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Chicago Residential Buildings in American History

Chicago Residential Buildings in American History

Chicago Residential Buildings in American History

Introduction

Chicago is known internationally for its lasting mark in the architectural world. The city is recognized as an architecture mecca because of the historic houses, beautiful conservatories, towering skyscrapers, and ornate towers. The city is associated with the construction and development of inexpensive residential buildings. The late 19th-century apartment’s buildings transformed the urban landscape that accommodated the many residents that required housing. The paper is a discussion on two residential buildings in American history located in Chicago. First is the Mecca Flat, which was initially built for the white upper class, but later, desegregated and housed a majority of black residents. The second building is the Glessner House of Prairie Avenue, which was commissioned by a wealthy family, and it survives to date as a museum. The interiors parts of the buildings have been discussed. The historical values of the structures have been highlighted, and the comparisons of their differences given.  

The Mecca Flats

The structure was an apartment in Chicago designed in 1891. The building was constructed by the architects, Franklin Pierce Burnham and Willoughby J. Edbrooke. The building reflected the architectural developments especially the role of lights and landscape that shaped the Chicago architecture at the time. [1] The size of the building combined with its originality capture the attention of the 1890s. It required a large population because the $600,000 structure contained 98 flats and occupied an area costing $200,000. The structure was built four miles to the south of downtown, and along the state street, it stretched 234 feet and to the west 266 feet along 34 streets to Dearborn. [2] Edbrooke and Burnham gave the building a unique u-shaped plan that was centered on a landscaped courtyard. The exterior of the yard provided Chicago with one of the first examples of low-rise courtyard apartment buildings with its beautiful fountain. [3] The building was architectural feet since it was the first of many buildings that catered for the housing crises of the working class.

The Interior of the Building

The Mecca has simple Romanesque-style elevations with arched entrances, rounded arched top floor windows that were rippled with projected window bays. Nearly every parlor had bay windows that increased air circulation and light throughout the apartment. The stringcourses and cornice cast shadows in the building. The composition and style reflected the leading forms of residential and commercial structures that were erected by leading architects in the 1880s. [4] Edbrooke and Burnham planned the two primary wings of the building around a skylit interior atrium. Each wing has a ground story lobby, heavily foliated ornamental balconies, and stairs that provided access to individual apartments. The interior rooms of each apartment had windows that opened onto the atria courts providing natural lights to the rooms. [5] The building had quadruple height skylight interior courts that were surrounded by stacked open corridors with iron guardrails. Residents entered the premises directly through the interior courts, making the central space an extension of the street life. [6] The design of the building made the apartments accessible from any side through the inner courts and the many residents who lived there were able to access their homes easily.

Historical Values

The Mecca flats are historically significant because they were initially constructed to house visitors to Colombia’s world exposition in 1893. The construction of the building began two years before the exhibition so that it could be ready to host guests who would attend the event.[7] During this time, the state street was divided racially with white residents to the east and African Americans to the west. The west side of the building faced challenges in attracting white tenants in the upper class as initially intended. Therefore, in 1911, the owners of the building retracted the all-white tenant policy, and the African American quickly populated the structure.[8] The demographics in Chicago were shifting, and these influenced the population that occupied the apartment. The great migration resulted in over half a million African Americans migrating to Chicago. There was an increase of the black community in the city, and by 1910, their number had doubled. The desegregation of the Mecca Flats resulted in the building being rented almost exclusively by black tenants. World war 11 expanded the job market for black professionals who were able to prosper, and a significant number of them could afford to move into the mecca. [9] The building is strongly associated with the African Americans who lived there, and the culture they brought to the area.

Jimmy Blythe was inspired by the vibrancy of the Mecca, and the musician wrote the “Mecca Flat Blues” in 1924 because of this inspiration. The tunes tell the story of a “Mecca Flat Woman” who “Stings Like a Stingaree” looking for her “Mecca Flat Man.” [10] Another person who was inspired by the flats was Gwendolyn Brooks who wrote a narrative poem that reflected on black experiences in the building in 1968 titled “In the Mecca.” [11] The Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) later purchased the building as it fell into disrepair because it was part of the university’s extension. The institution intended to demolish the structure, but the residents and housing advocates who did not want to see the Mecca destroyed met the plan with resistance. The opposition to the institution’s plan lasted for fifteen years, but it was finally completed in 1951. [12] The campaign to save the Mecca was seen as a defining moment because it created one of the first movements led by tenants, which was a precursor to the future battles of civil rights that the African American community had to face. By the end of the Second World War, it was clear that Mecca was not going to survive and the focus of the residents shifted from saving their homes to requesting the government to help them in finding new homes.[13] The building inspired a black renaissance in music and poem that tell the story and experiences of African Americans who occupied the flats. However, the structure did not survive as it was demolished to pave the way for IIT expansion.

