Kicked Out of Heaven

I want to live in the Three Arts Club. I’d have a room of my own in the landmark Gold Coast building, two meals a day without ever having to cook, and the company of 90 inspiring sisters of all ages–dancers, singers, musicians, actors, painters, sculptors, and photographers, come from all over the world to work and study at Chicago institutions like the Joffrey, the Lyric Opera, and the School of the Art Institute. I’d noodle at the two Steinway grands (and have my own piano in my room, if I liked), paint in a light-drenched fourth-floor studio, linger over breakfast in the elegant courtyard. I’d have privacy and community, stimulation and security, the city and a tearoom, all for $715 or less a month. Sounds like a dream, but it’s been reality for 11,000 women since the club opened in 1912. Now the board of directors has decided it is in fact too good to be true. In May, a week after the second most successful fund-raiser in the club’s history, the board abruptly announced that the living quarters would be closing at least until the building can be renovated: occupants would have to be out by July 31. It blames financial hardship and unsafe living conditions, though the building hasn’t been cited with any code violations. The board talks of reopening with fewer residents as part of a broader organization. But irate residents refuse to go quietly. They don’t want to see the end of the Three Arts Club’s primary function as a home. “After 91 years,” says filmmaker and six-year resident Colby Luckenbill, “they’re shifting away from the real mission.”

On Sunday night, June 22, a half-dozen residents gathered around a table in a makeshift lounge on the building’s scruffy third floor to strategize. They’ve been handing out flyers, writing letters, holding public meetings, and circulating a petition in a hurried effort to keep the residence open. They’ve formed an association, Friends of the Three Arts Club, and set up an E-mail address: They knew the club was having problems–it’s had four directors in the last three years–but say a secretive atmosphere kept them in the dark and the decision to close took them by surprise. Residents aren’t represented on the board, they’ve been told not to contact board members directly, and they claim their offers to help–with everything from maintenance to fund-raising–have been discouraged. The air in the bloodred room was thick with speculation: Mismanagement? Trouble with the IRS? (Financial statements show a sharp rise in the club’s legal and accounting expenses last year.) Secret meetings with developers? Plans to convert the valuable property to some other use? Audrey Hammerich, one of two academics at the table, was quick to object to such guessing, but agreed that something is seriously wrong: “I’ve been here nine years, and we’ve never had such a turmoil.”

Three Arts was established in a brownstone on LaSalle by a group of women that included Jane Addams to “provide and manage a home and a club in the city of Chicago for young women engaged in the study of music, painting and the drama,” according to the original articles of incorporation. Its current home, at 1300 N. Dearborn, was commissioned and paid for by industrialist David B. Jones at the urging of his daughter Gwethalyn, who’d seen similar clubs in cities like London, Paris, and New York. (It’s the only one left of seven Three Arts Clubs in the United States and Europe.) Designed by Holabird and Roche, the sculpture-dotted Byzantine brick and terra-cotta structure was completed in 1914 and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. It contains spacious public rooms on the main floor and 92 single and double rooms and studios on the three floors above–some now used for offices, most in need of renovation. Except for the first floor, which is rented for weddings and meetings, nearly all maintenance has been deferred for longer than anyone can remember. (Overdue maintenance and a depleted endowment were factors 23 years ago, when a previous board tried to close the club and sell the building but was stopped by residents.) Electrical and plumbing systems are antiquated, there are problems with asbestos, and there’s no air-conditioning. The board says it will take 8 to 10 million dollars to get it in shape, but residents think the basics could be done for half that and wonder why the club can’t take out a mortgage on the debt-free building and do the repairs in stages, without kicking everyone out.

The larger question is whether subsidized housing for women, not necessarily students, in what is loosely defined as the arts should still be the mission. Residents contributed about 56 percent of revenues in the last two years, and the administration says they are paying only about half what it costs to keep them there. Michelle Boone, director of the city’s Gallery 37, who joined the Three Arts board in 2001, recently told Channel 11 that “residency was a key issue for women artists in the early 1900s. It’s not so relevant today.” Residents say the board and administration (now headed by Esther Grimm, formerly of the Marwen Foundation) started to “remarket” the club last year, posting a new mission statement within the last six months that talks about “supporting” women artists rather than housing them. But Three Arts was meant to be a residence for women in the arts, says Luckenbill. “This building was built brick by brick and entrusted to the board for that purpose. It’s not a cultural center, not a multifaceted organization. It’s kept its doors open because of people who believe in its mission. There’s some concern that there may be members of the board who have another agenda. They think it’s obsolete. They’re trying to prove that a place like this isn’t viable today. But the desire to live in an artists’ community has not changed.” Luckenbill reads from a statement by Northwestern University art lecturer Pamela Bannos, who in an installation in honor of the club’s 90th anniversary mounted the name of every woman on record who ever lived there: “These were all young talented women looking with hope and excitement toward their futures. They were eager for the opportunity to live amongst other like-minded women in this safe haven in Chicago’s urban environment. The residents are the history of the Three Arts Club, not the architecture. The residents are the life of the structure.”

Next Stop: Big Bucks for Artists

The CTA has $1 million to spend on art for eight new stations along the Blue Line and has hired the Chicago Office of Public Art (for 20 percent of the bounty) to figure out who gets it. Artists have until August 1 to apply; eight panels of judges, one for each station, will each include two community members picked by their alderman. In the first round, up to five artists will be chosen (and given $500 honoraria) to submit designs. Final winners will be announced in April, with the art to be completed and installed by the end of 2004. “We’ll be looking for two-dimensional art,” says Office of Public Art director Michael Lash. It’ll end up as graffiti-resistant mosaic or glaze on porcelain. He said themes discussed so far include the community, transit, and a sense of place. “We want each station to have a different flavor. We don’t want it to be like the Orange Line, where it all looks the same and when you get off you don’t know where you are.” Hear more at a meeting at 5:30 Monday, June 30, in the fifth-floor southwest conference room of the Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, or call 312-742-5596 to get an application by mail.

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