The storied Mecca Building at 34th and State stood where Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe’s S.R. Crown Hall now stands. Designed by lesser known architects, Willoughby Edbrooke and Franklin Pierce Burnham in 1891, the building served as a luxurious hotel for visitors to Chicago for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. Later it served as apartments for migrants who came to Chicago during the Great Migration.
Mecca had 176 apartments and like many buildings in Bronzeville it was overcrowded. It was a neighborhood described as hyper-populated, dense, bursting at the seams in an atmosphere where Restrictive Covenants held the hopeful dream-filled people in check.
In reading the first chapter of The Third Coast, Thomas Dyja’s factual but lyrical description of post-Depression Chicago, he talks about one of the people who was out of place in the Mecca. Gwendolyn Brooks, the young poet, worked there for E. N. French, a spiritual guide, selling incense and dream guides to the residents there. Dyja says: “the incense helped create a heavenly atmosphere, and it blocked the stench. As she stepped out the door, a complex mixture of smells told stories of the thousand or so people who lived in the Mecca’s 176 apartments: unattended children pissing through the railings; the shit and ammonia stink of boiling chitlins; simmering garbage; the cigarettes of those whiling away yet another day. Gwendolyn didn’t belong here for many reasons, but mainly because she felt tainted by the lies of E.N. French; the work of a poet was truth of the most eternal kind, and Gwendolyn Brooks at twenty-one was above all things a poet.”