|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, 2014West 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|IIT Master Plan, image courtesy Posad Spatial Strategies|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.