The Glessner House on Prairie Avenue (Millionaire’s Row)

The Avenue consisted of a dense cluster of mansions that belonged to the most prosperous individuals near the south side of Chicago. [14] The area was close to the downtown businesses and could be accessed without crossing the Chicago River. Prairie Avenue featured the top class of the Chicago gentry and architects. [15] One of the most famous houses in millionaire’s row is the Glessner house located at 1800 S. Prairie Avenue, which was designed in 1886 by the famed Henry Hobson Richardson. The house was once the most fashionable in the city. [16] The house, which survives to date, is now a museum with many of its original furnishings.

On the exterior, the outside walls were made of rustic stones that were massive and arches that were round. The shape of the house and the appearance was highlighted by a foundation constructed by the Illinois dolomite together with bragville granite walls that were pink in color. A structural barrier hid a wall of common brick. [17] Beneath the first floor, the stones were slightly battered, and the granite grilles bared the windows in the basement. The windows on the second floor were more refined as mullions, which had capitals that were uniquely and finely curved, separating each window.[18] The building had a U-shaped asymmetrical footprint, which created a courtyard around the back of the house. The design of the building provided the Glessner family with privacy even though the house was close to the street. Staffrooms and general hallways were the ones facing the street. [19] The Glessner family, through the rise and fall of the neighborhood, owned the house.

The Interior of the House

On the inside, the house lacked vast empty spaces even though it had over 17,000 square feet. It had an asymmetrical plan for the rooms, and all rooms had centrally placed fireplaces that were flanked with either doors or openings on one side of the wall. There was a proportionate connection of the rooms, which created a balance between the informal and informal. [20] The family used three bedrooms in the house; the visitors had two, and the servants had eight. Three bedrooms were attached to the family and guest’s rooms. The servant’s chambers had two, and a half bathroom under the main staircases.[21] The house was wired for electricity when it was built, but since there was no infrastructure that could bring power to the area; the house had to be light by gas for the first six years. [22] Richardson designed the principal rooms in the house to face a quiet inner court to avoid the noise and dust of the surrounding city. The ceilings of the basement were plastered, and all the floors were deadened to prevent noise. The furnace room was placed under the carriage house garage to prevent dirt from getting into the house. The building had a crude air conditioning system that was installed in the basement to circulate air over a bin of ice blocks then passed it through the house. [23] The design of the house was a departure from the norm at the time, which was responsible for redefining Chicago domestic architecture.

Historical Values of the Building                                    

The Glessner house is a national historic landmark in the United States, and a notable American architect Henry Hobson Richards designed it. The structure inspired other famed architects like Luoise Sullivan, Frank Llyod Wright, and Mies van der Rohe. [24] The house was a designated landmark in Chicago and was added to the national treasure of historic places. The significance of the house is its innovative design and floor plan. [25] It was created towards the end of the career and life of Richardson who was the most famous architect in America in the 19th century. [26] After the prairie avenue was zoned industrial, the building was used as a commercial facility for lithograph printing. When it was vacated in 1965, it was threatened for demolition, but the emerging historic preservation movement campaigned to save the house, which was later purchased by a collection of activists and architects, and the house granted landmark status. [27]  The revolution in architecture and departure from Victorian buildings made the structure unique, prompting a campaign to save it.

The Glessner house is an example of a living history preserved because it has earned its place as one of Chicago’s most significant architectural treasures. The building was responsible for the proliferation of preservation groups and architectural advocacy in the city. [28] The trend continued, and the groups are still committed to safeguarding Chicago’s architectural legacy and urban landscape development. The building provided the open south loop with character, and it is now a museum that offers interpretive and educational programming. [29] The neighborhood was eventually made less appealing to the wealthy because of the train yard noise and the encroaching district of an industry. By 1920, the avenue was almost abandoned because homes were demolished in favor of factories. [30] However, the Glessner house stood the test of time.

