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American Conservatory of Music

Coordinates: 41°52′35″N 87°37′29″W / 41.87639°N 87.62472°W / 41.87639; -87.62472
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American Conservatory of Music
Active1886 (1886)–1991 (1991)

The American Conservatory of Music (ACM) was a major American school of music founded in Chicago in 1886 by John James Hattstaedt (1851–1931).[1] The conservatory was incorporated as an Illinois non-profit corporation. It developed the Conservatory Symphony Orchestra and had numerous student recitals. The oldest private degree-granting music school in the Midwestern United States, it was located in Chicago until 1991.

That year, 1991, its board of trustees—chaired by Frederic Wilbur Hickman[2]—voted to close the institution, file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, liquidate the assets, and dissolve the corporation. The conservatory closed at the end of the semester, in May 1991.[3][4]

An organization based in Hammond, Indiana, uses the name "American Conservatory of Music" and identifies as the reorganized continuation of the Chicago institution. It also has a base in Belize that was founded in 1886 and is currently led by Theodora Schultze.[5]



John James Hattstaedt, a musician who had taught piano in Detroit, Michigan and St. Louis, Missouri, moved to Chicago, Illinois, in 1875. A center of railroad lines connecting to the East Coast and the resource-rich Great Lakes area, it was booming as a center of business, industry and culture. In 1886 he established the American Conservatory of Music, which became the oldest private, degree-granting school of music in the Midwest.

Hattstaedt was founding president and continued his direction until he became ill, six months before his death in 1931. He had expanded the school, attracting talented faculty and students. A Conservatory Symphony Orchestra was developed. In addition to the regular faculty, the conservatory attracted artists who conducted master classes in their specialties. In 1931 the conservatory had 3,000 students.

In the later 20th century, the conservatory appeared to suffer from its lack of affiliation with a university, which would have provided access to a wider circle of programs and donors. But it still served urban students and in 1977 had 2,000 students. At least in the early 1970s, accredited academic coursework was provided by the University of Chicago Extension[6] which had classroom facilities in downtown Chicago's "Loop" district. After the late 1970s enrollment declined more markedly in the 1980s. Many other music schools were also under pressure and struggling financially. In 1986 ACM entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.[3]

Under the presidency of Vernon R. Nelson, the school moved to more modern quarters in the Stevens Building, 17 N. State Street, and attracted new faculty. He gained several major gifts from donors and foundations, including a $1 million grant from the Marquette Charitable Trust.[3]

But by spring of 1991, enrollment was down to 90 full-time students, 60 fewer than expected. The conservatory announced it would close in May at the end of the semester. Chicago Musical College offered contracts to many of the conservatory faculty, and offered to have students enroll there to complete their studies and degrees.[3]



Conservatory presidents

  • 1886–1931: John James Hattstaedt (1851–1931)
  • 1935–1971: John Robert Hattstaedt (1887–1978), son of the founder, took over as president four years after his father's death. In between, his mother Kate Hattstaedt had served as president.[7]
  • 1971–1981: Leo Edward Heim (1913–1992) In 1981, the conservatory named him president emeritus.[8][9] But in 1987–1991, he was instrumental in the attempt to save the conservatory after it had filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 7.[10][11]
  • 1980–1987: Charles Ethelbert Moore (1930–1995),[12] a classical pianist who later taught at DePaul University, was president when the conservatory filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January 1987.[13] Moore had joined the faculty in 1961 and became dean in 1972.
  • 1987–1989: Vernon R. Nelson (born 1945), a graduate of the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business, temporarily saved the conservatory, extending its life until 1991.[13][14]
  • 1989–1990: Steven J. Nelson (no relation to Vernon)
  • 1990–1991: Vernon R. Nelson

General directors


Deans of faculty


Department deans

  • circa early 1900s: Adolf Weidig, associate director and dean of the department of theory[17]

Faculty, guest teachers and associates


For over a century, many prominent artists, including some who had their musical training in Europe, taught master classes in piano and other instruments at the American Conservatory. Among them were pianist Josef Lhévinne from the Soviet Union, a colleague of Sergei Rachmaninoff, and his student Adele Marcus. Both taught primarily at the Juilliard School in New York City.

From the post-WWII years to the late 1960s, Irwin Fischer, composer, pianist, and conductor, served as dean of faculty and conductor of the American Conservatory Orchestra. Violinist Scott Willits coached many members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1940 to 1974. Acclaimed pianist William Browning, heir of the Brahms-Schumann piano dynasty and one of the legendary pianists and teachers of the 20th century, was on faculty from 1957 to 1989. Pianist Wilhelmina Pouget, student of Walter Gieseking, specialized in late Romantic piano technique in the 1970s.

