Chicago buildings lay claim to many architectural firsts. Some structures past and present were cultural touchstones as well. One even had a song named after it—“Mecca Flat Blues.” Later, it became the setting for a major poem, “In The Mecca” by Gwendolyn Brooks.
The Bronzeville apartment building at 34th and State Streets has been gone for more than 60 years, but it was significant for both its design and sociological reasons.
Mecca Flats is the subject of a free exhibit that runs through May 25th in the Sidney R. Yates Gallery of the Chicago Cultural Center. Wall-sized photographs depict the massive glass-covered lobbies and intricate wrought-iron railings.
The slow, mournful and melancholy of composer Jimmy Blythe’s “Mecca Flat Blues” is a fitting homage to a building that started out much differently than it ended. It was originally built for an affluent clientele during the Columbian Exposition.
Twenty years after it was built, Mecca Flats switched gears from all Caucasian residents to African American residents. It was the residence of choice for middle-class professionals. Eventually, the property was needed for the expansion of the Illinois Institute of Technology. Residents tried without success to keep Mecca Flats alive. The Mies Van der Rohe-designed Crown Hall now sits on the site of Mecca Flats.