While accompanying a couple of bus tour groups recently, making our way through the River North neighborhood, I’ve heard (and answered!) the question: what is that building? It was directed toward the large, dark, onion-domed structure standing at Wabash Street, between Ontario and Ohio: the old Medinah Shriners Temple – not exactly a typical Chicago building! Today the Bloomingdale’s Home Store, it is a remnant of the Shriners’ hey day in Chicago.
The Shriners are a fraternal organization familiar to many of us because of their Shrine Circus, distinctive fez head wear, fun-loving appearance in parades, and well-known philanthropy (children’s hospitals). They were long one of the most popular men’s organizations in Chicago; for the price of membership, a fellow new to the city was ‘in’ and could begin networking and enjoying fabulous, exotic parties.
On WendyCity’s Mag Mile in the Morning tour, we definitely talk about the Shriners – there is no getting away from the fezzed partiers! – when we explore their mind-boggling, but short-lived Athletic Club, today’s Intercontinental Hotel. Soaring into the sky, a pastiche of exotic ornament – their intentional “feast of illusion” – was the the Chicago Shriners’ crowning glory in the late 1920s.
But in 1912 they had built their Temple on Wabash, designed by Huehl and Schmidt, complete with a 4,200 seat auditorium and huge stage that projected far into the space. Islamic and Moorish in appearance, its large onion domes proclaimed the fun, mystery, and imagination of the organization.
Inside the auditorium, the acoustics were fantastic. Not only was the 92-rank pipe organ a thrill to hear, but the site was perfect for recording: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra recorded there from the late-1960s to the 1980s. The Shrine Circus took place there every year and WGN-TV broadcast the Bozo 25th Anniversary Special from the auditorium in 1986.
The onion domes were vulnerable to decay and their interior frames rusted out, necessitating their removal by 1950.
But it appears the domes were restored by the early 1960s:
By the 1990s, the building was endangered and slated for demolition. The Shriners long knew the structure was a financial drain, and they prepared to move to new headquarters in Lombard. They auctioned off many treasures contained in the building, from Gustav Brand’s 80-foot painting of a pilgrimage to Mecca (1912) appraised in the 1970s for $40,000, to Oriental rugs, Mission furniture, grand pianos, wooden phone booths, elaborate Shriners costumes, circus ephemera, and music stands used during recordings of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
But in late 2000, work began on what would be a challenging project: to save the aging landmark and its significant features, while creating a retail environment. With $14 million in state and federal money, Federated and Bloomingdales cooperated with preservation officials while transforming the aging building. Daniel P. Coffey & Associates worked their magic by propping up the entire structure and gutting the interior. The interior coffered plaster dome was restored, as was the proscenium of the former auditorium, and the stained glass windows. The old first floor was six feet above street level, with the entrance reached by stairs, so they dropped the first floor to grade, which meant excavating the basement four feet down. Windows and doors were replaced with retail display in mind, all the while maintaining the original building’s character. Dramatic exterior lighting was added.
Bloomingdale’s Home Store opened in 2003. The renovation of the building won numerous awards and the historic Medinah Temple was named a Chicago Landmark (2001).
Images courtesy of John Chuckman, Chicago Nostalgia and The West Suburban Shrine Club