Tree Studios and Medinah Temple
Commissioned by philanthropist Judge Lambert Tree, the Tree Studios were designed as an artists’ residence by the Parfitt Brothers architectural firm. Located in Chicago’s fashionable north side, the Tree Studios are credited with being the oldest artist residence in the United States—the first part was built in 1894—and have been home to over 500 artists.
Sharing a square block with the studios was the Medinah Temple, built in 1912 as headquarters for the Chicago chapter of the Shriners. It was meant to be larger and more beautiful than any other Shrine in the United States. The Islamic-influenced design featured interior and exterior ornamentation derived from patterns found in the Ottoman Empire. The building’s 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 who planned to raze both sites to create condominiums and parking spaces.
How We Helped
WMF’s involvement resulted in media attention and public discussions about the significance of the Tree Studios and Medinah Temple. In 1999, WMF wrote a letter to Chicago Mayor Richard Daly and gave presentations to the Chicago Planning Commission regarding putting the Tree Studios and Medinah Temple on the Watch and urging the Mayor’s office to give careful consideration to the site’s future, integrity, and economic potential.
After naming the sites to the 2000 Watch, WMF awarded a grant toward the preparation of an architectural significance survey and a feasibility study for the site. The results of the significance survey led to the sites being designated as Chicago landmarks, preventing their demolition. 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.
Why It Matters
New development threatened many of the structures with plans for heavy alterations or destruction. A concerned group of citizens lobbied the Chicago Landmark Commission to designate the buildings as city landmarks. However, at the time of the sites’ placement on the 2000 Watch, no action had been taken and the loss of the structures seemed inevitable. 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.