Historic Aurora veterans hall to reopen on Memorial Day
Closed for 20 years and under renovation for 15, a gathering space created to recognize Civil War veterans in Aurora is reopening on Memorial Day.
The Grand Army of the Republic Hall and Museum is ready to welcome visitors at long last to its octagonal Angel Room, where they will find displays on the history of the Civil War, the Grand Army of the Republic organization and the 133-year-old building itself.
"The reopening of this facility is a wonderful thing," said Michael Collins of Montgomery, a member of the 36th Illinois Company B education and Civil War re-enactment group, who has been helping with later stages of the GAR renovation. "The reopening of this hall, we hope, will bring more people in and get an interest generated again about Aurora's history and the 36th with the Civil War."
The building constructed in 1877 and 1878 will be rededicated during a ceremony an hour before Aurora's Memorial Day parade steps off at noon at the David L. Pierce Art and History Center, 20 E. Downer Place.
Tours of the building and its $3.5 million facelift will begin in the early afternoon after the last unit of Aurora's Memorial Day parade has gotten on its way, said Rena Church, director of the Aurora Public Art Commission.
Collins and roughly 25 other uniformed members of the 36th Company B will be stationed at the GAR after they march in the parade. From their post, the educators and re-enactors will guide visitors through the building, which has been restored to much of its Victorian-era glory.
Floral arrangements from the Tuesday Garden Club of Aurora will beautify the site. About 50 members of the Ladies of the GAR from Northern Illinois will be on hand -- some of dressed for that era. A number of civilian impressionists in period garb will add to the scene, too, and one 36th Company B member will be showcasing his throwback hobby, snapping 1850s-era photographs of visitors and developing them using historical techniques in roughly 10 minutes.
"We're trying to create this immersion experience for people," Collins said.
Inside the GAR at 23. E. Downer Place on the west bank of the Fox River, history buffs can be immersed in the world of the Grand Army of the Republic. She says the organization was a precursor to modern VFWs and American Legion groups, Church said.
"The most important thing people should walk away with is how influential they were," she said about GAR members who united as a veterans organization after the Civil War concluded. "They advocated for veterans because veterans really had nothing."
Pensions, soldiers' homes, care for widows and orphans, even public works projects were benefits GAR members fought for, Church and Collins said.
At their Post 20 hall in Aurora, GAR members painted murals on the walls and added a two-story tower to the west side of the light-stone building between 1904 and 1906. They commissioned a sculpture of a sentry standing guard and placed his pot metal frame atop the building. They took pride in their space and in the things the could accomplish as a unit, Church said.
Long before post-traumatic stress disorder had a name and a diagnosis, these Civil War soldiers who witnessed atrocities came back to become each other's counselors.
"They were able to be together and talk about things they would never talk about with their families," Church said. "It was a place for sharing experiences, and sharing pain and sharing joy."
After the Memorial Day tours conclude at 3 p.m., the Aurora Public Art Commission will work toward having the museum open by appointment and eventually on Saturdays. Work also will continue on the structure itself.
The tower and the lower level will be roped off Monday, as work there is not yet finished. And the sentry sculpture needs to be recast in bronze before he's ready to stand guard.
"It's the restoration job that never ends," Church said about the project, which began with getting an architect on board in 1996 and ramped up again in 2007 and 2011. "Of course we still have more work to do. But it's going to be extra-special."
Over the years, the GAR served as the first free library in Aurora and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It became city property in 1964 and has demanded a hefty investment ever since.
The Aurora Public Art Commission's fund at the Community Foundation of the Fox River Valley continues to accept donations to finish the project. To donate, visit communityfoundationfrv.org/profile/aurora-art-fund/ or mail a check or money order to 111 W. Downer Place, Suite 312, Aurora, 60506.
Aurora art and history experts say the GAR founders' legacy is one of creating a community gathering space with a purpose.
"They built a place that could be used," Church said. "We're going to keep that going as long as we can."
If You GoWhat: Rededication of the Grand Army of the Republic Hall and Museum
When: Ceremony 11 a.m. Monday, May 30; tours after the Memorial Day parade until 3 p.m.
Where: Ceremony at David L. Pierce Art and History Center, 20 E. Downer Place, Aurora; tours at GAR Hall, 23 E. Downer Place, Aurora
Who: Hosted by the city of Aurora's Public Art Commission, including members of the 36th Illinois Company B reenactors and the Ladies of the GAR of Northern Illinois