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Bloomingdale's At Home In Chicago's Medinah Temple
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© Christine Till
Buildings are Chicago's greatest storytellers. They characterize the times they were built and the people who built them. Some buildings have a more obvious a story to tell than others. With its exotic onion domes and Islamic detailing, the Medinah Temple is one of those buildings.
It looks like an Islamic mosque. It has horseshoe shaped arches, geometric decoration, ornamental grills and onion domes - all typical of Islamic architecture. Bordering the front entrance are the repeated words "There is no God but Allah" written in traditional Arabic script. It was built in 1912 for concert goers, political rally participants, Shriners conventioneers and the spectacular spectacle of the annual Shrine Circus - in short to be the meeting place and convention center for the fraternal social club - the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (A.A.O.N.M.S), otherwise known as the Medinah Shriners.
The design quickly became known as one of the grandest Shrine temples in the country. It took up half a city block and contained an auditorium that sat 4,200 people and a banquet hall with room enough for 2,300. Apparently one of the architects traveled to the Middle East for inspiration after receiving the commission. It shows. They designed what remains as one of the country's best examples of Moorish revival architecture.
The Medinah Temple has changed a lot over the years. The original balconies, sloping floor, chandelier and organ are gone. By the time the 1980s rolled around the building was on the chopping block. The Shriners wanted out and nobody wanted in. There were all kinds of proposals for alternate land-use which required that the building be demolished. The plans were beaten back by a vocal citizenry that was tired of watching great landmarks crumple into piles of dust.
In 2001, department store chain Bloomingdale's came to the rescue, saving and restoring the extravagant Moorish-style ornamentation, Arabic calligraphy and onion domes of the exterior. You can still see bits and pieces of the old auditorium inside the Home Furnishing Store. The proscenium arch that surrounded the old stage is there, as well as the interior ceiling dome. You can walk up to the beautiful art glass windows and get a close-up view of the details, and admire the Arabic calligraphy that reads "Assalamu Alaikum," the Muslim greeting that means "Peace be upon you". It surely would have been much cheaper to demolish the building and build a brand new store, but thankfully this piece of historic Chicago architecture was able to be saved.
Thank you, Bloomingdale.
March 20th, 2013
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