It’s been more than 60 years since the Mecca Flats building stood at 34th and State Street, yet it remains a prominent story in both architectural and sociological discussions. Mecca Flat Blues, which opens February 15 in the Sidney R. Yates Gallery on the fourth floor, is an exhibition that clearly demonstrates the two distinct identities of that building.
It was initially interpreted as a building for the rich, a reputation burnished by its use as a hotel during the 1893 World’s Fair. While the apartments were large, that was not an accurate description as residents were generally middle-class. In 1912, the building transitioned from all Caucasian residents to African American residents, and still housing middle-class professionals such as hotel clerks and Pullman Porters.
The building’s design of a skylight interior court with ornately-designed railings was distinctive, but it also contributed to the building’s reputation as having no secrets. Resident’s behaviors were less than pious which led songwriter/pianist Jimmy Blythe to write the song from which the exhibition takes its name, “Mecca Flat Blues.”
The apartment complex inspired more than a song especially when an aspiring writer went to work for one of its residents. Called upon to deliver goods door-to-door, the writer became familiar with all the residents, getting to know them in her line of duty. Eventually the writer, Gwendolyn Brooks, would publish her poem, “In the Mecca.”
As the Illinois Institute of Technology began to expand, Mecca Flats stood in its way, but residents fought to keep their building, only losing the battle when it fell into disrepair in 1951. While preservationists often lament that replacement buildings never live up to the original beloved building, Mecca Flats was replaced by Mies Van der Rohe’s Crown Hall (a site of a Jan Tichy video display.).
Chicago Cultural Historian Tim Samuelson will lead a series of exhibition events that will include curator-led gallery talks, and musical concerts recreating the music of Chicago's South Side jazz and blues scene of the 1920s. The concerts will feature a vintage player piano and authentic recordings played on antique phonographs. Sidney R. Yates Gallery
February 27 and March 27 at 12:15pm
March 6 and May 3 at 12:15pm
The Battle for the Mecca
Lecture by Thomas Dyja
April 8 at 12:15pm
One square block on the Near South Side inspired both Gwendolyn Brooks' greatest poem and one of Mies van der Rohe's finest structures, S.R. Crown Hall. Thomas Dyja will explore this half-acre of confluence and connection, where Chicago's past met its future in ways that touched race, urban planning, politics, poetry and architecture. Mr. Dyja is a Chicago-born author whose book, The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream won the Chicago Tribune's 2013 Heartland Prize for non-fiction and was named one of the New York Times' 100 Notable Books of the Year. Sidney R. Yates Gallery
February 15-May 25, 2014
Chicago Cultural Center Hours:
Chicago Cultural Center
Monday–Thursday, 9 am–7 pm
Friday, 9 am–6 pm
Saturday, 9 am–6 pm
Sunday, 10 am–6 pm
Sidney R. Yates Gallery Hours:
Monday–Thursday, 10 am–7 pm
Friday–Sunday, 10 am–6 pm
Chicago Cultural Center, Sidney R. Yates Gallery, 4th Floor
78 E. Washington St.
Chicago, IL 60602