The first couple of times I visited Chicago I stayed at the Cass Hotel on North Wabash Avenue – at that time an inexpensive, serviceable place to stay with a fluorescent-lit coffee-shop on the ground floor and a dark bar by the entrance. Now it’s transformed into a boutique Holiday Inn Express: http://www.casshotel.com/index.php.
On my first visit, in 2001, I was intrigued by the building on the next block, an exceptionally rich essay in Moorish Revival style, bristling with Islamic motifs, which I was told was the Medinah Temple – not in any sense a place of worship, but a Shriners’ temple.
The Shriners – properly entitled the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine – are virtually inexplicable to the British. It’s akin to explaining Oddfellows to an American (though there is an American connection, the Odd Fellows).
The Shriners is a philanthropic organisation, responsible among much else for operating children’s hospitals. The founders sought to combine Freemasonry with fun and fellowship, and their temples provided enormous auditoria in which huge fundraising entertainments could take place.
The Chicago Medinah Temple was a much-loved venue for circuses and graduations. Built in 1912, it could seat 4,200, and because of its excellent acoustics and its huge five-manual organ it was regularly used as a recording studio by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Noël Coward, obliged to undergo an uncomfortable medical procedure in the nearby Passavant Hospital (now part of the Northwestern Memorial Hospital), was at first irritated by the noise of the massed bands of the Shriners marching to their temple, but later admitted that their rhythmic rendition of ‘Darktown Strutters’ Ball’ “helped a little, spasmodically”.
In 2000-3 the Medinah Temple’s exterior was restored, but the interior was stripped out, apart from the proscenium, the dome and some stained glass, to create a spectacular branch of Bloomingdale’s http://www1.bloomingdales.com/store/index.ognc?action=STORE_DETAIL&lstRegion=all&storeId=70001.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Windy City: the architecture of Chicago please click here.