Notable faculty members




Other notable alumni


Recipients of honorary doctorates


Former locations


1975–1991 restructuring efforts


1975 acquisition & 1983 sale of building


In 1975, using funds from its endowment, the conservatory acquired and renovated a 17-story, 105,400-square-foot "turn-of-the-century" office building at 116 S. Michigan for about $1.2 million and moved from the Fine Arts Building at 410 S. Michigan Avenue. The conservatory's strategy was to occupy part of the building and earn enough rent income to cover some losses. But that plan failed, and in 1983, the conservatory sold the building to developer Horwitz Matthews, Inc. — Tem H. Horwitz (born 1944) and E. Curtis Matthews Jr. (born 1943) — who launched their own $4.5 million renovation.[27] That year, they gave the conservatory, which had been occupying 25,000 square feet on 4-1/2 floors, two years to find new quarters for its 125 faculty members and 250 full-time and 800 part-time students.[25][28]

1987 Chapter 11 bankruptcy


In January 1987, the conservatory filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection; and shortly thereafter, Charles Moore, its president, resigned. Henry Regnery – an industrialist, publisher of conservative books, benefactor, and amateur cellist – asked Vernon Nelson to step in as acting president. Nelson – an engineer with an MBA from the University of Chicago – had, since 1986, been leading a group from the University of Chicago to design a business plan for the conservatory. Nelson agreed to serve as president for a short time on a pro-bono basis. Many of the directors resigned shortly after the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing.

Directors who stayed on during Chapter 11 reorganization

  • Henry Regnery (1912–1996) remained as chairman
  • Fred Hickman, (born 1927) an attorney and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Tax Policy from 1971 to 1975 under Presidents Nixon and Ford
  • Leo Edward Heim (1913–1992), a career Conservatory faculty member and former president
  • Bernard James McKenna (1933–2010), the CEO of Sanwa Business Credit Corp, chaired in 1987 the conservatory's new building committee; he served as a Conservatory director from 1985 to 1992
  • Robert (Bob) Getz, a musician and alumnus

New directors who joined to help reorganization

Hickman's firm, Hopkins & Sutter, handled the bankruptcy, pro-bono.

Other directors

  • Ruth Anderson (née Teninga; born 1918), philanthropist from Hinsdale, Illinois, wife of Roger Allen Anderson (1919–2005)
  • Paul J. Henry (born 1953), Conservatory faculty member – classical guitar
  • Fumio Ralph Fujimoto (born 1923), partner (now retired), Ernst & Young
  • Norman A. Ross (1922–2008), second generation journalist & broadcaster, and son of Olympic swimmer Norman Ross

Efforts to reorganize


In 1987, Regnery led with a $1 million gift to the conservatory. Other foundations followed. This provided operating capital to run the conservatory during the restructuring. Under the Deanship of E. Harvey Jewell, DMA (born 1942),[29][30][31][32][33] the conservatory strengthened its programs, raised entrance requirements, recruited prominent faculty, passed a rigorous accreditation review in 1988 by the National Association of Schools of Music,[34] and cleared a probationary status placed earlier by the Illinois State Board of Education on the Bachelor of Music Education program.[35] After eighteen months, the conservatory had developed a survival plan and raised enough money to provide a balanced budget for three years. If the milestones were met, the conservatory would be able to function independently going forward. When Nelson expressed to the board his desire to leave his pro bono post, the board accepted it and launched a nationwide search for a new president and a dean. The board hired Steven J. Nelson, as president, and Carl L. Waldschmidt, PhD (1917–1995), the former dean, longtime music professor, and choral director from Concordia University in Chicago (retired 1987), as dean.[36] Steve Nelson had studied violin at Cleveland Institute of Music and had served as president of the Center for Creative Studies – Institute of Music and Dance in Detroit. After leaving the American Conservatory of Music, Steve Nelson served as vice president college of relations at Landmark College in Putney, Vermont. In 1998, he became head master at the Calhoun School in New York City. Vern Nelson remained on the board.

1991 Chapter 7 bankruptcy


By late 1990 it was clear to the board of directors that the milestones of the survival plan would not be met. In January 1991, the board reappointed Vern Nelson as president, pro bono. Grants totaling $2 million had been depleted by faculty salaries, student scholarships, and recruitment and development programs. Enrollment had fallen to 90 – down from 2,000 full-time in 1977. The board determined that, in order to survive, the conservatory would have to be merged with another entity. Discussions were held with the Northwestern University School of Music, which had an interest in developing a Downtown presence to house the performance department with better access to members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera. Discussions were also held with Roosevelt University to merge the conservatory with its Chicago Musical College.[4] The board felt that prospects were viable, but a merger of any sort was resisted by members of conservatory faculty.

Then, when faced with financial failure from, among other things, no viable operating funds or other prospects for survival, the board closed the school in 1991 and filed for protection under Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The main secured creditor was the landlord, Morris Kalish, who owned the Stevens Building at 17 N State Street, a 19-story building erected in 1913 which had housed the Chas A. Stevens Department Store. At the invitation of Kalish, the conservatory had taken up residence on the top two floors in 1987.[37]

