Friday, February 21, 2014

A Triumphant Exhibition creates Time Machine to a Vanquished Architecture: Tim Samuelson's Mecca Flat Blues, at the Chicago Cultural Center

click images for larger view (recommended)
Friday, February 21, The Chicago Cultural Center, 78 East Washington,  will be hosting an opening reception for Mecca Flat Blues from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.  The exhibition, in the 4th floor Sydney R. Yates gallery, runs through May 25, 2014
West of State Street, where 34th street once ran, stands Mies van der Rohe's Crown Hall, one of the world's most famous buildings.   The brawny steel-and-glass “one room schoolhouse” sits within an expansive island of landscaped grounds, nested within the insular urban ecosystem that is the IIT campus.
Stand on the campus today and look around you, and it all appears almost primordial.  You can imagine it rising directly from the marshy land that was Chicago's original terrain.  And yet . . . if you remain very still - can you hear it?  Can you sense it?  The sound of jazz and the blues, a lament, the quiet but insistent voices of a vanquished city, wiped from the earth as cleanly as Carthage after the siege.
Mecca Flat Blues, the new exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center curated by the city's Cultural Historian, Tim Samuelson, is - first things first - a spectacular show, hypnotic in both image and story.  Above all else, however, it is  a Proustian meditation on architecture as a repository of memory.  Of how we create buildings to reflect our ambitions, pretensions and vanities.  And how soon those buildings become unmoored from original intent and, over the decades, are transformed and consumed by the earthier realities of life as it is lived day-by-day.

At the end, Mecca Flats, along with the once vibrant community all around it, was sacrificed to create the tabula rasa Mies required for his new campus plan.  It represented a contagion of poverty and decay that had to expunged to make the neighborhood safe for Mies's pristine new world.  The beginning, however, was something wholely different.

“The Largest Apartment House Ever Planned in Chicago”

That was the calling card for the Mecca Apartments, as detailed in an 1891 article in the Chicago Tribune.  Occupying a full half block on 34th Street, between State and Dearborn, formerly occupied by streetcar barns, the project would cost $600,000, be four stories tall, and house 96 flats and twelve stores on State.

Architects Willoughby J. Edbrooke and Franklin Pierce Burnham (yes, even the worst Presidents had their name foisted on unsuspecting babies) created three street elevations of Roman pressed brick with stone and terra cotta trim.   The alley elevation, which held the servant's entrance, was of a cruder red brick.  Every apartment was designed to have its own bay window to draw in the light.  Each dining room was to have hardwood sideboards, each kitchen gas ranges and refrigerators.

This was a time when the rich lived in houses and the poor lived in tenements.  The word “apartment” carried a negative stigma.  Apartment buildings for the affluent were likely to be called “apartment hotels” to separate them from the housing used by the unwashed masses.
The Mecca was a pioneering effort to make the apartment block safe for the affluent, to enhance the return on a plot of land not just through increased density, but also elevated price points.  In addition to the elegance of the facades, Edbrooke and Burnham created the Mecca as two great wings on either side of a large, landscaped carriage courtyard, with an arched entrance and a handsome fountain.  There were five separate entrances, each shared by only a handful of families, enhancing the feeling of intimacy.

Most boldly, the architects drew on the commercial example of Baumann and Huehl's 1889 Chamber of Commerce Building, which featured a central court rising the full 13-story height of the building.
Lined with cantilevered balconies with ornate iron railings, the court brought light and air - in a time before electricity or air conditioning - into the interior offices.  At the Mecca, there would be not just one but two huge courts - one for each wing -  33 wide and 170 feet deep, wrapped in balconies with elegant railings and light pouring in from the glass roof.
It didn't take long for it all to start to unravel.  The developer decided to cash in on the upcoming 1893 World's Columbian Exposition by converting the Mecca Apartments into a 650-room hotel for fair visitors, “The Largest and most richly furnished Permanent Hotel in Chicago”.  It flopped.  It turned out the Mecca's location was in a kind of limbo, at a disadvantageous  midway point between the Loop's luxury hotels and the fairgrounds miles away. Not along after the close of the fair, the Mecca was reconverted to apartments.   Many of the rooms had never been occupied, and the hotel's furnishings were sold at auction for 25 cents on the dollar.
In rich detail, Mecca Flat Blues, traces what happens next.  The Mecca's troubles continued in 1895, as one troubled tenant became a firebug, setting blazes at the bottom of two air shafts.  Mecca's shifting portrait can be traced through the list of residents compiled every ten years for the U.S. Census, copies of which are on display at the exhibition.  The 1900 census lists 365 people, mostly blue and white color employees.  Some residents were already taking in borders to help meet the rent.  Despite the original design providing them a separate entrance, no live-in servants were listed.

