Twenty feet above the Medinah Temple's main stage, a worker on a scaffold removes the tacks holding up Gustav Brand's 80-foot rendering of a pilgrimage to Mecca.
A Chicago landmark is about to be gutted to house a Bloomingdale's Home Store, and while the atmosphere is akin to that of a fire sale, the crew is too busy to be sad. The Shriners have long regarded the 88-year-old structure as a financial drain, and the fraternal organization is now moving to a new headquarters in Lombard. Bill Smiewec, Medinah's director of building services since the early 80s, tries to put the situation in terms outsiders can understand. "It's sort of like selling an old car: you have memories associated with it and you're sad to see it go, but by the same token you're happy to get the new car."
Once the Shriners decided to let go of the building, it was Smiewec's job to drag out the storage crates, which hadn't been touched for decades. "Some of these items probably haven't been used since they were bought," he says. "We forgot some of this stuff even existed." The group brought in Mike and Randy Donley of Great American Antiques, an architectural salvage company, to sort it all out.
"My understanding is that when the Shriners decided to sell, they called several chapters and said, 'Take what you need,' and decided to put everything that was left up for auction," says Mike Donley. "We are having two auction rings. One will be in the main ballroom and will feature restaurant and office equipment, and miscellaneous things like cases of lightbulbs, lockers, and medical equipment." Yes, medical equipment--"The Shriners wanted that around in case someone got hurt in the building."
The real treasures will be auctioned on the temple's main stage--the same stage on which the Medinah Shrine Circus entertained generations of Chicagoans. Brand's 1912 painting is "probably the most significant piece," says Randy Donley. "Thirty years ago, it was appraised at $40,000. It's almost impossible to ascertain its true value because there is no track record of sales of Brand's work, which was mostly done in public buildings that have been lost. We estimate it may be worth well over $100,000."
Other items expected to fetch large sums include numerous pieces of mission-style furniture, Oriental rugs, wooden phone booths, grand pianos, and music stands used during recordings of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Many pieces have more value as novelties than anything else, such as the elaborate costumes worn by Shriners during parades--which in their heyday drew half a million people--and props used in initiation ceremonies.
One of these props is a fake door that reads, "Medinah Barber Shop." On a wooden stand above it sits a bucket. "The initiation rites were held on the main stage," says Mike Donley. "One of the things they would do was to tell people to enter the barber shop; they would open the door and get soaked." After that, they were told to sit in the barber's wooden chair--another prop headed for the block. What the novices weren't told was that there are electric coils under the chair's seat. "Since they had just gotten soaked, they'd get shocked," says Mike Donley. They'd then be told to stick their heads into a wooden frame to have a picture taken; the frame--also for sale--features a device that promptly splatters a pie on the unlucky face that peeks through it.
The pranks were fitting for a fraternity that was meant to be an outgrowth of Freemasonry, only with a sense of humor. "Who's going to buy this crazy stuff?" asks Mike Donley. "Maybe small theater groups, art groups--people who work creatively. There's something for everyone here. We expect antiques dealers to bid on the higher-end items, and we expect average Chicagoans who have memories associated with the building and may want to keep a piece of it." For those who don't want to stay for the auction, they're also setting up a room where they'll sell circus posters, postcards, and other smaller items at fixed prices.
Partway through taking down the Brand, Smiewec and the Donleys realize that no one will be able to see the painting to full effect if it's on the ground. So they tack it back up.
"What's most significant is that this will probably be the last chance to see the interior of the temple before it gets gutted," says Mike Donley. "Whether you grew up with the Medinah Temple Circus or whether you've never been in the building before, you want to come and see it while you can."
The auction is Saturday, December 2, and viewing and bidding are free and open to the public. There are no minimum bids; all proceeds go to the Shriners, who hope to raise $200,000 to benefit their children's hospitals and other programs. Viewing starts at 8 AM; the auction starts at 10. Call 815-923-9000 for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.