- Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was submitted by Eric Pry, curator of Aurora’s G.A.R. Memorial Museum.
As the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall, located at 23 E. Downer Place in Aurora, prepares for a final round of renovation in the spring of 2019, now is the time to review the history of the 1963-1965 campaign to preserve this integral Civil War monument in Aurora.
In the fall of 1963, the city of Aurora had plans to remove the old City Hall building, the Post Office, and the G.A.R. Memorial Hall located on Stolp Island due to their age and state of decay, and to accommodate additional downtown parking, and a civic center.
Public opinion on those moves was heavily divided. While a civic center and parking lot would help ease some of the frustrations of parking in the downtown area, the removal of the historic buildings would be a massive blow to the history of the city.
Over a few months, the G.A.R. Memorial Association, founded in 1939, organized a campaign to preserve the G.A.R. Memorial Hall and raised the funds necessary to preserve one of the most historically important buildings in Aurora. The amount required to save the building totaled $30,000.
Built in 1878 as a monument to the Civil War Veterans of the Aurora-area, the G.A.R. Memorial Hall also housed Aurora’s first public library and was home to the various veterans groups and heritage groups such as the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, Ladies Auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic Abraham Lincoln Circle No. 2, and the Navy Mothers Club.
Throughout its history, thousands of veterans and families have crossed the threshold into the building and conducted business, honored their family members and brothers-in-arms, and told tales of battles won and lost.
Led by Charles M. Burgess, then-commander of the G.A.R. Heritage Fund, a coalition of veterans organizations and heritage societies began planning for restoration and renovation of the old hall. The original hall, which opened on July 4, 1878, was a top priority.
The G.A.R. Memorial Association and GAR Heritage Fund had hopes of restoring the original hall and removing the 1904-1906 stair tower as well as the two-story 1885 addition, which housed a library, meeting space, and a reception hall.
While public opinion on saving the hall was evenly split, one thing was very clear: The citizens of Aurora believed the taxpayers should not be burdened by this endeavor.
In order to raise the funds required for restoration, a campaign was launched to raise funds for the project through private donations, working with the Aurora Foundation to collect those donations and ensure the funds were placed in a trust.
There were several plans for the building, including completely demolishing the building.
One planned called for incorporating the building as a section of a new City Hall. This idea still required the demolition of the 1885 library section, but would provide a renewed use for the hall as a civic center.
Another plan was to relocate the entire structure from its present location to another one somewhere else in the city; A specific location is never given. This plan was quickly abandoned after it was estimated to cost nearly $80,000 to complete.
Despite the odds, Burgess and his cohort continued to push the public for donations.
Burgess had a strong affection for the building. A 1st lieutenant of the 124th Field Artillery, Battery C, a unit of the 33rd Division, Burgess knew first-hand the importance of the hall. It would be no stretch of the imagination to say Burgess, as a young man, had met many of the members of G.A.R. Post No. 20 after his time in service.
The Civil War Veterans of Aurora, specifically the men of Post No. 20, had often given lectures at the local schools discussing the battles they fought, and the importance of the Civil War to school children throughout the late-19th and early-20th centuries.
At the end of the day, Burgess felt it was his duty to honor their legacy and preserve the monument built in honor of all veterans.
By late December of 1963, the GAR Heritage Fund had raised more than $5,000 toward the project, less than half of the required $15,000 needed to begin construction.
Public opinion again began applying pressure on the G.A.R. Memorial Association to change the name of the hall to “G.A.R. – John F. Kennedy Memorial Hall” in honor of the recently-assassinated president. One citizen, in response to this push, is quoted in the Aurora Star article, “the wild hysteria over the late president and suggestions to name everything in his memory will soon blow over.”
In the following months, donations rushed in, and the Chamber of Commerce officially endorsed the restoration of the hall and a new “downtown master plan” was developed by Wm. S. Lawrence & Associates to incorporate the renovated “… G.A.R. Memorial Center.” In fact, the project became so prolific, the mayoral race in 1965 had advertisements for Albert D. McCoy’s support for the restoration of the hall on the basis of “…patriotism and civic pride.”
The Aurora Star reported on Dec. 2, 1964, only $17,126 had been raised for the project; a year later than expected and still far short from the $30,000 needed to complete restoration. However, the monies raised provided enough to stabilize the building and open it to the public and the various veterans organizations as a meeting space.
The 1885 addition was removed in 1965, along with Old City Hall and the Post Office, where the current multi-level parking structure stands today. The Memorial Association went ahead with plans for re-dedicating the hall on May 31, 1965, operating as a museum for more than 30 years.
Despite the massive campaign to save the G.A.R. Memorial Hall, the city of Aurora was forced to close it down in 1999 due to instability. Major restoration was completed in phases in 2008, 2012, and 2015. The G.A.R. Memorial Hall reopened to the public on Memorial Day of 2016.
This year, a final round of renovation will complete the lower-level allowing veterans groups, heritage societies, and school groups to meet there. In addition, temporary exhibit space will be built into the area, allowing the G.A.R. Memorial Museum to tell the stories of countless veterans from the City of Lights throughout all of the conflicts the United States has been involved in.
Donations to the G.A.R. Memorial Hall can be made through the Community Foundation of the Fox River Valley at www.cffrv.gives/gar.
- “G.A.R. Building Drive Underway.” Aurora Star News, Nov. 1963.
- “Title Unknown” Aurora Beacon News, Jan. 20, 1964.
- The National Archives at College Park; College Park, Maryland; Record Group Title: Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, 1774-1985; Record Group Number: 92; Roll or Box Number: 186
- “The King-Sized Clock.” Aurora Beacon News, Dec. 25 1963.
- Committee Mum on Suggestions to Include Late President Kennedy in G.A.R. Memorial, Aurora Star News (Date Unknown).
- “G.A.R. Hall Should Honor Only Civil War Heroes.” Aurora Star News, (Date Unknown).
- “Make McCoy Mayor.” Aurora Beacon News, Feb. 2, 1965.
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