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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.).
Opening Reception: Friday, February 21, 2014 from 5:30-7:30pm