The Differences between the Two Buildings

The Mecca is a late nineteenth century Chicago apartment, which was designed in 1891 and it reflected the broader architectural developments at the time; more so the role of lights and landscape. [31] Glassner house, on the other hand, was one of the famous houses in Prairie Avenue at 1800 S., and it belonged to an affluent family.  The building was designed in Henry Hobson Richardson in 1886.[32] The Mecca Flats were demolished to pave the way for the IIT while the Glessner house survived and is now a museum. The size of the Mecca was huge because it required to house many people. [33] Glessner house was home to a single family with many rooms. Some belonged to the family members while others belonged to their servants. The Mecca Flat was u-shaped centered on a landscaped courtyard. [34] The exterior of the Glessner house was covered with massive rustic stone blocks, and the house is L shaped. [35] The design of the Glessner house guaranteed privacy while the Mecca provided no privacy because it was designed to house many families.

In the interior, the Mecca had arched entrances with simple elevations and rounded arched windows with projected window bays. The bay windows increased air circulation and light in the apartment. [36] The building had two primary wings with a ground story lobby, balcony, and stairs that made access to individual apartments possible. [37]  The interior of the Glessner house provided the utmost privacy form noise, prying eyes, and separation from the servant’s quarter. The rooms were connected asymmetrically, and each had a fireplace. [38] In the mecca flats, every family had their apartments comprising 98 families. [39] The Glessner house had three family bedrooms; two were preserved for guest and eight for the family servants. [40] The main rooms faced the quiet interior of the house, and the floors were deadened to avoid noise from the streets. [41] The Glessner house was designed with privacy in mind because no private room faced the street while the Mecca was built to house many people considering the apartments were accessible from any point of the courtyard.

On historical values, the Mecca was initially constructed for the white upper class, but the building faced challenges in acquiring white tenants. Consequently, the owners retracted the all-white tenant policy in the building, paving the way for African Americans who needed housing. [42] The desegregation of the building made the structure almost exclusively black tenants because of the open job market during world war 11 that enabled many black professionals to grow. [43] The Glessner house, on the other hand, is a historical landmark that has inspired other famed architects. The house’s innovative floor plan and design revolutionized building architecture. [44] The Mecca flat inspired a song and poem, but it was eventually demolished when he IIT purchased the property to expand their campus. [45] The Glessner house was used as a residential building for fifty years, a lithography printing facility, and was later saved by a preservation movement that turned it at a museum.

Conclusion

Chicago is an architectural landmark and among the historic residential buildings are the Mecca Flats and The Glessner House. The Mecca housed ninety-eight families because it had ninety-eight apartments. The house was intended to appeal to the white upper class, but the targeted group did not find it appealing. The owners had to retract their desegregation policy, and this enabled many black professionals to occupy the building. The structure inspired the black renaissance and people such as Jimmy Blythe and Gwendolyn Brooks. However, it was eventually demolished as it fell into disrepair. The Glessner house, on the other hand, belonged to a white, wealthy family. It was on a street where the affluent of the Chicago live on ‘millionaire’s row.’ The home had many rooms that were asymmetrically connected with centrally placed fireplaces. The house was intentionally designed to provide the family with privacy. It was later turned into a commercial building and then a museum. The building has survived through the efforts of activists and architects who bought and transformed it. The house remains as a testament to an architectural revolution, and it is a historic landmark.

References

Altshuler, Joseph. Historic Mecca Flats apartment building unearthed in Chicago. July 20, 2018. https://archpaper.com/2018/07/mecca-flats-chicago-crown-hall/ (accessed April 14, 2019).

Bluestone, Daniel. Chicago’s Mecca Flat Blues, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 57, No.  , pp. 382-403 (22 pages). December 1998. https://www.jstor.org/stable/991458?seq=9#metadata_info_tab_contents (accessed April 14, 2019).

Glessner House. The House. n.d. https://www.glessnerhouse.org/the-house (accessed April 14, 2019).

Harrington, Elaine. Henry Hobson Richardson: J. J. Glessner House, Chicago (Opus, 7). n.d. https://www.amazon.com/Henry-Hobson-Richardson-Glessner-Chicago/dp/3803027071 (accessed April 14, 2019).

Marianna. Prairie Avenue Chicago: The City’s First Neighborhood of Mansions. October 25, 2012. https://www.chicagodetours.com/prairie-avenue/ (accessed April 14, 2019).

New city art. Portrait of a Museum: Glessner House. December 18, 2012. https://art.newcity.com/2012/12/18/portrait-of-a-museum-glessner-house/ (accessed April 14, 2019).

Schneider, Andrew, and Koziarz, Jay. Chicago’s greatest remaining Gilded Age mansions. March 8, 2019. https://chicago.curbed.com/maps/surviving-gilded-age-mansions-map (accessed April 14, 2019).

