by: chicago designslinger
[Medinah Temple (1912) Huehl & Schmid, architects; (2002) Daniel P. Coffey & Associates, restoration and adaptive reuse /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
The circus is in town! For 85 years that refrain could be heard as elephants, trapeze artists, lions and clowns, made their way into a building that looked like it might have been moved to Chicago from Moorish Spain. It seemed like an odd place to host a circus, but the Shriners - an off-shoot of the fraternal organization known as the Masons - was founded with the understanding that although Freemasonry was serious business it could also be fun. With fezzes on hand, the Ancient Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine hosted circuses, conventions, concerts and meetings in their domed and pointy arched temple headquarters, and raised hundreds of millions of dollars to help fund the operation of their children's hospitals.
[Medinah Temple, 600 N. Wabash Avenue, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Medinah Temple was designed by architects Harris Huehl and Richard Schmid in an exotic revival style that had surfaced in this country in the mid-1800s, which was embraced in the first part of the 20th century by the Shriners as the perfect architectural expression of their "Oriental" based fraternal rituals. When the Chicago Shriners outgrew their home in the former Unity Church Building on Dearborn Avenue across the street from Washington Square park, their search for a larger facility in 1911 led them to a piece of property that had recently come on the market.
[Medinah Temple, City of Chicago Landmark /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
The site the Shriners were interested in was an unsually large chunk of land in a neighborhood that was transitioning from residential to commercial. The half-block lot on the former Cass, now Wabash, Avenue between Ohio and Ontario Streets had a large single family home standing on it tucked imposingly into the northeastern corner of the property. The mansion, called "one of the showplaces of the city" by the Chicago Tribune, had until recently been the domestic address of Judge Lambert Tree. The former jurist had only served on the local court circuit from 1870-75, but the title stuck. But Tree didn't make big money serving as a judge, or as a lawyer, but through real estate. He got into the property buying business after marrying H.H. Magie's daughter Anna in 1859. Magie was one of those early pioneers who came to the city in 1832 when it was no more than an old fort and a few log cabins. He got into the dry goods business, opened a store on Lake Street and started buying-up pieces of the empty prairie that surrounded the tiny town. He eventually built a house north of town in the middle of a city block carved out of the vast plain by the recently plotted streets of Cass, Ohio, State and Ontario. He had good company. His nearby neighbors included such Chicago heavy weights as the city's first mayor William Ogden and another soon-to-be real estate mogul Walter Newberry. The Magies and Trees were all living together in their substantial Greek Revival manse when it was swept away in the big fire of 1871, and in 1883 after a sojourn in Europe, Tree built an imposing stone house on the northeast corner of the Magie/Tree block. But before the circus arrived, Tree's name had become permanently attached to a historic complex of artists studios that he and Anna built in 1894 on western half of his full block property. When the Shriners expressed interest in the Tree property, the Studios were not part of the deal.
[Medinah Temple, Wabash Avenue, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
In October 1910 after an ocean voyage, Judge Tree, a former ambassador to Russia, collapsed and died. His son and heir Arthur put the house and its Cass Avenue frontage up for sale and sold it to the Shriners for $150,000 the following March. Plans were made to erect a $500,000 multi-purpose meeting place with offices, banqueting rooms, and a 5,000-seat auditorium. It just so happened that Shriner and one-time potentate Harris Huehl was an architect, and he and his business partner Richard Schmid got to work designing a temple infused with Moorish characteristics. Often called a mosque by its members and the press, Medinah Temple became a fixture in the city not only because of its eccentric architecture but because of the roll it played in hosting the Ringling Circus. The first top-hatted ringmaster blew his first attention grabbing whistle soon after the building was dedicated at midnight on All Hallows' Eve 1912. For the following eight decades thousands of kids would pour into the auditorium with their parents in tow, but time and death took its toll on the membership. By the late 1990s most of the Shriners lived in the outlying suburbs, and the peak totals numbering in the 20,000s in the 1940s had dwindled to an aging population in the 6,000 member range. In 1998 the Ancient Arabic Order Nobles of the Mystic Shrine were ready to call it a day at their ever-more-expensively-to-maintain temple. A contract for purchase was drawn-up with a Chicago based developer who intended to tear the building down and replace it with a 52-story, profit-producing, mixed-use development. After a very public outcry - and the intervention of then mayor Richard M. Daley - the building was saved, preserved, and to the chagrin of some, repurposed into a Bloomingdale's Home Store. The circus was gone as was much of the interior, but the dome that once crowned the auditorium was preserved in an adaptively reused restoration overseen by architect Daniel P. Coffey in 2002.