The Commission on Chicago Landmarks
The lengthy report given by the nine members of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks serves as an overwhelmingly positive reception of the Elks National Memorial in a contemporary Chicago context. The building has not just preserved its importance from when it was dedicated in 1926; it has also shown itself to be an important enough contribution to Chicago's architecture to be considered a landmark. It is still recognized as an important war memorial and the headquarters for the Elks organization, but in a modern context, and from the perspective of an average Chicagoan, it is often considered more for its grand architecture. The average visitor to the Elks National Memorial is not there to pay respect to veterans, or because of a connection to the Elks organization. Rather, they visit because they are drawn to the lavish architecture that stands out so much from its surroundings.
The Landmarks report embodies this contemporary reception of the Elks National Memorial in Chicago. It acknowledges that part of the reason it deserves to be a landmark is because of its significance as a memorial for the Elks organization, but it focuses largely on its architectural aspects. These include its status as a significant Beaux-Arts building, its similarities to the Pantheon, its premium materials, important artwork, relation to the beautification of the Chicago lakefront, and its powerful stature in its Lincoln Park setting. To the average Chicagoan or visitor, the building's beauty has almost usurped the building's purpose as its dominating feature.
Elks Lodge 572
While the average visitor may appreciate its architecture more than anything else, contemporary Elks members still look to the Elks National Memorial first and foremost as a fitting tribute to the Elks veterans of America's wars. This can be seen in a modern review of the Elks National Memorial done by the Elks Lodge 572 of Murphysboro, Illinois, a small town in the southern part of the state. Their website has a page, "What it Means To Be an Elk," which lists as part of this the "Outstanding Achievements of the Order." One of these is the Elks National Memorial, which they first describe through the number of Elks veterans of World War I, and then go on to describe the building with the unwavering positivity that seemingly all Elks use: "It is impossible to avoid superlatives even in the briefest description of this Memorial. The architectural design is so stately and so beautiful, the material of its construction is so enduring, the setting is so appropriate and commanding, and its memorial features so distinctive yet so artistic, that the attention of all beholders is arrested. It has been acclaimed by competent critics as one of the great memorial buildings of the world."
This kind of language evokes the same used by the Elks National Memorial and Publication Commission in the book "The Story of Elkdom," which details the Elks National Memorial from the clearly biased perspective of the Elks. It is still important to consider the building's reception among Elks members, both historically and contemporarily, because it offers an important look at just how important the Elks consider the building to be as a testament to their accomplishments. It is clear that the Elks National Memorial is the source of immense pride for Elks, which hasn't changed from when the building was dedicated to today.
The American Architect
Published in 1922, a review from an unnamed author in The American Architect offers an important perspective of the building's reception, even before it was built. The article serves not only as a record of the design competition held by the Elks National Memorial, but also as a positive review of the winning design from Egerton Swartwout. From an architect's perspective, Swartwout's design was considered "one of originality and artistic merit." Its originality stemmed from its circular design, which may be very much derived from the Pantheon, but it served as a departure from the rectilinear form used by all other fraternal buildings in America. The building was also praised for being a memorial with a utilitarian purpose (as the Elks national headquarters).
Since this review came before the building was finished, it is able to provide a focus on the distilled reception of the building as a whole, without focus on details like exact materials or artwork. Even without these details to focus on, it was still easy to praise the Elks National Memorial, simply because of its unique structure. The article also sheds light on why the building has received so much praise; as the product of a design competition, it was chosen over seven other designs. This competition ensured that the design would be praiseworthy even before it was constructed, because it was considered the best of the many options, all from esteemed American architecture firms.
The New York Times
This short article, published by an unnamed journalist in the New York Times, offers a glimpse of the general perspective of Elks National Memorial when it opened: "It is a structure embodying beauty and permanence, and one of the finest memorial buildings erected in honor of the heroes of the World War." As a national memorial, its reach extended beyond Chicago, which led to this report for the New York Times. This positive review adds to the other positive receptions of the Elks National Memorial at the time of its dedication in July 1926.
The article's claim that the Elks National Memorial is one of the finest World War I memorials show that it wasn't just a beautiful memorial and building for Chicago; it is a building worth acknowledging at a nationwide level. Its heavy classical influence contributes to its characterization as "embodying beauty and permanence;" the pursuit of these two qualities in architecture has historically led to classical designs time and time again. The solidity of the Pantheon-esque limestone structure gives it its permanence, while the abundant sculptures, friezes, and other classical adornments give it its beauty.
