Yesterday, I attended an event at The IIT College of Architecture celebrating the recent recovery of architectural elements and artifacts from the Mecca Flat — the historic residential building which previously occupied the site of Mies van der Rohe’s S. R. Crown Hall. The program was entitled “Shared History: The Mecca Flat Revealed at IIT Architecture,” and it was fascinating.
Recent work on the mechanical plumbing system at the southwest corner of the current building’s grounds at 34th and State led to the discovery of intact tile flooring from the Mecca, among other artifacts. Some of the pieces on display are shown here:
The plumbing 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, in a permanent exhibition dedicated to the Mecca Flat. Others will be donated to national and local cultural institutions.
Yesterday’s event began with a performance of Jelly Roll Morton’s 1924 Mamanita, which perfectly evoked the era. It then proceeded to a panel discussion on four perspectives on the architectural discoveries: Rebecca S. Graff, the historical archeologist who conducted the excavation; Tim Samuelson, the City of Chicago’s Cultural Historian; Daniel Bluestone, the Boston University professor who has extensively researched and written about the Mecca; and Thomas Dyja, author of The Third Coast.
The Mecca was a sociological and architectural landmark, and the discussion centered on the many ways it was significant in the culture of the South Side in the first half of the 20th century. Designed by the Chicago architecture firm Edbrooke and Burnham, it featured a pair of quadruple-height skylit interior courts surrounded by stacked open corridors with ornately-detailed iron guardrails. It was the first courtyard apartment building. As Bluestone described it, it provided residential density framed by the landscape, with the atria enhancing the sense of community within the building. in which residents could observe each other’s comings and goings.
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, 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. The Mecca was finally demolished in 1951.
In retrospect, it has become a paradigm for a key 21st century question: how can architecture build more vibrant, just communities? Yesterday’s program was an important step toward acknowledging the role of institutions in the destruction of vibrant communities in the United States, and in their continuing responsibility for repairing those annihilations. IIT should be congratulated on hosting this event.