Burnham and Root, Art Institute, Chicago, SW corner of Michigan and Van Buren, 1884. (Larson, Richardson)

In August 1885, the three-year old Art Institute of Chicago announced that it was about to commence the construction of a new building by Burnham & Root on the southwest corner of Michigan and Van Buren, immediately east of its existing relatively meager building on Van Buren that Root had designed in 1882.  Once again, this was a reaction to events transpiring in Cincinnati, as it seems to have been in response to the imminent completion of the new Cincinnati Art Museum designed by James McLaughlin, the architect of the huge Shillito’s department store.   

James McLaughlin, Cincinnati Art Museum and Art Academy, Eden Park, 1882. Left: The Art Academy; Right: The Museum. (Online)

Following Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition, a group of Cincinnati women, once again led by the indomitable Maria Longworth Nichols and her husband George Ward Nichols, the same Cincinnatians who were responsible for the formation of the city’s May Festival and Conservatory of Music (see Vol. Two, Sec. 6.3) had formed the Women’s Art Museum Association whose goal was to coordinate Cincinnati’s various independent galleries and studios into an art museum and art school for Cincinnati, based on the South Kensington Museum and School that was had been established by Henry Cole and Owen Jones following the success of the 1851 London World’s Exhibition.  To review the background of the Nichols, she was the granddaughter of the city’s richest man, millionaire real estate magnate Joseph Longworth,  Her family’s wealth allowed her to follow her youthful passions of painting and piano. In 1868, her father had hired Nichols, then the art critic for the New York Evening Post, to catalog his vast art collection. The two had married late in 1868.  Two years later, following the successful 1870 Nord-Amerikanisches Saengerbund festival, Maria had been inspired to organize Cincinnati’s May Festival, directed by Theodore Thomas in May 1873. 

In Volume Two I recorded that following Chicago’s having overtaken Cincinnati’s population and manufacturing by the end of the Civil War, the Cincinnati’s leaders had embarked on a campaign to make the city the Arts Capital of the West.  Music was not the only art they had focused on, and Maria Longworth Nichols’ upbringing in painting and piano had prepared her well for the tasks she would take on in this campaign.  Around the time of the first May Festival, she had moved into painting by taking classes in china painting (in 1880 she would found the Rookwood pottery company) at Cincinnati’s McMicken School of Drawing and Design (est. in 1869).  She had been one of the organizers to send a collection of examples by the city’s artists to the 1876 World’s Fair, following which they had formed the Women’s Art Museum Association.  In 1878 they sponsored a lecture series on the role that art could play in the city’s industrial development (taken directly from Cole’s Kensington program), in order to drum up support for the Art Museum.  In 1881 the Cincinnati Art Museum was incorporated with the city’s progressive municipal government once again donating public land, twenty acres in beautiful Eden Park for the new institution in 1882.  McLaughlin was commissioned to design the first solely-dedicated Art Museum west of the Alleghenies, with a parallel art school a lá South Kensington.  The complex would be dedicated on May 17, 1886, only ten days after Chicago’s infamous Haymarket Square incident.


Antebellum Chicago had certainly paralleled these early artistic efforts in Cincinnati. In Volume One I introduced Chicago’s two leading artists, painter George P. A. Healy (brought to Chicago by William Ogden in 1856, father of George L. Healy of the firm Healy & Millet) and sculptor Leonard Volk (brought to Chicago in 1857 by his wife’s cousin Stephen Douglas). Volk had joined Healy in comprising the city’s antebellum embryonic artistic community that also included a number of the city’s leading patricians who were collectors and connoisseurs of the arts.  One of the city’s leading artistic personalities at this time was Uranus H. Crosby, whose successful distilling business had allowed him to consider himself to be, as well as to act the part of a bon vivant and a true patron of the arts. 

