To encounter photographic evidence of Mecca Flats is to be transported to another world. In 2014, when the Chicago Cultural Center exhibited haunting images of the sunlit, empty building—set in the heart of Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, long the center of the city’s Black Belt—the large scale of the photos allowed viewers to imagine breaking the two-dimensional plane, slipping decades back in time into the ghostly space. Recorded only through black-and-white photography, the building—first constructed as a hotel for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition, then serving as apartments for generations of Black residents before being demolished in 1952—feels inevitably lost to history, a distant relic erased by the short-sightedness of an earlier era of urban redevelopment.
Now, new colors and shading are being added to the story of Mecca Flats and S.R. Crown Hall, the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe-designed building that was built to displace the Mecca as part of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s master-planned campus. Vibrant blues and reds offer deeper meaning to our understanding of the long-destroyed structure, thanks to floor tiles that were excavated beneath Crown Hall as IIT conducted routine maintenance of the campus heating system in 2018. Today, inspired by that discovery, multiple projects carried out by Chicago-based artists are carrying forth the exciting task of reimagining Mecca Flat’s import. They reanimate a period of Chicago’s urban history that left paths unexplored, imagining an alternate reality where the construction of one architectural masterpiece did not require the loss of another.
“The prevailing view of architecture somehow argues for the destruction of Mecca Flats ... which is a useless task for us,” Roland Knowlden, an IIT-trained architectural designer and artist, says, rejecting the common notion that the Mecca's demolition was a necessary evil in the creation of Crown Hall. “The harder task is to imagine what would have happened if they didn't knock down the building.”
Knowlden, currently an architectural designer at Chicago-based Future Firm, graduated from IIT’s architecture program in 2020. While at the school, he met future collaborator Davey Friday in Crown Hall, the flagship building at the heart of the Modernist campus designed by van der Rohe, who served as IIT’s dean of architecture from 1938 to 1958. The two soon bonded over their shared interest in blending art and architecture, and together, they’re showing “Buried Beauty, Broken Block”—a collaboration that draws inspiration from the overlapping worlds of Mecca Flats and Crown Hall—at Chicago’s Roots & Culture Contemporary Art Center from Nov. 11 through Dec. 17.
The first public display of many of Friday’s anatomically-inspired drawings and Knowlden’s reconfigured maps came in mid-August. Hosted in Crown Hall, “Mies Killed Jazz: A Midterm Review” opened the pair’s ongoing collaboration to public critique on the site that unites these two layers of architectural history. While many of the pieces only indirectly comment on the ways in which IIT’s master-planned campus stunted the legacy of Mecca Flats, the two are nevertheless motivated by overlapping questions on how changes in the urban fabric ricochet within the human bodies that use those spaces. Knowlden’s works remap micro-scale urban designs into new forms, while Friday’s training as a biologist reveals the city’s traces upon the micro-scale of the body itself; together, the work forms a polarity, meeting in the middle ground on the scale of a single site, a vessel for human activity and a single point in the larger city fabric.
For Friday, a fourth-generation Bronzeville resident who used to travel just down the road to visit his grandmother’s apartment in the now-demolished Clarence Darrow Homes, located directly south of IIT’s campus, imagining a reanimated Mecca Flats is in part a process of understanding the destruction of Chicago’s public housing and the deeper layers of the past that public housing itself tore down. Multiple generations of vanished structures erase memory, obscuring generations of Black life that played out over decades within just a few square miles.
“I remember seeing [public housing authorities] set the dynamite off to bring some of the towers down, and now that history is gone, but this is where people lived their entire lives,” Friday says. “My grandma told me all the time, ‘I love the projects,’ that [they were] was awesome, beautiful, transformative. But talking about urban renewal, I can only imagine what Chicago in the Black Belt would have looked like in the 1940s.”
When Mies van der Rohe first arrived in Chicago in 1938, forced into exile from his native Germany due to the rising tide of Nazi violence, IIT looked considerably different from the campus he’d soon redesign. Known at the time as the Armour Institute until it merged with the Lewis Institute in 1940, the school had a modest footprint, concentrated primarily in a stately, red-brick building first constructed in 1893. But over the next several decades, the German exile put his stamp on the fledgling institution, expanding its reach in a moment when urban renewal further transformed the nearby area.
In the years following World War II, IIT expanded by an average of two buildings per year, a pace which continued until 1968. Twenty of these structures were created by Mies himself, fit into a master plan that subverted historical approaches to university campus planning and emphasized a simple, open design that could accommodate changing building uses while maintaining a coherent structure.
