Max Epstein (1875-1954) was a farsighted businessman and philanthropist whose most generous pledge was made just as the international business collapse of 1929 dramatically constricted nearly all giving to institutions. Born in Cincinnati , Epstein briefly attended City College in New York before moving to Chicago in 1891. Thereafter, he set out to make a considerable fortune. A leading local industrialist — he was the chairman of the General American Tank Car Company – Epstein was also a member of the Board of Trustees of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1930 to 1953. A lifelong collector of Old Masters, Epstein's bequest of twenty-five early European paintings in 1954 was a notable addition to the Art Institute's collections. Max Epstein's connections to the University began in 1917, when he gave the first of a series of gifts to the hospitals. The Max Epstein Clinic at 59th Street and Maryland Avenue was incorporated as a wing of the Chicago Lying-In Hospital.
In many ways Max Epstein stood at the end of the classic era of private philanthropy at the University of Chicago, for his most significant gift – an unrealized institute of the fine arts — was conceived in the context of the goals of President Burton's campaign of 1924-26. Under Burton's successor Max Mason, the University was able to secure major gifts from George H. Jones in 1926 to build a second chemistry building, from Bernard A. Eckhart in 1927 for a mathematics building, from Albert D. Lasker in 1928 for the Medical School, and from Bernard E. Sunny in 1928 for the Laboratory School's gymnasium, all of which seemed to confirm hopes for additional major donations. The stock market crash of 1929 swept away these expectations, and the harsh economic environment of the 1930s made Burton's lofty goals seem sadly illusory. The fate of Max Epstein's gift was an early sign of the grave financial and fundraising challenges that lay ahead.
Max Epstein was inspired by Ernest Burton's suggestion that the University needed a first-rate center for research and teaching in the fine arts. In The University of Chicago in 1940, Burton had argued "[i]t is to be hoped that long before the year 1940 comes around, the University will have erected at least one beautiful building devoted wholly to the fine arts, and established in it skilled interpreters of these arts to the University community." Burton's dream seemed closer to reality when the University secured a million-dollar pledge from Epstein to support the creation of an Institute of Fine Arts, to be housed in a building with classrooms and galleries located adjacent to a planned undergraduate residential quadrangle on 60th Street between Kimbark and Woodlawn.
In his letter of gift for the art building, Max Epstein wrote, "I believe that the University of Chicago should offer to the young men and women who are its students and to the public at large the opportunity of learning the significance of Art, both as a history of the life of the past and as a living and inspiring force in the present. The creation of an art center at the University will bring together a body of teachers and students of Art and will result in the spreading of a sincere and informed appreciation of art."
Unfortunately, Epstein made his pledge on August 30, 1929, only a few weeks before the Great Crash. The University initiated a planning effort for the new building, even obtaining preliminary drawings by the noted architect of Beaux-Arts classicism, Paul P. Cret. But in January 1931, when the preliminary design process was completed, Epstein's initial gift of $15,000 for the art building was shifted, with his consent, to the Hospitals, and the University decided not to pursue the construction of the Institute of Fine Arts. President Robert Hutchins laconically and somewhat ambiguously reported to the Board of Trustees in 1935 that "[i]n 1929 we had hopes of the Art Department, for a new chairman was found for it and a donor pledged a million dollars to provide quarters for it. On account of the Depression neither the chairman nor the donor has been able to realize his ambitions for the Department." Other generous University donors were also disappointed by these frustrated hopes. In 1929 and 1930, Mrs. Frances Crane Lillie had given the University two ornamental doors by artist Alfeo Faggi, the Dante Door and the Door of St. Francis, with the intention that they be mounted in the entrance to a University art museum. But with the dwindling of the University's ambitions for an art building, the doors were returned to the donor in 1939.
In the end, an Institute of Fine Arts was never built, and with the exception of a few buildings finished in 1931 and 1932 such as International House and the Field House, construction on the campus of the University of Chicago ceased for more than a decade. And three decades would pass before the next fundraising campaign, when generous and civic-minded donors, strong presidential leadership, and a strong economic climate coalesced to create a powerful new vision for the educational future of the University of Chicago.