#976: Fez Sez

September 5th, 2018

The cabinets’ contents are not for sale.

Sure, you can buy the $1,500 crystal vases and $99 place settings from the display cases shuffled among the relics. Of course you can buy them — it’s a store, from the top floor of bedding sets down to the entrance where soaps, candles and other heavily potpourried toilet decorations mace you with scent when you walk off the street.

Among the three stories of designer corkscrews and Persian-inspired throw rugs that define the downtown Bloomingdale’s home store, only the two glass cabinets are off limits. More than Orrefors or Simon Pearce crystalware, they contain the truly valuable.

Fezzes. Badges. Photos of clowns.

For all Chicago’s famed modernism, where architects with Teutonic surnames huddle and gab to design glass-box skyscrapers each more glassy and boxy with the last, some of the most charming moments of city life come when a structure finds life beyond its original purpose. Then you get law offices in old firehouses, art galleries in pre-Fire water towers.

Or a Bloomingdale’s in a converted amphitheater for the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine.

This building was built by the Shriners — think fezzes, little cars, and children’s hospitals — in 1912 as the Medinah Temple, a 4,200-seat stadium for circuses and other events put on by the fraternal group. Noted for its faux-Moorish architecture and gigantic onion domes, which spent decades off the structure before being re-created and put back atop during a 2003 redevelopment, the building is as gorgeous inside as out, with a vaulted dome ceiling, stained glass windows, and two second-floor display cabinets of programs, photos and clown-laden mementoes of the decades of circus.

Here you can step away from the hustle, bustle and hurly-burly of downtown life. Here you can step aside and find yourself among domes, stained glass, a stories-tall stage curtain that still lines the proscenium, which these days separates the shopping area from the stockroom.

And you can find the cabinets.

Photos of massive brass bands filling the hall. Old issues of the “Fez Sez” Shriner newspaper. Commemorative plates, windbreakers, hats and playbills from shrining past. It’s not quite a museum, barely an exhibit.

“Sometimes you need an oasis in big cities,” former Mayor Richard M. Daley said when he started the morally and legally dubious tax-increment financing that saved the structure from a developer’s wrecking ball.

The Tribune was less convinced Daley’s motives were pure, accusing the mayor of using the popular local icon to score political points.

“Ever seen a theatrical routine in which the comely female assistant is rescued from life-threatening peril at the last second? Of course you have. It’s a vaudeville staple,” they wrote in a 1999 editorial.

But whether the building designated low-income to fund high-income shopping was saved to be oasis or vaudeville, it was saved. We have a hidden spot in Chicago with cabinets of clown. We have a place to step away, get maced by candle-scent and gently glance at an otherwise-lost history. It exists. It is.

The story could end here, but it won’t. Macy’s is looking to unload the place, sell off the onion domes and proscenium curtain and move all the candles, corkscrews and bedding to their main location at the former Marshall Field’s. The building won’t be torn down — Daley also secured landmark status as part of his crusade (or political gameplay). The building will be here, but I can’t say what will happen inside.

This is my call to the new owner, whomever you might be: Please save the clowns. Whatever new use you find for the place, be it store, office, museum or chain restaurant, please keep the contents of those cabinets safe.

Just save a touch of the past among your future. Just a nod, just an old circus program or fez. We have too much future in this town of Teutonic glass box. Please save the past, just a cabinet or two.

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