But while renderings of the soon-to-be campus imagined an elegant, unified rectangular pattern descending upon the urban landscape as if by magic, the reality of IIT’s surroundings—and the consequences of altering them—was far more complex. The campus’s western edge, set along Wentworth Boulevard, was long considered the South Side’s racial dividing line, separating the overcrowded, lively “Black Metropolis” of Bronzeville to the east from Bridgeport—home of the white political machine of Mayor Richard J. Daley, in office from 1955 to 1976—to the west. The completion of the Dan Ryan Expressway in 1961 solidified the division of the two communities, while the further development of public housing projects like the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens created a dramatic, uniform row of new residences, tearing down thousands of units of overcrowded, cut-up apartment buildings in Bronzeville in the process.
As part of its expanding footprint, the university purchased Mecca Flats, located at the intersection of State and 34th Streets, in 1941. After transforming into apartments following the completion of the 1893 world’s fair, Mecca Flats exclusively housed white families until the mid-1910s, when rapid shifts in the neighborhood’s racial composition ensured it would become home to thousands of Black residents, jam-packed into just 96 units. When it was first built, the building pioneered several critical architectural ideas such as Chicago’s first open-air courtyard accessible to the street, which contributed to what one scholar described as “forced private togetherness” as the building began housing more residents than originally intended. The Mecca’s unique design and eventual overcrowding led to Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks’s In The Mecca, in which a woman finds her daughter murdered inside the building, encountering its eclectic mix of Black residents along the way.
Despite the structure’s architectural and cultural significance, IIT always intended to tear it down to accommodate its expansive master plan. Nevertheless, its residents sustained a spirited, 15-year campaign to preserve the building, a touchstone battle against the forces of urban renewal that transformed Black urban space in the postwar years. After years of neglect by the university, Mecca Flats was finally torn down in 1952, displacing more than 1,000 people.
For the seven artists and co-principles behind the Chicago-based collective Floating Museum, Mecca Flats possesses a similar sense of ongoing resonance as it does for Knowlden and Friday. Drawing upon the group’s name and their desire to bring their artistic interventions to various sites within the city, Floating Monuments: Mecca Flats will attempt to render the building in inflatable form, allowing some sense of its physicality to return to the built environment.
Andrew Schachman, one of the co-principles of Floating Museum, was a professor at IIT when the Mecca Flats basement tiles were unearthed in 2018. He says that the uncovering of buried history, recent enough that many alive today were around during the destruction of the Flats, speaks to America’s deep cultural amnesia and a relentless forward motion that’s effaced countless architectural monuments.
“When you erase the physical context, you lose sense of where those events happen, and there's no way of framing things,” Schachman says. “In Europe, you have buildings that have been around for 500 years and a layering of histories, but here the city replaces itself constantly.”
The Floating Monument version of Mecca Flats, set to be developed next year, will travel to various Chicago Parks District sites. While its balloon-based infrastructure will not allow viewers to enter the space, its large-scale recreation will nevertheless approximate the experience of viewing the original building from the exterior. To give viewers an expansive sense of the world that the Mecca existed in, the group is also collaborating with archivists to put the building in a deeper historical context, showing its role as a focal point for the lively Black culture that emerged in Chicago’s Black Belt in the early 20th century.
“Bronzeville was a space that allowed Black folks to express themselves without a white lens,” Avery R. Young, another Floating Museum co-principle, says. “Mecca Flats was a cultural institution, an architectural gem, and an urban palace, and we’re sharing that history with the public, so what they may have not thought was significant becomes significant in our presentation.”
While the 2014 Chicago Cultural Center exhibition introduced the Mecca into wider cultural consciousness within Chicago, the discovery of basement tiles underneath Crown Hall in 2018 kicked off a new era of soul-searching about the building’s significance. While the black-and-white photographs unintentionally presented the building as a tragic victim of urban renewal forces, trapped in a faraway, unalterable past, the uncovering of the tiles showed how the building could raise questions about IIT’s role in redeveloping Bronzeville.
At an event about the discovery, IIT graduate John Vinci, a widely regarded architectural preservationist, condemned the Mecca as a “failure of a building” while downplaying IIT’s purposeful neglect, suggesting that Crown Hall was “probably the most democratic building that was ever built.” While Vinci’s disdain shocked many in the audience, interim dean of IIT’s College of Architecture Michelangelo Sabatino acknowledged the school’s role in the Mecca’s demise and its previous silence on the topic, stating, “I think 20 years ago, [if] they had unearthed these pavements—I don’t think anyone would have paid quite the same amount of concerted attention.”
After years as a student at IIT, where he saw building crews unearth the Mecca Flats tiles, Knowlden argues that there’s simply no way of telling the story of Crown Hall without acknowledging Mecca Flats. While the usual forces of redevelopment have erased countless other buildings, lives, and histories from the contemporary urban landscape, the concentration of two monuments of architectural greatness—one present, one floating—in one location forces us to remember what came before.
“If you tell the story of Crown Hall without Mecca Flats, it has no tension within the reality that we live in,” Knowlden says. “The truth makes Crown Hall and Mecca Flats my two favorite buildings and makes them both more powerful and compelling, even though their stories are conflicting.”