Efforts to resurrect the bankrupt conservatory



  1. ^ Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (6th ed., revised), by Nicolas Slonimsky, Collier Macmillan Publishers.
  2. ^ Marquis Who's Who in America, 1992–1993 (47th ed.), Vol. 1, A–K, pg 1547, Reed Reference Publishing Company, New Providence, New Jersey (1992)
  3. ^ a b c d "All Out Of Miracles, Century-Old Music School Will Close In May", by John Richard von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, March 9, 1991
  4. ^ a b "Changing The Score, American Conservatory Gets Another Chance," by John Richard von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, July 28, 1991
  5. ^ "American Conservatory of Music". Americanconservatory.edu. Retrieved 21 June 2019.
  6. ^ "University of Chicago Library". Guide to the University of Chicago University Extension Records 1892-1979. Retrieved May 30, 2022.
  7. ^ "Obituaries: John Robert Hattstaedt", Chicago Tribune, p. C13, February 6, 1978
  8. ^ International Who's Who in Music and Musicians' Directory (10th ed.), Cambridge, England (1984)
  9. ^ Who's Who in American Music: Classical, R.R. Bowker, New York (1983)
  10. ^ "Leo Heim, 78; Helped Save American Conservatory of Music", Chicago Sun-Times, January 7, 1992
  11. ^ Who's Who in America, 1990–1991 (46th ed.), Marquis Who's Who, Wilmette, Illinois (1990)
  12. ^ "Charles E. Moore, DePaul Music Teacher," Chicago Sun-Times, January 31, 1995
  13. ^ a b "Ailing Music School Given An Encore – Numbers Man Rides To Rescue", by Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune, March 15, 1987
  14. ^ "How For-Profit Management Saved a Failing Institution", Nonprofit World, Jan–Feb 1988, Vol. 6 Issue 1, pg. 36-37
  15. ^ Buck, Dudley (2005). N. Lee Orr (ed.). American Victorian Choral Music. Series: Recent Researches in American Music, Vol. 53. A-R Editions, Inc. p. xx. ISBN 9780895795731.
  16. ^ "Irwin Fischer" (biography), American Composers Alliance (composers.com) (retrieved November 4, 2015)
  17. ^ Herringshaw's City Blue Book of Biography: Chicagoans of 1916, edited by Mae Felts Herringshaw, Chicago: Clark J. Herringshaw (publisher), 1916 OCLC 36048155
  18. ^ Chinen, Nate (April 18, 2016). "At Last, a Box Henry Threadgill Fits Nicely Into: Pulitzer Winner". The New York Times.
  19. ^ musicalartsindiana.org:"About"
  20. ^ "Hint to Singers," Wisconsin State Journal, col. 3, May 12, 1953
  21. ^ "Doctorate Awarded Native of Wyoming" (New York), Democrat and Chronicle, July 2, 1938, pg. 11
  22. ^ "Tauno Hannikainen, Conductor, Noted Sibelius Interpreter, Dies," The New York Times, October 13, 1968
  23. ^ Who's Who in America, Vol. 33 (1964–1965), pg. 93 Marquis Who's Who, Inc. OCLC 493777888 LCCN 04-16934 ISSN 0083-9396
  24. ^ "Long-ignored Composer George Perle Unfazed Standing In Pulitzer Spotlight," by John Richard von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, June 8, 1986
  25. ^ a b David Ibata, "American Conservatory of Music Plans Near West Side Move," Chicago Tribune, April 16, 1985
  26. ^ "Debts Force the Closing of Famed Music School," by Joseph Kirby, Chicago Tribune, April 21, 1991
  27. ^ Note: In 1979, Horwitz authored the book How to Set Up and Run Successful Nonprofit Arts Organizations, published by Chicago Review Press, of which E. Curtis Matthews Jr. was CEO. OCLC 560415669 OCLC 608827741
  28. ^ Plath, Karl (June 8, 1986). "Rehab Firm Marches to a Different Drummer". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved June 21, 2019.
  29. ^ International Who's Who in Music and Musicians Directory, 1990-1991 (12th ed.), edited by David M. Cummings & Dennis K. McIntire, International Who's Who in Music, Cambridge, England (1990) OCLC 185572505
  30. ^ Who's Who of Emerging Leaders in America, 1987–1988 (1st ed.), Marquis Who's Who, Wilmette, IL (1987) OCLC 16395697 ISSN 0895-965X
  31. ^ Who's Who in the Midwest, 1986–1987 (20th ed.), Marquis Who's Who, Wilmette, IL (1985) OCLC 13088248 ISBN 0-8379-0720-9 ISBN 9780837907208
  32. ^ Who's Who in the West, 1978-1979, (16th ed.), Marquis Who's Who, Wilmette, IL (1978) OCLC 6261917 ISBN 0-8379-0916-3 ISBN 9780837909165
  33. ^ "79 Army Band (US) alumni website: Harvey Jewell — Oboe & Flute (biography)". Archived from the original on 2012-07-10. Retrieved 2012-03-07.
  34. ^ National Association of Schools of Music archives, Reston, Virginia
  35. ^ Illinois State Board of Education archives
  36. ^ "Carl L. Waldschmidt, 78, Ex-Dean, Music Director," by Teresa Jimenez, Chicago Tribune, October 8, 1995
  37. ^ U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division (Chicago), 1991 Case No. 91-19363
    — Case location: The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Chicago Archived 2012-10-08 at the Wayback Machine
    — Location No. 175995-176144; Accession No. 021-99-0097; Box 053

41°52′35″N 87°37′29″W / 41.87639°N 87.62472°W / 41.87639; -87.62472