Giving Preservation a History: Histories of Historic Preservation in the United States

By Max Page; Randall Mason | Go to book overview

8

CHICAGO'S MECCA FLAT BLUES1

Daniel Bluestone

CHICAGO'S LATE-NINETEENTH-CENTURY apartment buildings helped to dramatically transform the urban landscape. They provided architects with novel design problems and accommodated tens of thousands of residents. Nevertheless, architectural historians have more readily focused on other Chicago subjects, including the downtown skyscrapers and an alluring group of stylistically notable single-family houses dotting the suburban prairie. 2 In contrast to these structures, neatly categorized as either commercial or residential, the city's apartment houses represent an uneasy combination of public space and private realm, commerce and residence. These early apartment houses formed something of a hinge between the skyscraper and the single-family house, adopting skyscraper models for accommodating people at high density while navigating strong ideological commitments to the single-family residence. By their hybrid nature, they confounded the order that some observers believed appropriate to turn-of-the-twentieth-century urban social life.

This essay explores the Mecca (figure 8.1), one of Chicago's largest nineteenth-century apartment houses. Designed in 1891 by Willoughby J. Edbrooke and Franklin Pierce Burnham, the Mecca reflects broader architectural developments, in particular the role of natural light and landscape in shaping turn-of-the-twentieth-century Chicago architecture. Yet the Mecca, like many apartment buildings, differed from other urban structures in its unusually cosmopolitan combination of social and spatial elements. The Mecca's extraordinary twentieth-century history reveals many urban planners' intolerance for that openness intrinsic to

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