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Elks Veterans Memorial: A Look Inside Lincoln Park's Hidden Gem

By Paul Biasco | June 27, 2014 8:45am
 The Elks Veterans Memorial and Headquarters in Lincoln Park is hosting a sculpture exhibition that is open to the public.
The Elks Veterans Memorial and Headquarters
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LINCOLN PARK — On the western edge of the neighborhood's namesake park sits a grand stone memorial that many Chicagoans will recognize — but few have ever explored.

But that could change this summer.

The fenced-in dome on Diversey Avenue, just west of the lake, is throwing open its doors for its first-ever public arts exhibition in its main rotunda, allowing Chicagoans to also explore the ornate, Classical Beaux-Arts style memorial.

The building at 2750 N. Lakeview is known as the Elks Veterans Memorial and Headquarters Building. It's a Chicago landmark with nearly 90 years of history.

The memorial has opened its doors sporadically to the public, but this summer's art exhibitions means there will be a solid block of time for people to visit. Officials there say the show has already drawn in fans anxious to see what's under the dome.

 The cornerstone laying ceremony on June 7, 1924.
The cornerstone laying ceremony on June 7, 1924.
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"Walking through the vast space of the rotunda, I was struck with a feeling that I had walked into a place of great prominence in which I had no business being," Lucas Cowan, who curated the exhibition, writes in his curatorial statement.

"What was it about this grand structure that could impose such an overload of emotions on a person?"

The Elks Memorial was completed in 1926 at a cost of $3.5 million. It was dedicated as a tribute to more than 1,000 members of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks who died in World War I. (For comparison, the Drake Hotel was completed in 1923 and for approximately $5 million, furnished.)

The design was the result of a competition won by architect Egerton Swartwout. Marble used in the exterior of the building came from Greece, Austria and Italy. Inside, marble came from Vermont, Tennessee, Alabama and Missouri, according to the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Limestone quarried in Indiana was also used.

There are a number of sculptures inside, including four representing the Elks' "cardinal virtues:" brotherly love, charity, fidelity and justice. Murals also adorn the inside.

"The Memorial has often been described as one of the most magnificent war memorials in the world — with its monumental architecture, priceless art and stunning interior," according to the architecture foundation.

After the Korea War the Elks, a fraternal organization, rededicated the building to all U.S. soldiers from past wars and later rededicated the building following the Gulf War.

From the air, the building looks like a giant "E". From the ground, it anchors the corner of the park.

Through Oct. 26, the building will be open to the public from noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday for the Chicago Sculpture International's "Invoking the Absence" sculpture exhibit.

"It has drawn quite a few people who haven't been here," said David Augustus, director of facility management.

Cownan, who curated Chicago Sculpture International's 2014 Biennial exhibition, also installed exhibits for Millennium Park.

Aside from the sculpture exhibit with works by 22 artists, the Elks Memorial is filled with permanent gilded bronze sculptures, murals and elaborate craftsmanship.

While this is the first time the building has hosted an art show, Augustus said he hopes to host more in the future and make use of the beautiful building.