The Mecca: Where modernism began (and memories of Mies)

The first time I heard of the Mecca, the grand old apartment building in Bronzeville, was when I read Thomas Dyja’s colorful cultural history, The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream. (The book won the 2013 Heartland Prize for nonfiction.) The current exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center—Mecca Flat Blues—tells the story of the Mecca and how that very site became the location of the campus of Illinois Institute of Technology and of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s masterpiece, S R Crown Hall. I just reviewed the exhibit for Gapers Block. You can read my article here.

Photo by Nancy Bishop.

Photo by Nancy Bishop.

The Mecca was located on 34th and State streets. Amazing stories swirled around the Mecca itself from its opening in 1892 until its demolition in 1952. Dyja gave a lecture last week on “The Battle for the Mecca” and described how that one square block on 34th Street between State and Dearborn streets inspired so much. Gwendolyn Brooks’ great poem “In the Mecca,” was about the time she spent working there. A blues song from the 1920s, “Mecca Flat Blues,” commemorated the building, which was part of an entertainment district where jazz and blues flourished.  When you check out my review, be sure to play the video of the blues song with audio from the original vinyl recording, played on a very old turntable. The Mecca was demolished and the site scraped clean to provide the site for the new IIT building. Dyja called it a palimpsest: a writing surface scraped clean for new writing on which traces of past writing remain.

The exhibit continues in the Sidney Yates Gallery at the Cultural Center until May 25.  See details at the end of my review.

A note about my Gapers Block article: Chicago Magazine named it one of the “must-read articles of the week.” I was kinda pleased.

Memories of Mies

S R Crown Hall. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

S R Crown Hall. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

My first visit to Crown Hall was an unforgettable experience for a longtime devotee of architecture and design. It was September 1969 and a major retrospective celebrating 50 years of Bauhaus art and design was on display at Crown Hall. Mies van der Rohe, its architect, was one of the many alumni of the Bauhaus who came to Chicago in the 1930s. Mies had died just the month before—in August 1969. I was living in DeKalb at the time and had never been to the IIT campus, even though I had grown up in Chicago—on the far northwest side. But I was a lover of Bauhaus design and the exhibit was something I could not miss. I started early, so I could spend a whole long day at the exhibit. I had seen small photos of Crown Hall so I knew the building I was looking for on the unfamiliar campus. But as I walked toward it, it took my breath away. The expanse of glass gleaming in the sun and the precision of the steel i-beams were simply stunning. Even though other Mies high-rise buildings are also considered masterpieces, this four-story academic building is much more elegant, because its entirety can be appreciated in one view.

Original catalog from 1969. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

Original catalog from 1969. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

The Bauhaus exhibit was very comprehensive and thrilling to see. Paintings, photography, architectural renderings and photographs, furniture, sculpture, pottery, typography by dozens of famous artists and designers. I was on sensory overload by the end of the day. I still have the square 365-page catalog, which I count among my treasures.

See the Farnsworth House

Another beautiful example of Mies’ low-rise designs is his Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois—a museum house that’s open for tours April through November.

Related posts

Walking the Mies staircase at the Arts Club. Scroll down in my October post.

Chicago’s Bauhaus legacy. See my comments on the great 2013 exhibit at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art.


How I spent my week…theater, art, music

A great theater experience, plus some cartoon art and memories of the Bauhaus. The finishing touch was a Steve Earle concert.  Am I lucky to live in Chicago or what?

Terminus at Interrobang Theatre Project

Mark O’Rowe is one of the new generation of Irish playwrights whose work was first seen in the 1990s. In Terminus, being presented by Interrobang Theatre Project, he displays his fascination with language and his passion for words. Terminus isn’t so much a play as a series of stories, intertwined in monologues by three characters, known only as A, B and C. Their stories, set in the streets of Dublin, begin separately and gradually become more connected, until they are finally merged in a glorious fantasy of blood, sweat, tears and sex. That’s how my review of Terminus begins.  It’s a terrific play with thrilling language.  Truly a treat to listen to. I recommend it highly.

Modern Cartoonist: Daniel Clowes exhibit at MCA


Daniel Clowes is a well-known graphic novelist, who has published nearly 50 books and magazines. Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes is his current exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which runs until October 13.  The show is beautifully designed and curated and has many lovely little graphic surprises.

It was very interesting to see the progression and process of Clowes’ work, sometimes from sketch through inking and printing.  For some publications, a series of pen and ink on tissue pages was shown. Since so much art today is created on the computer, it’s fascinating to see so many of Clowes’ pages drawn by hand on paper.

Image: Collection of Daniel Clowes. Courtesy of the artist and Oakland Museum of California

Chicago’s Bauhaus Legacy at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art

bauhaus2-new-website1It’s been years since I visited this little gem of a museum on Chicago Avenue in Ukrainian Village.  Do not think it’s only about Ukrainian art; it’s really a center for modern and contemporary art.  The Bauhaus exhibit is fabulous and it’s open through this Sunday, September 29. If you are interested in modernism, you don’t want to miss it.

The legacy starts with Lazslo Moholy-Nagy moving to Chicago to establish the US version of the famous German citadel of design.  The Bauhaus’ existence was threatened in the 1930s by Hitler’s aversion to modern art. Moholy-Nagy was followed by other artists and designers who moved to Chicago (including Mies van der Rohe). The New Bauhaus went through many name changes and locations and in 1949 became part of the IIT Institute of Design.

The exhibit includes about 150 pieces by 90 artists and designers.  Work includes painting, sculpture, photography, architecture plans, furniture and design pieces.  A lovely example of the latter is a bar of Dove soap, designed by three students in 1952 as part of a special project funded by Lever Brothers.  Dove still uses the same shape for its soap bars.  (The original carved wooden prototype is on show at the Chicago History Museum.)

In addition to the main exhibit in the west gallery, the east gallery includes Bauhaus work from the institute’s permanent collection. There’s also a very interesting wall that shows the birth and development of the Ukrainian institute.

I’m going to write a feature on the institute for Gapers Block and I’ll provide a link to it here when I do.

Steve Earle at the Vic book2

Steve Earle and the Dukes played a great concert at the Vic Saturday. The setlist included many of his fine old songs as well as tracks from his new album, The Low Highway. His band is made up of four musicians: a drummer, upright bass player, lead guitarist and fiddler/mandolin player.  Earle plays a number of stringed instruments himself (guitar, mandolin, banjo) and sings lead vocals. Many of his songs (and his occasional patter between songs) involve social commentary.  Here are a few lines from the song “The Low Highway.”

Heard an old man grumble and a young girl cry
A brick wall crumble and the white dove fly
A cry for justice and a cry for peace
The voice of reason and the roar of the beast
And every mile was a prayer I prayed
As I rolled down the low highway.

His novel–I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive–is on my reading list and coming up soon.