The Elks National Veterans Memorial
2750 N. Lakeview Avenue
Too often we just walk by buildings without venturing inside. Considering the presence of buildings like the Elks National Veterans Memorial, that’s a shame. The memorial’s exterior is squat and superfluously decorated in classical ornament. It might fit in well beside the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials in Washington D.C., but it seems out of place in Chicago. If it were only judged by its envelope, few would ever go in. But the interior, a well-kept secret, is one of the most luxurious places in all of Chicago.
A grand rotunda serves as both the entrance and focal point of the building. Marble in every color and from all over Europe and the U.S. adorns the floor and surrounding columns. The deeply coffered ceiling acts like a kaleidoscope picking up all of the colors of the room and fragmenting them into honeycomb shaped pieces. What really makes the room special though are the stylized murals painted by Eugene Savage. The figurative paintings symbolize the four cardinal virtues of the Order of Elks: brotherly love, fidelity, justice, and charity, as well as themes of war and honor.
Off of the rotunda is the Grand Reception Hall – grand being an understatement. Fit more for the Palace of Versailles than the corner of Diversey and Lakeview, every square inch is opulently decorated. The intricately carved classical ceiling frames low-relief sculptures and celestial paintings. Complete with stained glass windows and wood paneling, it’s a room fit more for royalty than tennis shoe clad tourists.
The building was commissioned by the Order of Elks, a fraternal and charitable organization that began in 1868 with 15 actors and entertainers in New York forming a group first called the “Jolly Corks”. Over time it has morphed into one of the largest fraternal groups in the country, and assumed the name the “Elks”. After WWI the Elks felt that a memorial should be built to honor their 70,000 members who had served during the war. A national competition was held to choose an architect, and Egerton Swartwout’s design was the winning entry. The cornerstone was laid on June 7, 1924 for what became both the Elks National Memorial and Headquarters. As time passed, the memorial has been rededicated on multiple occasions to honor veterans of all subsequent wars.
While it may attract a few curious looks from people walking by, it’s not an inviting building. Its classical revival style invokes a feeling of reverence as opposed to hospitality. But view the elks who sit at either end of the entrance more as greeters than guards. The Elks National Memorial is open to the public — even those of us in tennis shoes.
While membership to the Elks organization may be by invitation only, entrance to the memorial is free and open to the public. They even offer tours. For visiting information and more details on the building visit the website of the Elks National Veterans Memorial. And to learn more about the Elks organization check out their website.
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