Journal Articles

Chicago's Mecca Flat Blues

By Daniel Bluestone |

"This essay explores the Mecca, one of Chicago's largest nineteenth-century apartment houses. Designed in 1891, the Mecca's innovative plan incorporated an exterior landscaped courtyard and two monumental interior atria. The form and meaning of these spaces diverged in important respects. The exterior courtyards appropriated aspects of the single-family residential form and domestic ideology. The interior atria relied on Chicago skyscraper models and their cosmopolitan approach to the possibilities of density. Exterior courtyards later proliferated, while atria appeared in only two other local residential buildings. Nevertheless, the Mecca's atria possessed a sense of place that deeply etched the building into Chicago's cultural and political landscape. The building became the subject of 1920s blues improvisation-the "Mecca Flat Blues." In the 1940s and 1950s tenants waged a decadelong Mecca preservation campaign. Housing rather than Chicago School aesthetics provided the preservationists with their point of departure. Race intersected with space and Mies van der Rohe's vision of modern urbanism to seal the Mecca's fate. The essay's methodology develops the social and cultural meaning of form. Moreover, it demonstrates the importance of pushing architectural history beyond the nexus of meaning created by original patrons and designers. We stand to learn a great deal about architectural and urban history by studying how people have defined and redefined, valued and devalued, their buildings, cities, and landscapes."

Bluestone, Daniel “Chicago’s Mecca Flat Blues,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians Vol 57, No 4 (Dec. 1998): 382-403.