”

At the funeral, Barbara dropped a shovel of dirt on Margie’s coffin. There was no else to do it.

About two months later, Barbara was delivering rent statements to tenants — something Margie used to do — when she ran into one who hadn’t heard of Margie’s death. The color drained from his face on hearing the news.

“That’s interesting because I saw Margie 10 days ago on the steps,” the man told her, recalling the woman’s familiar brown sweater and the oddly large men’s shoes she favored. “I’m 100 percent sure.”

The possibility of a ghost in the building didn’t surprise Barbara, though she says she hasn’t seen Margie herself. Still, she says, “Sometimes, not often, I can just feel her standing beside me.”

On the fourth floor, Barbara encounters another tenant, Jacqueline White, who’s pregnant.

“We’re waiting for the baby girl,” Barbara coos.

“I get lots of really valuable advice about what to do when the baby girl arrives,” says White, who calls Barbara the building’s “heart and soul.”

Thanks to Barbara, many of the tenants know such things as the benefits of a square of dark chocolate and half a cup of tea before bed (“it will relax your heart muscles”) and why radishes are good for you (“if you eat two a day, you will completely regulate your stomach digestion”).

The elevator judders up to the 10th floor, the summit of the building, where Frank Lloyd Wright once had a studio. A series of classically themed murals decorate the walls — the painted light in some is all but extinguished, buried beneath decades of grime.

Barbara comes to the 10th floor when she wants a little quiet — to Curtiss Hall, a banquet space where the windows look out on Michigan Avenue, Buckingham Fountain and, beyond, Lake Michigan.

“Once a month, we have a full moon, and I love to watch the moon take a bath in the lake when the water is gold and sparkly,” she says.

The Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Ave. | Santiago Covarrubias / Sun-Times

The Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Ave. | Santiago Covarrubias / Sun-Times

Her thoughts drift to her first day in the building — 22 years ago. She remembers it being over 100 degrees outside and, inside, almost as hot.

“I felt like I was going to die in here,” she says.

She thought, briefly, of quitting. And then, she says, the building spoke to her.

“I heard music from the right, from the left and behind me,” she says. “The building was inviting me. The building wanted me to be here.”

The Fine Arts Building will be open for free public tours from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday as part of this weekend’s Chicago Architecture Foundation Open House Chicago, offering behind-the-scenes views of more than 200 buildings in the city and suburbs. For details, go to

The Latest
What does it say about the state of the nation when a president, with decades of experience in politics, feels compelled to make speech after speech reminding us that we all have a stake in protecting the American experiment?
As bad as the Broncos are, they have two things the Bears don’t: One of the shrewdest coaches in the game in Sean Payton and a nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback in Russell Wilson.
The Red Line extension will provide Chicago’s South Side with the high-frequency, accessible and affordable rapid transit service people deserve.
Senior Nasir McKenzie had his second straight 200-yard game on Friday as the No. 11 Huskies beat No. 19 Prospect 28-3.