The Musical Chicago Story of the Mecca Flats

The loss of historic architecture, such as Chicago’s Mecca Flats, is not unusual in an ever-changing city. Some the great architecture of Chicago stands on sites of buildings that we would be sad to know are now gone – if we had indeed ever been familiar with their architectural spaces. After guiding one of our Loop Interior Architecture Walking tours, I checked out the special exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center right now that pays homage to the incredible history of the now-gone Mecca Flats.

This building in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood was on the site of Mies van der Rohe’s S.R. Crown Hall. The exhibit, curated by Chicago Cultural Historian Tim Samuelson, uses photographs, music, ephemera and artifacts to share the story of this fascinating building over its 60-year history.

The Mecca Flats and the Black Metropolis

This story begins with its building in 1891 on State Street at 34th Street. Lesser-known architects Willoughby J. Edbrooke and Franklin Pierce Burnham (no relation to famous architect Daniel Burnham) designed this luxurious hotel for visitors of the upcoming 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. While it may not be considered a masterpiece of Chicago architecture, the building had an interesting design. Skylights capped the two wings of the U-shaped hotel to create brightly lit open corridors with public space for mingling. After the World’s Fair, the the Mecca Flats became an apartment building, and home to the African Americans coming to Chicago in search of a new life during the Great Migration.

mecca flats chicago jazz blues
1945, Paul Eduard Miller and Richard M. Jones. State street on 1920s map of Chicago jazz spots. Photo Credit: Jenn Harrman

With this movement of blacks from the South to Chicago also came the arrival of jazz and blues, and the Bronzeville neighborhood was the heart of the Chicago blues and jazz scene. Nightclubs lined State Street, between 31st and 35th Street, which was also known as “The Stroll.” We share some great background on this area on our “Jazz, Blues and Beyond Bus Tour,” which we offer once a year to the public during Blues Fest weekend in June. And many musicians lived in the Mecca Flats, and they had jam sessions in the light courts and the social spaces that were originally designed for the hotel. A blues favorite titled the “Mecca Flat Blues” tells to the hardships and woes of living in the flats.

A Modernist Replacement

Mecca flats Crown hall chicago cultural center exhibit
Mecca Flat Blues exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center. Photo Credit: Jenn Harrman

After World War II, the newly formed Illinois Institute of Technology, previously known as the Armour Institute, was growing and was located right next to the Mecca Flats. The school had hired Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (I’m a big fan) to run the architecture program at the institution and also design an entirely new campus. The school bought up the surrounding land along State Street, including the Mecca Flats. We can take you on a tour of the IIT Campus and explore its many works of Modernist architecture.

I was lucky to attend a special lecture at the Cultural Center led by author Thomas Dyja entitled, “The Battle for the Mecca.” In the 1940s the Mecca Flats was overcrowded with blacks who were not welcome to live in many areas of the city. With IIT’s desire to tear down the Mecca Flats, this became a site of political and social divides, and Dyja expands upon this conflict in his award-winning book The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream.  Dyja explained in his talk how many saw the Mecca Flats as an overcrowded slum, but others saw it as home. The destruction of the Mecca Flats and the building of S.R. Crown Hall represents the post-World War II push into modernity. But with the loss of the Mecca Flats, we lost an important site of Chicago jazz and blues history.

Visit the Exhibit!

mecca flats chicago cultural center architecture
Mecca Flat Blues exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center. Photo Credit: Jenn Harrman

The exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center runs through May 25th. You can see the incredible architectural differences of these two buildings. One cool part of the exhibit is this salvaged railing from the flats in front of a perspective shot of the light court. You can try to imagine what it would have been like to be there in the past.

–Jenn Harrman, Marketing Manager and Tour Guide


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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

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Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

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With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

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Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
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Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

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Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
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