The basically working-class character of the building remained even as the racial composition changed radically.  The “Great Migration” saw the neighborhood becoming primarily Afro-American.  In May of 1912, the Chicago Daily Defender announced that the Mecca Flats for the first time was  “Open for Inspection” for Negro tenants.  An “Upstairs-Downstairs” aura descended on the Flats.  The more affluent tenants lived in the larger units and held dinner parties, while crime among poorer tenants became an increasing problem.  By 1914, building managers were telling The Defender that they were “powerless to prohibit the commingling of the races [but] have not allowed any prostitution in their apartments nor have they countenanced any violation of the law.”

The new emigrants from the south brought their culture with them.  State Street became “The Stroll”, a strip of jazz clubs, theaters and ballrooms that was jammed with humanity night after night.  Transplants from New Orleans found the Mecca's ornate balcony railings a welcoming echo of those of Bourbon Street.
At the end of the 1920's, however, the opening of the Regal Theater and Savoy ballroom in Bronzeville began to draw the nightlife away from State Street, and by the 1930's, the Mecca suffered from poor maintenance.  The skylights over the atria becoming filthy and cracked.  The 1940 census showed the building's population as 670 building,  but after wartime housing shortages kicked in, other estimates put it at as many as 2,500.
Armour Institute
In 1938, the Mecca had been deeded to the Armour Institute, which was soon to become IIT.  The Institute had made the decision to stay in the city, and, hiring Mies, to expand their campus all the way down to 35th street.  Armour moved quickly to demolish the Mecca, but the residents fought back in a battle that galvanized the community.  A bill sponsored by State Senator Christopher Wimbish passed the Illinois house 114 to 2 and the senate, 46 to 1, only to be vetoed by Governor Dwight Green.  As detailed in Daniel Bluestone's essential history, Chicago's Mecca Flat Blues, Armour wound up being the worst slumlord of all, lowering rents and filling up the building with ever poorer residents even as it let the structure rot without essential maintenance and repairs.

The Mecca became the subject of pioneering efforts in the genre now known as “ruin porn.”  In 1949, Harper's Magazine hired John Bartlow Martin to document the “Strangest Place in Chicago”, portraying an alien, exotic world for edification of the magazine's middle-class readers . . .
Inside, a powerful odor assails the visitor at once, musty, heavy, a smell compounded of urine and stale cooking and of age, not necessarily an unpleasant odor but a close powerful one, which, like that of marijuana, once smelled is never forgotten . . . always the sound of distant human voices, women talking, a baby squalling, children screaming, men muttering, no words distinguishable . . . All day long, people stand at the balconies, leaning over the wrought-iron railing with hands clasped out over them, gazing out at each other people facing them across the well in silence, gazing down at the floor far below, spitting, small human figures in a vast place, two or three on each of the floors, occasionally calling back and forth to one another, but most of the time just standing silent.
In 1950, Life magazine repurposed Martin's text into captions for a photo essay, The Mecca, Chicago's Showiest Apartment Has given Up All But the Ghost Life, using images by Wallace Kirkland.  One account stated that the light filtering through the filthy skylights gave the atria an other-worldy quality, making it seem almost as if you were underwater.
In 1952, the building was finally ready for demolition.   Newsweek reported that the last tenants had been moved out, and the structure scavenged for bits of Italian tile and hardwood floors. In 1982, Chicago Tribune columnist Vernon Jarrett remembered The Mecca as “one of the more notorious slum dwellings in the history of modern society,” but he also interviewed a former resident who recalled that “One thing the poor were able to maintain in that slum building was a feeling for each other after they had been deserted by the larger society.” Members of The Mecca Prayer Band would make weekly tours to see who was ill or destitute.  “They would then take up a collection of what little they could afford and help the sick.  They would also volunteer to bathe the sick and clean their apartments.”  Lillian Davis didn't sugar-coat - “It was a violent building,” where the janitors wore pistols and derelicts slept on the balconies, “But my best memories are of those who refused to be crushed.”
IIT Master Plan, image courtesy Posad Spatial Strategies
That was not the story that anyone wanted to hear.  The official narrative was clear.  This was the early days of urban renewal.  With the federal government's help, America's great cities were to find their revival in the clearing away of slums.  As with the IIT campus, the decay was to be surgically removed, entire neighborhoods obliterated.   The South Side renewal plan projected razing everything from the IIT campus east to the Lakefront.

