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The Medinah Temple

August 11, 2010

CNS 2010

600 N. Wabash Ave.

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’s far from a mosque though. Today it’s a Bloomingdales. And it was built in 1913 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 Shriners. The club, established in New York City in 1872, evolved from the centuries old British “Freemasonry” stonemason’s guild. The Shriners saw themselves as embodying the serious nature of Freemasonry while also incorporating lighthearted rituals and entertainment. At the time Westerners romanticized the Middle East as a mystical place where men were indulgent and unencumbered by responsibilities. Naturally the Shriners chose to adopt Islamic styles and symbols as their own as seen in the group’s architecture and rituals. You’ve probably seen Shriners before – they’re the men donning red fezzes atop their heads.

CNS 2010

By the early 20th century Chicago’s membership of Shriners had swelled to large numbers necessitating a new building. They enlisted two architects from their membership in designing the temple: Harris Huehl (who served one term as a Shriner potentate or president) and his partner Richard Gustave Schmid. Schmid was a native of Chicago, who studied at MIT and previously worked under such nationally recognized architects as Henry Hobson Richardson and Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge. Together they designed what 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 Islamic Revival architecture.

Though the Medinah Temple was the home to a private and exclusive organization, many of the events they hosted were open to Shriners’ families, and sometimes the greater public. The temple had some of the city’s best acoustics and most impressive organs. This facilitated a lasting relationship with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra who recorded over 100 performances at the temple over a fifteen-year period. It was also famous across Chicago for its long running annual Medinah Shrine Circus. The proceeds from all such benefits went to the Shriners’ many philanthropic causes.

The Medinah Temple has changed a lot over the years. The original balconies, sloping floor, chandelier and organ are gone (and those onion domes are not original – they’ve come and gone a couple of times). Today the Medinah Temple is the Bloomingdale’s Home Furnishing Store. Instead of being populated by fez-clad men and the occasional circus elephant, it’s full of bedding, crystal, and china. Reminders of the Shriners are everywhere though. The stained glass windows remain as does the domed ceiling and outline of a stage. The biggest change to the temple is less of what is found inside and more of what’s going on outside its doors. The temple now sits in the shadow of countless flashy condo towers. It seems doubtful that any of its new neighbors will ever develop half the story that the Medinah Temple is still writing.

CNS 2010

MAP IT

Interested in learning more about the Shriners? Explore the Medinah Shriner’s website here. The building is currently owned by Friedman Properties, and they have some information on their adaptive re-use of the building on their  website. The 2003 renovation of the Medinah Temple into Bloomingdales was designed by architects Dan Coffey and James Harb.

And last but not least, here is a comprehensive collection of historic photographs of the Medinah Temple.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Madeleine Raymond permalink
    August 11, 2010 7:21 am

    There is a mason’s tool depicted on the top of the Jacob Lawrence mosaic located in the Harold Washington Library. I took this symbol to mean that Mayor Washington was a free mason. If I am right, I am still left with a question about the meaning of the image of him walking up a road supported by a tree branch. Children on CAF tours often ask about that one.

    Anyway, thanks again for the fine information!

    • August 11, 2010 8:59 am

      Those are some interesting observations, and I am entirely unsure of what those symbols are telling us about Mayor Washington or Jacob Lawrence. But I think you’re likely on the right track . . .

  2. Anne permalink
    August 11, 2010 11:45 am

    Yay! So glad to know more about this interesting building. Thanks, CNS!

  3. August 11, 2010 8:15 pm

    Thank you for this post. I’ve always wondered what the Bloomington’s building originally was then always forgot to look it up when I get home. Now I know. You’re right: those cold, glass condos have nothing on the Medinah Temple.

    • May 10, 2017 9:50 am

      Start by searching online and compiling a list of resources where you can find everything there is to know about everything there is to do. Then write about it. It’s the research part that’s most time consuming for me. It’s my labor of love.

    • September 2, 2017 12:45 am

      Dear Nami,I think most people will agree with you, regardless of being Japanese or otherwise about preserving the original flavours of food, especially when it comes to expensive stuff like waygu. I love izakaya and there are a few in Sydney where one can enjoy the good, classic flavours with just a small but interesting twist. I don’t mind a stronger sauce flavour if it’s like a stew or braised dish in winter where the ingredients take secondary stage.

  4. Aesha permalink
    August 24, 2010 9:50 pm

    I’ve been enjoying your site for months, but this entry really excited me. My family has been involved in Masonic organizations since before I was born, I was in a Masonic youth group and we are still active. When I first moved here, my friend told me about this building and I’ve driven by it but haven’t yet been inside. I always love to see Masonic buildings (I had to take a photo of the ones I saw in Japan and The Bahamas when I was a teacher) but this one is so beautiful on the outside, I can’t wait to one day see it from the inside. The Bloomingdales salespeople might be disappointed, though.

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