I had quite the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe experience when I visited the Chicago area last month. In addition to his Farnsworth House, I also went to S.R. Crown Hall on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus.
I was interested in Crown Hall and the IIT campus ever since I read Daniel Bluestone’s “Chicago’s Mecca Flat Blues” in “Giving Preservation a History,” a collection of scholarly articles about the history of preservation efforts in the United States. Built in 1891 as Chicago geared up for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, the Mecca was no ordinary South Side apartment building. Natural light poured in through the atrium, and the grounds were parklike despite the Mecca’s proximity to the factories, rail yards, and slaughterhouses of turn-of-the-century Chicago.
Originally home to middle-class white residents, poorer black renters quickly predominated as they flocked to bustling Chicago from the depressed South. The Mecca became a center of Chicago’s black community and the inspiration for the famed song “Mecca Flat Blues,” among other works. White leaders did not share their reverence for the Mecca, and it was slated for the wrecking ball at the dawn of World War II. The Mecca–by then owned by the expansion-minded IIT–was torn down in 1952 despite the protests from the black community.
IIT traces its roots to the Armour Institute, formed in 1893 by the family of Armour hot dogs fame. In 1940, the Armour Institute became known as IIT. The most important moment in IIT’s history, after its founding, came in 1938 when Mies took the reins of the School of Architecture. Before that, Mies ran the Bauhaus, a seminal design school, in Germany and was one of the best Modernist designers in the world. Mies created the IIT master plan in 1941 and designed 20 campus buildings in the following decades, the largest collection of his architecture in the world. One of those buildings was the School of Architecture’s Crown Hall, opened in 1956 and built on the site of the Mecca apartments. Here is a more detailed history of the hall.
I was more impressed with Crown Hall than the Farnsworth House, because it’s much more functional as an architecture learning environment than the Farnsworth House is for habitation. The steel (painted black) and glass box is eye-catching despite its simplicity. The interior is a single room, 220-by-120 feet with 18-foot tall ceilings. Thanks to a $15 million restoration in 2005, it looks as fresh today as it did in 1956. In 2001, it was designated a National Historic Landmark, a distinction only given to structures that posses all four National Register of Historic Places criterion. In an area that contains the works of so many architectural giants, Crown Hall stands among Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s finest designs.
Elsewhere on campus…