As Bluestone has written, a new mythology of progress was being put in place, in which Mecca Flats was the crime-ridden poster child of a contagion that needed to be purged.  Armour offered to help residents relocate, but only to a safe distance - the college fought the construction of the mid-rise Dearborn Homes public housing project at its northern border.
Dearborn Homes
And yet, one of the most moving images in Mecca Flat Blues is a life-size photograph of area residents at a meeting organizing against the Mecca's demolition.  The people are all immaculately dressed, the men in business suits and ties, the women in their Sunday best.  It is a portrait of human dignity that refutes the myth that provided cover for a land grab.
The world of the people in that photograph was destroyed for a vision of the future that had no room for their presence.  It is the triumph of Mecca Flat Blues that it retrieves that vanished world from the abyss of imposed forgetfulness.

You begin by walking through a small corridor, reading the blow-ups of early newspaper articles on the Mecca.  Then you walk through the doors, and you're confronted by a massive photograph of the Mecca's entrance, the glass of the doors broken out or replaced with cheap plywood, with a stark white sign centered at the bottom of the tympanum that's the real estate equivalent of Dante's inscription above the entrance to hell.
You begin at the end, but as you step past the photo, into the Tiffany grandeur of the Sydney R. Yates Gallery, the entire history of Mecca Flats opens up before you like an unfolded fan, with two massive images of the buildings light courts at either end of the half-block long gallery.
Architecture's dimension of scale is difficult to express in reproduction.  In books, we accept it being confined to the maximum size of a page.  In museums, to the dimensions of the frame.  With rare exceptions, trying to reproduce the scale of a building is absurd.   We simply accept the dislocation of a three-dimensional object large enough for us to inhabit down to a flat, passive representation that we lord over as if from aerial remove.  It is not only detail, but the essential character of architecture, how it constantly changes through the ever-shifting perceptions of our corporeal bodies as we move around and through it, that is lost.

Tim Samuelson has tackled this problem before in his 2010 exhibition (also at the Cultural Center) Louis Sullivan's Idea, in which, working with Chris Ware, he deployed ceiling high photographs of Sullivan's buildings in the double-height galleries to give the viewer a sense of the architecture's scale.

Mecca Flats Blues takes it a step further.  Again, there are the oversized photographers, but against the bordello riot of red, green and gold that is the Yates Gallery, the huge black and white images don't just pop, they seems to float in the front of your retina.  The huge space is broken up into a sequence of rooms, each telling a part of The Mecca's story, often with material rarely if every seen before, including some of the original photographs artist Ben Shahn took of the Mecca as studies for the illustrations he created for Martin's Harper's piece.  There's also Kirkland's photographs, and phonograph records of the various covers of the James Blythe and Alexander Robinson song Mecca Flat Blues, originally recorded in 1924 by vocalist Priscilla Stewart with Blythe on the piano.

The music  plays continuously as you walk through the gallery.
There's also a table where you can not only peruse those decade-by-decade census lists, but read the Harper's and Life magazine pieces, as well as Gwendolyn Brooks' epic poem,  In the Mecca, placing the building at the center of a tale about the search for a lost child. 

In the end, however, you're drawn back to the endpoints of the exhibition, to those lovingly-restored railings - rescued from a collector who had used them on his porch - and falling into those super-sized photos of the atrium.  You're back in Mecca Flats, standing on the balcony gazing at the people across the way, from another time, another, now lost world, looking back at you.  Mecca Flats, the building, absorbed the experience of its times until it was all used up and crushed by the accumulated weight.  Mecca Flat Blues, the exhibition, is a heroic rescue of a suppressed cultural history, and an epic expression of architecture's tragic suspension between power and impotence.
 Mecca Flat Blues runs through May 25th, 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., Monday through Thursday, 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Friday through Sunday (closed holidays).  There will be gallery talks at 12:15 p.m on February 27th and March 27th, and concerts at 12:15 p.m. on March 6 and May 3rd.  On April 8th, Thomas Dyja, author of The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream, will present a lecture, The Battle for the Mecca at 12:15 p.m.


Larry said...

Looks like a fabulous show. Thanks for the heads up.

Sam Jones said...

Wow, sounds terrific. Think I'll head down there this morning.

Kathryn said...

I went yesterday after reading this and it is an excellent exhibit. I think that the exhibit was more meaningful to me because of the detailed history and information I had from reading your blog. Thanks!

William Tyre said...

So glad to learn about this exhibit. I have always been fascinated by the Mecca and am glad it is finally getting some recognition!