Harper’s Magazine called Bronzeville’s Mecca Flats building “The Strangest Place in Chicago.” With a history stretching back to the 1893 World’s Fair, it inspired a 1920s blues classic and poet Gwendolyn Brooks. The Chicago Cultural Center examines the role of the storied structure in the exhibition “Mecca Flat Blues.”
The Mecca Flats was a 96-unit, U-shaped apartment building at 34th and State. Built by the firm of Willoughby J. Edbrooke and Franklin Pierce Burnham (no relation to Chicago’s Daniel Burnham), it was designed for the well to do and used as a hotel for the World’s Fair. It featured glass-covered lobbies, a skylight and distinctive iron railings.
Residents transitioned to the middle class. By the 1920s it had fallen into disrepair. The population retained some middle-class African American professionals like hotel clerks and Pullman Porters but developed a reputation as a slum. The open walkways kept few secrets and lent themselves to squabbling couples, crime and vice.
The goings-on serve as the basis for Jimmy Blythe’s 1924 recording of “Mecca Flat Blues.” The exhibition plays the tune and several other versions on a 45-minute loop. Gwendolyn Brooks paid tribute with her long poem “In the Mecca.”
Shortly before the building’s demolition in 1952, there had been a fire. Arson was suspected. Photographer Wallace Kirkland was able to take a set of photographs for Life Magazine in 1951.
Mecca Flat Blues runs through May 25, 2014, in the Sidney R. Gates Galley in the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E Washington Street, Chicago. Chicago-born author Thomas Dyja presents “The Battle for the Mecca” in the gallery at 12:15pm on April 8. The Gallery will host a floorshow “The Ballyhoo!” on April 27, 2014, with hot jazz band The Fat Babies, chanteuse Amanda Wolff and dancers The Galaxie Girls.