Smithsonian. Glessner House. n.d. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/museumday/venues/museum/glessner-house-museum/ (accessed April 14, 2019).

Steinkopf-Frank, Hannah. Rediscovering Mecca Flats, a Legendary Chicago Apartment Building. November 8, 2018. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/history-of-mecca-flats-in-chicago (accessed April 14, 2019).

Trip Advisor. Glessner House–Chicago’s architectural masterpiece. August 6, 2017. https://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g35805-d557732-r509422259-Glessner_House_Museum-Chicago_Illinois.html (accessed April 14, 2019).

Weiss, Jonas. Architecture and the Culture of Modernity. n.d. https://cargocollective.com/jonasweiss/Essays (accessed April 14, 2019).

Zanten, David T. H. H. Richardson’s Glessner House, Chicago, 1886-1887, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 23, No. 2, pp. 106-111. May 1964. https://www.jstor.org/stable/988165?seq=6#metadata_info_tab_contents (accessed April 14, 2019).


[1] Daniel Bluestone, Chicago’s Mecca Flat Blues, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 57, No. 4, pp. 382, December 1998. https://www.jstor.org/stable/991458?seq=9#metadata_info_tab_contents (accessed April 14, 2019).

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Joseph Altshuler, Historic Mecca Flats apartment building, unearthed in Chicago. July 20, 2018. https://archpaper.com/2018/07/mecca-flats-chicago-crown-hall/ (accessed April 14, 2019).

[7] Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Rediscovering Mecca Flats, a Legendary Chicago Apartment Building. November 8, 2018. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/history-of-mecca-flats-in-chicago (accessed April 14, 2019).

[8] Ibid

[9] Steinkopf-Frank, (7), n.p

[10] Ibid

[11] Altshuler, (6), n.p

[12] Ibid

[13] Steinkopf-Frank,  (7), n.p

[14] Marianna, Prairie Avenue Chicago: The City’s First Neighborhood of Mansions. October 25, 2012. https://www.chicagodetours.com/prairie-avenue/ (accessed April 14, 2019).

[15] Ibid

[16] Andrew Schneider and Jay Koziarz, Chicago’s greatest remaining Gilded Age mansions. March 8, 2019. https://chicago.curbed.com/maps/surviving-gilded-age-mansions-map (accessed April 14, 2019).

[17] Glessner House, The House. n.d. https://www.glessnerhouse.org/the-house (accessed April 14, 2019).

[18] Ibid

[19] Jonas Weiss, Architecture and the Culture of Modernity. n.d. https://cargocollective.com/jonasweiss/Essays (accessed April 14, 2019).

[20] Glessner House, (17), n.p

[21] Glessner House, (17), n.p

[22] Glessner House, (17), n.p

[23] David Zanten, T. H. H. Richardson’s Glessner House, Chicago, 1886-1887, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 23, No. 2, pp. 110. May 1964. https://www.jstor.org/stable/988165?seq=6#metadata_info_tab_contents (accessed April 14, 2019)

[24] Smithosonian, Glessner House. n.d. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/museumday/venues/museum/glessner-house-museum/ (accessed April 14, 2019).

[25] Trip Advisor, Glessner House–Chicago’s architectural masterpiece. August 6, 2017. https://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g35805-d557732-r509422259-Glessner_House_Museum-Chicago_Illinois.html (accessed April 14, 2019).

[26] Elaine Harrington, Henry Hobson Richardson: J. J. Glessner House, Chicago (Opus, 7). n.d. https://www.amazon.com/Henry-Hobson-Richardson-Glessner-Chicago/dp/3803027071 (accessed April 14, 2019).

[27] Glessner House, (18), n.p

[28] New city art, Portrait of a Museum: Glessner House. December 18, 2012. https://art.newcity.com/2012/12/18/portrait-of-a-museum-glessner-house/ (accessed April 14, 2019).

[29] Ibid

[30] Ibid

[31] Bluestone, (1), 382.

[32] Schneider and Koziarz,(16), n.p

[33] Bluestone, (1), 383.

[34] Ibid

[35] Glessner House, (17), n.p

[36] Bluestone, (1), 383.

[37] Ibid

[38] Glessner House, (17), n.p

[39] Bluestone, (1), 383.

[40] Glessner House, (17), n.p

[41] Zanten, (23), n.p

[42] Altshuler, (6), n.p

[43] Steinkopf-Frank,  (7), n.p

[44] Zanten, (23), n.p and Smithsonian, (24), n.p

[45] Altshuler, (6), n.p

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