The Medinah Temple
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.
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.
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.