Only a few days are left to experience the "Mecca Flat Blues" exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center. Let's look at this exhibit through an architectural lens. Through May 25th, you can see the contrast of two very important Chicago buildings, both significant to Chicago architectural history and built on the same site in Bronzeville.
The Mecca Flats was originally built as a hotel for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in 1891. Architects Willoughby J. Edbrooke and Franklin Pierce Burnham (no relation to famous architect Daniel Burnham) designed a spacious hotel with an interesting design. Skylights capped the two wings of the U-shaped hotel to create brightly lit open corridors with public spaces perfect for mingling.
After the World's Fair, the the Mecca Flats became an apartment building, and home to the African Americans coming to Chicago from the South in search of a new life.
With this movement of blacks from the South to Chicago also came the arrival of jazz and blues, and the Bronzeville neighborhood was the heart of the Chicago blues and jazz scene as it was home to musicians and full of nightclubs. We share some great background on this area on our "Jazz, Blues and Beyond Bus Tour," which we offer just once a year to the public during Blues Fest weekend on June 14. Many musicians lived in the Mecca Flats, and a blues song called the "Mecca Flat Blues" tells to the hardships of living there, as it had become a sort of slum.
After World War II, the Illinois Institute of Technology was looking to grow, and its campus was located right next to the Mecca Flats. The school had hired Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to run the architecture program at the institution and also design an entirely new campus. The school bought up the surrounding land along State Street, including the Mecca Flats.
The exhibit shares some of the tension surrounding the destruction of the building. The symbolic replacement of a historic hotel with a modernist building shows the post-World War II push into modernity. One cool part of the exhibit is a salvaged railing from the flats that is displayed in front of a giant perspective photograph of the light court. You can try to imagine what it would have been like to be there in the past if you visit the exhibit by May 25th at the Cultural Center.