“Art is Long,” the curlicued letters carved in stone said on one side of the second story window bay. “Time is Fleeting.”
Over the other window, it completed what I found out later was a Longfellow poem: “So be Up and Doing, Still Achieving, Still Pursuing.”
It was a bank in a high-shopping slip of State Street, one midway between my two jobs. Paper cup of low-rent coffee in my hand and urbanites bustling around, I paused to look back and forth between the signs.
Art. Money. Art. Money. Time is fleeting. Metropolitan Capital Bank.
The light turned and I trudged on.
That was my first experience with Tree Studios.
Tree Studios was built in 1894 by a circuit court judge named Lambert Tree. Tree wanted to help establish a permanent artistic community in Chicago by retaining the artists who flocked to the previous year’s Columbian Exhibition.
So he built a colony in what was even then a ritzy area of town. It offered low rents in a high-rent area, but under one condition: Only artists could live there.
Over the decades, art spilled through the hallways. People painted, sculpted, lived. The illustrator of the Tarzan books lived there. A woman named Macena Alberta Barton ran half-nude in the halls, resulting in rules being posted. It was a place for doing, still achieving, still pursuing.
Tree died in 1910. His widow expanded the building in 1912 and 1913.
Tree had stipulated his artists-only policy in a trust he established, because players gotta play and lawyers gotta lawy. The policy lasted until 1957, when the Tree family sold the building to the Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine.
Shriners. Little cars and fezzes. They ran the Medinah Temple next door, the one that’s now a Bloomingdale’s.
In 1999, the Shriners were offered $21 million for the whole block — temple, studios, the kit and the caboodle. A developer wanted to raze the area and build condos and parking spots.
Albert Friedman, a different developer, wanted to save the buildings. Landmark status was designated. City funding was procured. Tree Studios lives on, just as the home of Metropolitan Capital Bank and a hidden courtyard you can book for wedding photos.
And now I don’t know how to write this.
Is it a story of art turned commerce, about how the wild and free once ran halls that now house a bank “delivering creative, customized and highly integrated solutions for High Net Worth Individuals, Family Offices and the small to medium sized businesses (SMBs) that they own and operate”?
Is it a story of the futility of the rich buying art, of the laughable integrity of long-dead artists who took a ritzy living pad in order to be millionaires’ charity?
Is it a story of tax increment financing, how $17.5 million from funds taken to revitalize blighted areas was splurged on an old building in a bustling shopping district because Daley and the city council of the time thought it was pretty?
I don’t know.
Chicago is complicated because the world is complicated. I’m glad this beautiful spot exists on a bustle between jobs, but I can’t condone using TIF money meant for blighted areas on shopping district passion projects. That’s tax money meant for schools and parks and city services, culled on the excuse that growth won’t come “but for” this use.
And they spent it on a pretty bank and a Bloomie’s.
Art is long. And time is fleeting. Tree’s legacy lives on, just maybe not in the way he intended.