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Take an Audio Tour of Chicago’s Fine Arts Building

The Fine Arts building offers a sonic experience straight from the 1890s.

The stone above the front doorways bear the name of the Fine Arts Building.
The stone above the front doorways bear the name of the Fine Arts Building. Leyla Royale

Atlas Obscura is partnering with Red Bull to spread the word on Stems of Chicago, a crowdsourced project to collect the sounds of the city. The audio will serve as raw material for a track produced by an emerging Chicago producer inspired by this city’s history, diversity and communities. Atlas Obscura sent Leyla Royale, a seasoned cellist and field recorder, to the landmark Fine Arts building to explore the space and capture its character and sounds.

The old Studebaker Building in Chicago (the front facade still bears the name) was constructed in 1885 by the architect Solon S. Beman, and originally designed to house the Studebaker company. By 1898, Studebaker had secured a bigger location. The family renamed the structure and converted it into artist studios.

Inside, there are dozens of offices and rehearsal spaces. A light-filled courtyard takes up most of the fourth floor, while the Studebaker Theatre operates out of the first floor. The building is little-changed since 1898; the woodwork is original, as are the elevators. After 120 years, the Fine Arts building still offers the same sights and sounds from the turn of the century.

The first sounds to greet visitors as they enter are footsteps. The floors are marble, causing the slap of every step to echo an announcement of arrival. The decorative handrails are shiny smooth while the stairs have worn into grooves from the thousands who’ve walked them over the years.

Each office offers unique sound bites of the goings-on inside. Carving and chipping can be heard from one of the many luthiers working on building and repairing delicate stringed instruments. Elsewhere, dance teachers count off beats and young children pluck their first chordophones. Echoing dramatically through the open stairwells of the top floors, snippets of arias mixed with the sounds of piano scales can be heard. The open hallways and stone walkways create a reverberant space reminiscent of the of a cathedral.

An interior stairwell through which the sounds of footfalls and practicing musicians echo about.
An interior stairwell through which the sounds of footfalls and practicing musicians echo about. Leyla Royale

The most ubiquitous sounds in the building may be those emitted by the central elevator system. Built in the 1890s, they are the last in the Loop to still have full-time operators. Continuously in-use, the static whirr of engines and chains backgrounds every experience in the building.

The main elevator bank rests in the arched stone hallway of the first floor. Between the elevator doors a diamond-shaped metal cover contains a white button in the center. Pressing it activates a ringing buzzer straight from the 1890s that, somehow, manages to sound polite as it pings through the shaft. Less cordial is the high–pitched screech of metal that signals the movement of the car. Metallic squeaks chime in as each elevator glides into view, then jerks to a stop.

The operator opens the doors. They’re wooden pocket doors with lavish details at the foot and large glass windows. They slide open and thump to the side while the operator coolly waits for riders to enter. Everyone on board, he takes one hand and slides the doors shut with a clang. “What floor?” he asks, and the riders respond with a number, or perhaps just the name of the shop they’re visiting — the operators know the name and location of everyone here.

As the car ascends, riders can catch a glimpse of each floor as they pass it. Between the shutter of concrete floors, numbers are visible. These digits are intended to orient the operator, but you’re unlikely to see the attendant so much as glance at them. In a building so well-worn and familiar, few operators need them.

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The elevator halts with a jolt and dull thud when the requested floor emerges. The gears start and stop with a few thunks as the car adjusts to the floor level. The operator pulls the doors open once more, and with a chorus of “thank yous” riders disembark. The doors clunk shut, and the whirr of chains and metal resumes as the elevator returns to the call of the buzzer, ringing below.

The name & number of the building is painted on the front doors.
The name & number of the building is painted on the front doors. Leyla Royale

The building sounds much as it would have 120 years ago. The musicians who practice here today work to master the same arias and symphonies that challenged their predecessors over a century ago. The quiet scratchings of pencil on wood remind visitors of the proud tradition of luthiers in the building.

In the background hums the base of all sound in the Fine Arts Building: the ancient mechanical system of elevators and operators. The drone of engines, the clank of chains, and the buzz of the call button were once constant in Chicago. Now, they can only be experienced here.

Submit your sounds to Red Bull's Stems of Chicago for a chance to hear them debut on a professionally-produced track.