Steam Tunnel Repair Reveals Intact Tiles, Artifacts from Historic Mecca Flats

While Excavating Outside S. R. Crown Hall, Workers Uncover Preserved Walkways, Other Objects from 1891 Building

August 6, 2018

Intact stone pathways, decorative tiles, and other objects part of the historic Mecca Flats were uncovered near S. R. Crown Hall in June as workers excavated the site for steam tunnel repairs.

The tiling is thought to be from what was the basement of Mecca Flats, a hotel first constructed for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and that later was converted to apartments and became a Bronzeville cultural icon.

The building inspired songwriter/pianist Jimmy Blythe to write “Mecca Flat Blues.” Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “In the Mecca” is also about the complex.

Mecca Flats was demolished in 1951. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall was completed in 1956.

While historians and archivists knew Mecca Flats had occupied the space previously, they were surprised to find the tiles, walkways, and glass bottles still intact and largely undisturbed. Students and faculty from Lake Forest College joined Illinois Tech students and faculty in assisting in the excavation.

On August 7 IIT Architecture hosted members of the public who visited Crown Hall to view these artifacts for the first time since their excavation. A conversation with community leaders, local historians, authors, and members of the Illinois Tech community was held to reflect on and plan for the future of the artifacts.

Historians Tim Samuelson and Tim Black, architect Gunny Harboe, and Alderman Pat Dowell (3rd Ward) gave remarks. The Bronzeville Historical Society; the Chicago Architectural Preservation Archive; and Brooks Permissions, a permissions firm that manages the use of literary works by Gwendolyn Brooks, were all present. The event included a performance by pianist and composer Reginald Robinson and a roundtable discussion with speakers including Samuelson, Black, historians Thomas Dyja and Daniel Bluestone, and Chair of Urban Studies at Lake Forest College Rebecca Graff.

“It’s a building that’s been gone for 70 years now,” Illinois Tech University Archivist Ralph Pugh says. “But people still talk about the Mecca Flats. You still have architecture historians writing articles about the Mecca Flats. You still have cultural historians talking about the jazz and blues that was performed in the Mecca Flats or near the Mecca Flats. For the African-American community, it’s one of the important buildings of early Bronzeville. Even though it’s gone, it has never left anyone’s memory.”

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