In May 1859, a group that included Crosby, Healy, and Volk met at the Chicago Historical Society to plan the city’s first art exhibition, the Fine Arts Exposition of the Northwest, for the six weeks between May and June 1859 in Burch’s Building at the corner of Lake and Wabash.  The success of this event encouraged a number of local artists and art connoisseurs to form the Chicago Art Union later in 1859.  This organization held its first, and only, art exhibition at Alexander Hessler’s photography gallery on Dec. 7, 1860.  J. Young Scammon provided for the safe keeping of the organization’s nascent art collection that the group had managed to purchase from Healy, until a permanent building for its display could be procured. In December 1862, Volk and painter John Antrobus had opened a gallery known as “The Art Gallery,” in the old Walker mansion at the northeast corner of State and Washington (the future site of Marshall Field’s) that he was able to lease with funding provided by John B. Turner, Uranus Crosby, and David A. Gage, intended to house exhibitions and receptions in an attempt to further the education of public taste. For the 1863 Sanitary Fair’s art exhibition, Volk had managed to secure over three hundred works from the city’s collectors among whom were Ogden, Scammon, Walter Newberry, and Ezra McCagg, the highlight of which was an original Rembrandt, that were housed in McVicker’s Theater.  This exhibition was reprised for the 1865 Sanitary Fair with a Fine Art Gallery housed in Bryan Hall.

By the time the 1865 Fair had opened on May 30, Uranus Crosby had opened his Opera House in which he had included space for artists’ studios as well as the building’s 60’ long by 30’ wide by 18’ high Art Gallery (note this was a gallery, not a permanent museum). This was located on the top floor so skylights could provide better daylighting of the works on display. Following the very successful Fine Arts Exhibition at the 1865 Northwest Sanitary Fair, the art gallery and studios that Crosby had included in the upper floors of his Opera House begged for a formal organization to take control of scheduling the classes and exhibitions that the city could now stage.  Just such an organization was founded in late 1866 by 35 local artists, based on the model of Britain’s Royal Academy, as the Academy of Design to promote art and its education. Its first festival was held in Crosby’s Opera House on Friday, May 3, 1867.  Although its opening was successful, local interest quickly waned, leaving the affairs of the fledgling organization in a deficit. 

Academy of Design, Chicago, 66 W. Adams, 1867. (Andreas-v.2)

The group soon disbanded over artistic differences, only to be reformed on November 18, 1867, with a new constitution under the presidency of Leonard Volk (who guided the organization’s affairs in this position until 1878).  Free drawing classes and a variety of receptions and exhibitions filled the year 1868 and led to the formal incorporation the Academy of Design under the guidance of Ezra McCagg on March 16, 1869.  Among the Academy’s incorporators were artists Volk and Healy and architects Sanford E. Loring and John C. Cochrane.  The high expectations for the Academy were apparently dashed with the refusal of Crosby to allow the continued free use of his rooms in the Opera House due to his worsening financial situation, but this obstacle actually resulted in the group’s search for independence that led to the construction of its own building. A five-story building at 66 W. Adams, between State and Dearborn was erected by Jonathan Clark to serve the needs of the Academy.  The new Academy of Design, containing two galleries, a lecture hall, sixteen studios, and numerous classrooms opened with a reception thrown on March 22, 1870.

W.W. Boyington, Inter-state Industrial Exposition Building. Ground floor plan. Note the Art Gallery located in the center of the lakefront side. (Siry, Auditorium)

Unfortunately, the 1871 fire destroyed Crosby’s Opera House and the Art Academy.  Boyington made an attempt to replace the loss of Crosby’s art gallery by including a gallery in the post-fire Exposition Building.  This was located In the center of the side facing the lake, that was flanked on either side by restaurants.   Meanwhile, the Art Academy floundered over lack of a permanent home, finally having to close due in 1879 to bankruptcy brought on the depression of the 1870s. 

On May 24, 1879, a core group of its members (businessmen who were frustrated with the unbusinesslike running of the organization by the artists) had formed a new organization, the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts at this same time, purchasing much of the former organization’s assets.  The leaders of this group were Pres. Levi Leiter (pre-break with Field) and Vice-President Charles L. Hutchinson (1854-1924), son of Benjamin P. Hutchinson, one of the Board of Trade’s leading and most respected (feared) grain traders (speculators), banker, and owner of Chicago packing, the country’s largest meat packing company.  In many ways the younger Hutchinson paralleled Ferdinand Peck: both were scions of Chicago’s wealthy founders who were more interested in philanthropy than business.  In fact, one might consider them as Chicago’s cultural bookends: Peck interested in music while Hutchinson shepherded fine art.  (Quite literally they would bookend the block of Michigan between Congress and Van Buren: The Auditorium at the south end at Congress and the Art Institute at the north end at Van Buren.) When Hutchinson turned 21 in 1875, he had joined his father’s company but from early on his lifetime’s passion was to build an art museum for Chicago.