Charles Collins, Chicago Daily Tribune
Written in 1942, Collin's reception is valuable from the perspective of World War II Chicago. After WWII, the Elks National Memorial was rededicated to the soldiers of that war, but during, Collins was moved to write about the memorial solely because of his appreciation of its beauty and subtlety as a war memorial. Even though it was written only 16 years after the memorial's dedication, it already seems more related to the contemporary reception of the building, in that it focuses on the general beautification that it brings Chicago more than its role as a memorial for the Elks.
Collins is also one of many to bring the comparison to the Pantheon, calling it "this Pantheon on a Chicago boulevard." He is impressed by its design, its lavish materials, and its classiness as a war memorial. He notes specifically that "the war motive has not been given dominant emphasis." Instead of displaying war relics or literal inscriptions detailing war, the memorial uses allegorical artwork to depict its meaning with more subtlety. This is an important observation for why the Elks National Memorial can so easily be appreciated by visitors, even completely removed from its status as a war memorial for the Elks. It has a general beauty to its design that can be, and is, appreciated by every Chicagoan or visitor who steps foot inside.
O. L. Hall, Chicago Daily Journal
Hall's reception of the Elks National Memorial is interesting for several reasons. As an Editor of the Chicago Daily Journal, his opinion was an important one as a reflection of Chicagoan reception. Even more interesting, his reception was delivered at the dedication of the Elks National Memorial on July 15th, 1926, in the format of a poem. Titled "The Elks Memorial," his poem in large part deals with the classical influence on the memorial. His lines "It is as the Roman Pantheon was / When the Pantheon was new;" evoke the comparison that is so easily made between these two buildings, but they go a step further in declaring the Elks National Memorial to be as grand in Chicago as the Pantheon was in Rome when it was first built. Such positive praise shows how important the building was considered to be by many as a new piece of Chicago architecture.
The poem also shows that Swartwout was successful in his mission to evoke both Roman and American architecture in his design. Hall doesn't consider the Elks National Memorial to merely be a replica of the Pantheon in Chicago; he considers the Elks Memorial to be Chicago's Pantheon. Swarwout has built a memorial that can assume the grandiosity of Roman architecture to provide a wholeheartedly American refuge for Elks veterans. Hall's lines also show that the memorial succeeds in honoring veterans without too vividly evoking the wars they served in: "So lovely a thing it is / That eye may not rest upon it / To be reminded of strife, / But only of beauty."
Marge Lyon, Chicago Daily Tribune
In 1952, Lyon wrote in the Chicago Tribune that “Chicagoans have not been aware of the Elks Memorial, particularly North Siders.” This is an accurate characterization of the reception of Elks National Memorial for the everyday Chicagoan. It isn't really a known site. This is partially due to its location in a quieter part of Chicago, away from the bustling center of downtown, but the fact that North Siders don't know much about it says that it's not the only reason why. It's also because the average person doesn't think to stop inside and see just how beautiful it is. This could also be because of its limited hours open to the public, which encompass only half the year and four hours a day.
Overall, the Elks National Memorial, even though it presents such a beautiful front to its Lincoln Park surroundings, is somewhat anonymous in a citywide context. Its purpose as a war memorial is not immediately noticeable when one first looks at it, and the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks is no longer a household name. Even if it's clear that the building is part of the Elks organization because of the large sign and elk statues, most passerby probably do not know exactly what the organization is.
Rich Szczepkowicz, Chicago Daily Tribune
What it most interesting about this article from 1984 is its description of drug trafficking in the Elks National Memorial in the 1980s. It gives some historical context to the memorial's reception. When it was built, the part of Lincoln Park it resides in was considered Chicago's Gold Coast, and for decades, visitors would stream in constantly on tour buses, going out of their way to leave downtown just to see the Elks National Memorial. However, around the 1970s, the neighborhood became more known for crime and vagrancy. This peaked in the early 1980s, when derelicts would flock to the Elks National Memorial to buy and use drugs. It was a prime location because it was open to the public, indoors, and has expansive bathrooms in the basement. After the drug trafficking got to be bad enough, the open hours were limited and the issue was resolved.
Once again, this shows a lack of appreciation for the Elks National Memorial among everyday Chicagoans. It is a shame that a building as beautiful as this one became a spot for drug trafficking, especially because its true purpose is a memorial to honor the dead. As the neighborhood around the building changed, so too did its reception among locals. It may no longer be a sight of drug trafficking anymore, but it has never reclaimed the fame it used to hold during its first decades in existence.