No one’s lying down in front of a bulldozer yet, but Friends of the Three Arts Club, an informal group of neighbors, former residents, and supporters of the 94-year-old institution at Dearborn and Goethe, are making a last-ditch effort to halt what they see as an imminent disaster. They say plans the city has approved to “restore” the club by converting its upper floors to apartments and installing a public arts center on the lower levels will destroy both its architectural integrity and its unique mission as a communal residence for women in the arts. They’re blaming mismanagement, a wayward board, and Chicago’s aldermanic stranglehold on zoning for turning an estimated $3 million landmark restoration into a $24 million mistake. Musician and dancer Maria Cernota, a former resident and onetime board member, says the club fought off a similar assault by would-be developers 25 years ago. This time, she says, “they’ve hijacked our organization.”

The Three Arts Club was founded in 1912 by Jane Addams and 31 women from the city’s moneyed elite–a roster that included names like Armour, Dick, Hutchinson, McCormick, and Ryerson. Its purpose was to provide a home and club for women studying the arts, modeled on similar clubs in other American cities and Europe. Its Byzantine building, designed by Holabird and Roche, opened in 1915, with three floors of dormitory rooms for about 100 women and an elegantly flowing main floor that included a library, tearoom, open courtyard, and dining room where residents took breakfast and dinner together daily. Over the years more than 11,000 artists–many of them studying at local universities or serving internships at cultural institutions–have made it their home away from home, benefiting from the opportunity to mix with women from other artistic fields.

The residential program ended in 2003, shut down by a board that said the building was underoccupied, deteriorating, and operating at a loss (the club charged $715 a month or less for a room and two meals daily). But the Friends group has records that show the club was nearly fully occupied and operating in the black until 2001, when it was hit with an IRS bill for more than $200,000 for income from wedding rentals. In a letter to the Commission on Chicago Landmarks last year, neighbor Anton Kerner (son of former governor Otto Kerner) pointed out that in that same year management salaries and expenses went up by $126,000, while donations and grants fell by more than $100,000. “The Club’s economic formula has been tried, tested and proven for nearly a century,” Kerner wrote, adding that the club’s board had “attempted suicide” by “kicking out the very same residents it was chartered to serve and thereby forfeiting its largest single revenue contributor.” The club had no significant debt and owned its building, estimated to be worth at least $10 million.

Current plans by Holabird and Root (as the firm is now known) call for putting a glass roof over the building’s most distinctive feature, the open central courtyard, turning the first floor tearoom into a new lobby with an entrance on Goethe Street, and gutting the second, third, and fourth floors to make 36 studio and one-bedroom apartments, 31 of which will be classified as “affordable” housing for artists. The Goethe entrance will be used by the public while the original entrance, on Dearborn, will be exclusively for the apartment dwellers–who will, in effect, be living in a separate space. The total cost of the project is pegged at $24 million. Rents on the “affordable” apartments will be determined by a government low-cost housing formula, and the residences will be owned by a partnership consisting of Three Arts, Holsten Real Estate Development Corporation (which will manage them), and a yet-to-be-named investor who will purchase federal tax credits to cover about $10 million of the construction costs. (Development director Mark Becker says when the 15-year tax credit period is over, the partnership dissolves and Three Arts is left as the sole owner of the housing.) The plan is to raise about $7 million in donations and get government financing for the remaining $7 million.

The plans also call for excavating under the courtyard to create a 100-seat basement theater that will be occupied by Timeline Theatre Company, one of two “anchor partners” invited to share the facility in what’s being touted as a return to the club’s “mission to support the study of music, theater, and visual arts.” The other partner is the Sherwood Conservatory of Music, which will open a Three Arts outpost offering individual and group music lessons.

The Friends of the Three Arts have been crying foul for a couple years now. Their latest effort is a nine-page letter former resident and attorney Sue Basko wrote to Planning and Development commissioner Lori Healey earlier this month, asking her to rescind a zoning change and any building permits given for the project. Basko’s complaints range from a board that had been “stacked” with city officials to a series of irregularities at the Landmarks Commission and the zoning committee. She says Three Arts was given a zoning change without a traffic study, parking provisions, proper notice to neighbors, a public meeting, or plan approval. In addition, she says, the project’s developer, Peter Holsten, made a donation to 42nd Ward alderman Burt Natarus’s campaign fund while the matter was pending, and Natarus subsequently promoted and voted in favor of the plan. The result, Basko writes, is “an example of illegal, unconstitutional spot zoning” that “should be considered void.”

Natarus says “everything was done properly,” that Three Arts will go back to its previous zoning when the construction is complete, and that the project is necessary to keep the building from becoming derelict. Holsten says he donates to “probably a dozen aldermen, but there’s no quid pro quo.”

UIC professor emeritus Martin Tangora, a founder of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, described the proposed alterations in a letter to the Landmarks Commission as “destructive and unacceptable.” According to Kerner, in 1982 Holabird and Root estimated that the building could be rehabbed, with major mechanical systems updated, for less than $1 million; today that estimate would be closer to $3 million. Friends of the Three Arts say that would allow the club to continue to be a nexus for thousands of creative women from all over the world, many of them here for just a few weeks or months–a mission that’s become truly unique now that its sister clubs are gone. For $20 million more the new Three Arts will offer apartment living for 30 Chicago artists, another black-box theater, and music classes for the Gold Coast.

Construction is slated to begin this summer.

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