“Designed in 1891 by Edbrooke and Burnham, the 96-unit Mecca immediately captured the public’s imagination. It was Chicago’s first residential building with a landscaped courtyard open to the street, a design that fused two seemingly incompatible ideals: to build densely while preserving and cultivating the natural landscape. In the late 19th century, Chicago’s tenement reformers had demanded more light and fresh air for the city’s apartments; they wanted small parks and playgrounds to be able to dot the city’s swelling neighborhoods. The Mecca’s innovative design was a paean to these progressive concerns.”
“The complex had two atria with skylights that flooded the interior with light. Residents accessed their apartments via open galleries that encircled the atria, with railings that featured foliated ironwork. This form — the courtyard within an apartment complex — inspired a hugely popular Chicago vernacular tradition.” (Bluestone, Remembering America’s lost buildings, CNN, 7/24/18)
“Residents could enter the building directly through these interior courts, prompting the central space to become an extension of the street life along “the Stroll,” as the entertainment strip on State Street was known, and which by the 1920s had become a destination “jammed with black humanity” and brimming with jazz clubs and cabarets. The open interior also contributed to an atmosphere of irreverent social drama in which residents could observe each other’s comings and goings.” (Altshuler, The Architect’s Newspaper, 7/20/18)
“The vibrancy of the building inspired musician Jimmy Blythe to write “Mecca Flats Blues” (1924) and, later on, Gwendolyn Brooks to write “In the Mecca,” (1968) a long narrative poem reflecting on the Black experience in the building’s later years. As the building fell into disrepair, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) purchased the Mecca and spent 15 years fighting with residents and housing advocates who opposed the university’s plan to demolish the structure as part of the expanding campus.” (Altshuler, The Architect’s Newspaper, 7/20/18)
“Illinois Governor Dwight Green vetoed the legislation that would have preserved the Mecca, and in 1952 — after years of legal wrangling and community protest — the courts allowed the demolition of an architectural and cultural icon to proceed.” (Bluestone, Remembering America’s lost buildings, CNN, 7/24/18)
The effort to save the Macca Flats was one of the earliest examples of a Chicago community preservation effort to save an important historic building from demolition and perhaps one of the first community efforts to oppose what would later be called “Urban Renewal”. The 15-year preservation effort to save the Mecca Flats lasted from 1937 until 1952. This was significantly earlier that the effort to save Adler & Sullivan’s Garrick Theater which was demolished in 1961 and earlier than the effort to save Adler & Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange Building which was demolished 1972.
Its true that new construction replacement buildings often fail to match the quality of the demolished original building, however in the case of Mecca Flats, it was replaced by Mies Van der Rohe’s legendary modernist masterpiece, S. R. Crown Hall at IIT.
Recently, as construction workers were digging a trench for maintenance on the mechanical plumbing system situated on the southwest corner of Crown Hall, they discovered of intact tile flooring from the Mecca Flats, among other artifacts. The bright and vibrant colors of the patterned floor tile include blues, oranges and browns which help to add a color palate to a historic building known primarily through black and white photos.
Work was suspended, and a team of local historians and urban archaeologists was assembled to uncover and excavate a significant portion of the remnants. These artifacts will be preserved, and a selection will be installed on site at the Graham Resource Center, an architectural library, located on the lower level of Crown Hall, in a permanent exhibition dedicated to the Mecca Flat. Others will be donated to national and local cultural institutions, to be conserved and shared with generations to come.
The IIT College of Architecture invites the public to view these artifacts for the first time since their excavation at a program entitled “Shared History: The Mecca Flat Revealed at IIT Architecture”. The event will take place in S. R. Crown Hall on Tuesday, August 7, at 12:30 pm. Part cultural and part educational, the event will include talks and readings with community leaders, local historians, authors, and members of IIT, and will provide an opportunity to share and reflect upon how the unearthed artifacts activate collective memory.