City funds look at scaled-down GAR Hall restoration
BY STEPHANIE LULAY firstname.lastname@example.org September 30, 2013 5:52PM
The "Angel Room" inside of the Grand Army of Republic Hall during major renovations in Downtown Aurora on Sep. 27, 2013. | Mike Mantucca / For Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 2, 2013 6:13AM
AURORA — It’s the city’s historic restoration that “has lasted longer than the Civil War itself,” Alderman Bob O’Connor joked this week.
The shuttered Grand Army of the Republic Hall, a historic monument in the heart of downtown, has been closed to the public since the mid-1990s. And since 1996, Aurora Public Art Commission officials have either been restoring, or fundraising to restore, the rock-faced, ashlar laid limestone building at 23 E. Downer Place.
It’s a massive and slow-moving process, but developments have Rena Church, executive director of the public art commission, hopeful that Aurorans will see the GAR’s doors open in the next few years.
The City of Aurora is aiming to kick about $75,000 in funding to hire Arris Architects and Planners, a Plainfield firm, to map out the next steps of the interior restoration project. The plan will give the city a better idea of what a partial, less expensive restoration of the Gothic Revival-style building would look like.
“It will give us a road map,” Church said of the plans. “We can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
After electrical, air system, floor and lighting work is completed and original bookcases are restored, the building can be occupied, Church said.
Carie Anne Ergo, Mayor Tom Weisner’s chief of staff, said the city originally planned for a full GAR restoration at a substantial cost, but a partial renovation would allow for the city to use the space for events, including Memorial Day and Labor Day celebrations.
“We’ve been chipping away at this project since the late 1990s frankly, and there’s a lot competing priorities (for city funding),” she said.
Completing the plan for occupancy will allow the public art commission to apply for restoration grants, too, Ergo said.
Mint green walls
On Friday, from inside the GAR’s Angel Room, Church said it’s already come a long way from the 1960s, when efforts to tear down the building were thwarted.
In the 1990s, the building was “pulling itself into the river,” she said. “It was very unstable. A lot of things had conspired to really mess it up.”
Piece by piece, funding has come together for the renovation. Mokena-based JL Burke is performing the restoration work.
In 2011, a $250,000 Illinois Department of Natural Resources grant allowed the historical society to fund a restoration of the building’s exterior. The first phase of an interior restoration was completed in December 2012.
Today, the beige plaster walls in the Angel Room have been painted back to the color they were in the 1870s — mint green.
“We were kind of surprised, but it was a very popular color back in the day,” Church said.
When a full historical restoration is funded, stencils depicting battle scenes will be recreated on the Angel Room walls, too.
The building, a monument to Civil War veterans, was completed in 1878 at a cost of $7,179. The Soldiers Monument Association and the Ladies Monument Association, a group that later became GAR Aurora, Post 20, spent 10 years fundraising for the building’s construction.
Instead of a statue, the building was intended to be a living monument that doubled as a library.
“These people were really accomplished and civically active,” Church said.
She said she hopes that the building will ultimately serve as a meeting place for returning veterans.
“We want this building to be interactive and alive, not just a museum,” she said.
When will the project be done?
“Every single day, that’s the question,” Church said. “We have hopes that it will be in the next few years.”