The latest CSO Throwback Thursday photo post depicts Margaret Hillis striking a Brünnhilde-like pose during rehearsals for a Wagner opera at Chicago’s historic Medinah Temple. Armed with a megaphone, she looks as if she’s about to launch into Ho-jo-to-ho! However, the opera in question was The Flying Dutchman, not Die Walküre.
In any case, the CSO had a long history with the Medinah Temple, a Moorish Revival style structure built in 1912 at 600 N. Wabash for the Chicago chapter of the fraternal social club called the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, now best known as the Shriners International. The building featured a 4,200-seat auditorium with excellent acoustics. So extraordinary was the Medinah’s sound that the CSO recorded here from the mid-’60s to the mid-’90s. During the end of the 1994-95 and 1995-96 seasons, when Symphony Center was under construction, the Medinah also served as an alternative performance space for the CSO.
Though it was considered an architectural treasure, the Medinah Temple was almost lost to the wrecking ball in the late ’90s. When the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois put the building on its 1996 list of the state’s 10 most endangered historic places, it observed: “It is without doubt one of Chicago’s foremost landmarks. It helps us understand the historic fabric of our society.”
By then, the building had become a financial liability for the Shriners. “It was created as a unique and not necessarily useful hall,” said Paul Barber, the temple’s business manager, in a 1998 interview with the Chicago Tribune. “This is a (lousy) place for a circus,” he added, referring to the Medinah’s annual three-ring extravaganza.
So the Shriners sold the building to a developer, who announced plans to raze the entire structure and replace it with a high-rise condo tower. Fortunately, more civic-minded forces stepped in, and aided by $14 million in state and federal funds, the historic temple was transformed into a Bloomingdale’s Home Store, which opened in 2003. (Click here for an account of the rehab project.) In 2001, the building was finally designated as a Chicago landmark.
Nowadays, Bloomingdales shoppers can imagine what the building must have looked like in its heyday, from the majestic Austin pipe organ to the tiny lockers on the concourse level where Shriners stored their fezzes. Though the interior was completely gutted, many decorative aspects, such as the domed ceiling and stained-glass windows, still remain.
Later this month, you can travel back in time and revisit the some of the music that the CSO made at the Medinah, when Sony domestically releases Jean Martinon: The Complete CSO Recordings, a 10-disc set collecting works originally recorded for RCA Red Seal. And in another serendipitous turn, on Aug. 15 at Ravinia, the CSO will perform The Flying Dutchman under James Conlon, in his final concert as the festival’s music director.