Located in Chicago’s fashionable north side, the Tree Studios are credited with being the oldest artist colony in the United States—the first part was built in 1894—and have been home to over 500 artists. Commissioned by philanthropist Judge Lambert Tree and his wife Anne, and designed by the Parfitt Brothers architectural firm, they share a square block with the Medinah Temple, built in 1912 as headquarters for the Chicago chapter of the Shriners. The Islamic-influenced building’s interior and exterior ornamentation derived from Ottoman patterns. The Tree Studios’ most distinguished element was its 4,200-seat auditorium, whose excellent acoustics made it a popular performance space.
The Medinah Temple Association purchased the Tree Studios property in 1956, jeopardizing the artists’ community by opening up studio rentals to non-artists. The new community’s higher rents began forcing the artists out and paved the way for future development pressures. In 1999, the Shriners were offered $21 million for Medinah Temple and Tree Studios from a realty corporation which planned to raze both sites to create condominiums and parking spaces.
Designated as Chicago landmarks
The Tree Studios’ unique context and collection of building types as well as the site’s contribution to American artistic heritage were considered by supporters to be of great cultural value to the city of Chicago. Medinah Temple, when it was opened, was the largest building in the world constructed by a social organization to use as a meeting place and one of the most important and impressive of all Shriner Temples. Inclusion on the 2000 World Monuments Watch resulted in media attention and public discussions about the significance of the Tree Studios and Medinah Temple. After Watch inclusion, we wrote to then Chicago Mayor Richard Daly and gave presentations to the Chicago Planning Commission to asking them to give careful consideration to the site’s future, integrity, and economic potential. We awarded a grant for preparation of an architectural significance survey and a feasibility study for the site. Survey results led to the sites being designated as Chicago landmarks, preventing their demolition, and the buildings were preserved by a prominent Chicago philanthropist. Tree Studios continues to serve as an artists’ residence; the Medinah Temple has been adaptively reused as a commercial space.