DuSable to Obama...with a detour past a lost architectural gem of black Chicago

June 16, 2010


(photo by Lee Bey)

The fascinating "DuSable to Obama: Chicago's Black Metropolis," documentary that's been airing this month on WTTW--catch it if you have not seen it--shows us the black experience in Chicago is substantially fuller, broader and deeper than many of us have been taught, or imagined.

Which brings me to the photo above. If you've been past O'Hara's Gallery at 707 N. Wells, you might have noticed the Egyptian themed terra cotta planters and detailing on the building's exterior. The terra cotta details are remnants of a long-gone Bronzeville landmark: The National Pythian Temple, erected in 1927 at 3737 S. State--once billed as the world's largest, most expensive building ever built and designed‚  by black people.

The 8-story building was made of buff-colored brick with the terra cotta detailing. As is the case with old postcards, the color's off, but here's what the 8-story building otherwise looked like:


(photo by Lee Bey)

The building' was designed by Chicago architect Walter Thomas Bailey, who was the state's first licensed black architect. The Knights of Pythias are predominantly black fraternal order (although there was a predominantly white Knights of Pythias order as well.) Bailey's original design (below) was two stories taller and a little more ornate. Dig the street cars on State and what's now the Green Line snaking 'round back:


Courtesy of the New York Public Library

For a black fraternal order to use Egyptian motifs on its international headquarters--in black neighborhood--in 1927 is striking. There were pharaohs, Egyptian figures and symbols--even Cleopatra's face--molded in the terra cotta. The Pythians used design to lay claim historic Egypt at a time when the African country was viewed as separate place "black Africa." I suppose that's still the case in some quarters, actually.

The building boasted a 1,500 seat theater and a rooftop garden. The big block was converted into an apartment building in later years. The n in the 1980s, a structure which would have surely been a protected city landmark had it survived just a little longer was demolished in the 1980s after years of neglect. The site has been vacant since. But the one-of-a-kind terra cotta became collectible and some of the pieces made their way to the gallery on Wells.

Bailey and the Pythian temple weren't mentioned in the WTTW documentary, but there were only a few degrees of separation away. Bailey and black structural engineeer Charles Sumner Duke fought for a pavilion dedicated to worldwide black achievement to be built at the 1933 World's Fair. Bailey even designed one--and I've searched for years for the plans--but it was never built. However, Bailey and Duke ended up loaning their talents to the siting and engineering of another fair exhibit: the DuSable cabin, championed and built due to the efforts of Annie E. Oliver.