(?) Burnham & Root, 1882 Art Institute of Chicago Building, Van Buren between Michigan and Wabash, 1882.  This image is from an enhanced photo of the 1885 building (far left).  The 1882 building was not demolished when the 1885 “addition” was erected, therefore I believe this image is the 1882 bulding. (Chicagology.com)

In 1882, more than likely being goaded into action by Cincinnati’s latest announcement about the construction of its new museum, Hutchinson set into motion his own plan to build an equivalent institution for Chicago.  He “loaned” the money to buy the southwest corner of Michigan and Van Buren to erect its first building.  (Finally, post-fire Chicago had a wealthy benefactor of the likes of Crosby or Cincinnati’s Reuben Springer, the donor behind the Music Hall.) 

Michigan Avenue, looking south from Jackson Street, ca. 1886. The skyscraper at the end is the Studebaker Building, (the Auditorium is not yet under construction) with the Art Institute in front of it. Across the avenue on the left is Lake Park, the location of IWPA Socialist rallies during the mid-1880s. (O’Gorman, H.H.Richardson-American Forms)

There can be little doubt that he was among the upper-class elites and their plan of cultural assimilation of the middle-class for this site was directly across Michigan Avenue from where the IWPA under Albert Parsons would hold their Sunday afternoon rallies in Lake Park (as documented by Siry).  In other words, Hutchinson was in league with Peck to “take back” the lakefront from Chicago’s socialists.  At this same time, the Board of Directors changed the organization’s name to The Art Institute of Chicago and elected Hutchinson as President of its Board, a position he retained until his death in 1924.

Burnham & Root, The Art Institute. Note that the original Root building stopped at the house remaining in between it and the Studebaker Building. The addition seen below was added at a later date. (Cornell University Digital)
Burnham & Root, The Art Institute. (Chicagology.com)

The organization moved into the existing building at the corner and hired Burnham & Root to design a small three-story “addition” to the west along Van Buren for studios and small gallery.  In August 1885, as construction on the Cincinnati Museum was winding down, Hutchinson bought the vacant lot immediately to the south of the existing corner building and commissioned Burnham & Root to design a four-story plus basement building to replace the original building on the corner, for a program that included a number of galleries, in addition to artist’s studios and clubrooms in the upper two levels.

Note Root’s characteristic “Celtic” curvilinear patterns.
Note that each capital of the mullions under the arcade is unique.

It is somewhat ironic, then, to find that Root, after having successfully eliminated the need for cut stone in his subterranean foundations, would now at this precise moment employ it as the dominant material in the exterior of one of his urban buildings (he had always used it in many of his residential projects).  Many Root scholars cite this design as Root’s most “Richardsonian Romanesque” building.  With the cut stone exterior and its large voussoired arcades and the Richardsonian gabled dormers on the Van Buren façade, its hard not to admit that Root had been influenced by Richardson’s winning design for the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce. I consider it a divertimento, if you will; a precious little Celtic-etched jewel box allowing Root a break from the bevy of 10+ storied behemoths he was responsible for at this moment. I believe it is not coincidental that at just this precise moment, Richardson was also attempting to do his most “Rootian Commercial” design for Marshall Field’s wholesale store. It was, so to say, “Drawn pencils at twenty paces”…

Burnham & Root, Art Institute. Grand Stairway. (Chicagology)


Hoffmann, Donald. The Architecture of John Wellborn Root. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.

Monroe, Harriet. John Wellborn Root; A Study of His Life and Work. Park Forest: Prairie School Press, 1966.

Siry, Joseph M. The Chicago Auditorium Building. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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