Elks Club to get new lease on life, thanks to Sunil Puri

The River District renewal continues. In September, the Rockford City Council voted to designate the Elks Club a local historic landmark after the structure was threatened with demolition.

Originally the home of the Rockford Elks Lodge No. 64, the building was used by the fraternal organization until 1990, when it was sold to a commercial development company. In September 2003, the building was donated by developer Sunil Puri to the nonprofit Goodwill Abilities Center.

The Elks’ Building Committee commissioned the project to be built “with an exterior finish similar to that of the American Insurance Company building on the opposite corner” (Rockford Morning Star, Feb. 8, 1913). It was constructed in 1912 in the Classical Revival style. Window openings in the building are arched. Several windows and the porch arches on the Main Street side have decorated brickwork that mimic keystones. This was a popular architectural element in the Classical Revival style.

The building has French doors that open onto a covered porch on the Main Street side. A decorative brick railing and arches form the porch, which was enclosed or screened in early photos. Today, this porch is open, and stairs have been added to the north side.

Historical significance

The building at 210 W. Jefferson is historically significant due to its association with Rockford Elks Lodge No. 64, who used the building from the time it was built until they sold it in 1990. The building was constructed as the home for the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, Lodge No. 64. The site was selected in 1909 and was very controversial as it was considered too far from downtown. Founders of the Rockford Elks Club were a group of Rockford industrialists and businessmen from the turn of the century. An indented brick design below the first floor and a stringcourse below the first floor, emphasize the horizontal. Tile work appears on the second floor corners.

Nationally, the Elks are one of the oldest and largest fraternal organizations in the U.S. The original organization was a group of theatrical people who called themselves the Jolly Corks. The group evolved into a fraternal organization for social and charitable activities, renamed The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.

Many activities have taken place at the Elks building over the years, ranging from weddings to barbershopper “afterglows” to the Irish Marching Society’s event after the parade. Many people who grew up in Rockford have fond memories of the building.

One of the most memorable features of the building is the magnificent staircase. The building is a reservoir of Rockford memories and an architecturally significant building that is worthy of preservation.

Architectural significance

Lawrence P. Buck of Chicago, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, was the architect. A 1913 publication, “Country and Suburban Homes of The Prairie School Period”, included Buck’s work along with other influential Prairie School architects of the day, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Griffin and Charles E. White. Buck’s Prairie School influence can be seen in the Elks Club building.

The Prairie Style, made popular by Frank Lloyd Wright, is a prominent Midwestern architectural style identified by strong horizontal lines and the use of natural materials. Features of the Prairie style used at the Elks club include the overall boxy shape, the horizontal lines, use of natural materials for decorative purposes and the large overhanging eaves. The Elks building used red brick, a copper cornice, and decorative green tiles in its design.

The combination of these elements creates an eclectic, architectural style unique among the commercial buildings in downtown Rockford. It had an integral part in the evolution of commercial architecture in our downtown, which includes the Greek Revivalist Memorial Hall, the Art Deco-styled Times Theater and the atmospheric Coronado Theatre. Although there are several local examples of Prairie style in residential architecture, there are very few commercial examples.

Local residents reminisce

Jon Lundin, president of the Abilities Center, is excited about the new acquisition. “Basically, this is a citizens’ initiative—a grass-roots effort,” he said. “Our goal right now is to organize a kind of Friends of the Elks Club association. It’s meant to be inclusive, so everybody who is interested would qualify.”

What about contributions? “We’re not asking for money—just ideas,” Lundin assured. “That’s not a requirement. What we would like to do is, we’re particularly interested in finding any kind of Elks Club memorabilia that people would allow us to make copies of—like old photographs. Everybody in Rockford seemed to be going to weddings there or social events. If they have a program and photographs of bride and groom, that we could copy. In the upstairs, there is a balcony that the orchestra used to play from. It was remodeled, I believe, in the ’50s. I’m interested in the original interior, which goes back to 1912, as opposed to changes made in the Second World War period.”

In fact, the Elks Club now has something in common with the Coronado restoration—the architect. “What we’re going to do,” explained Lundin, “is, we’re going to try to schedule a date for the architect who also restored the Coronado, Paul Westlake. He has volunteered to spend a day and a half here and go through the Elks Club. He is being brought back here by Mary Ann Smith. She and her husband headed the Friends of the Coronado. She’s very much in a leadership role with this cause. She has contacted Paul Westlake, and he is very much interested.”

Lundin sees the link to the Coronado as a plus. “We hope that there will be an advantage to have a rebuilt Elks Club near the Coronado downtown” Lundin said. “As a venue for social events, it has tremendous possibility. It’s showing its age, and a lot of the mechanisms will have to be replaced. We’re just thrilled to have it and work toward its restoration. Our intention is to have some events there, especially when the weather gets warmer. We will clean it up and do some very simple things [such as] lighting.”

Tours of the Coronado were given. How about the Elks Club? “The more people come in and see it, the better,” said Lundin. “We will look at many ways to approach it. The money will not come from one source. We are trying to find a variety of commercial uses for it. Our goal is to have the restoration in character.”

Judith Barnard, also on the committee, reiterated that the Goodwill Abilities Center is looking for memorabilia, and added that if people have any programs or photos, they should call Karen at the Center. “We’d like to scan them so that we can put together an informal history of the Elks Club,” she explained. “We know that anyone you talk to in Rockford attended events there. My assistant used to go there on Friday nights for clam chowder.”

She has a personal memory of her own. “My dad was a barbershop quartet singer in the ’60s,” she recalled, “and they had huge concerts that would fill the Coronado, but after that, they would go to the Elks Club and have an ‘Afterglow.’ All the quartets would get up and sing informally. It was so much fun.”

She also remembers the architecture. “People remember weddings and coming down the grand staircase,” she said. “That historic old ballroom—there is a gorgeous photo of it at the Goodwill Center. It shows what that ballroom looked like in its original condition. It was phenomenal. Everyone has ideas for it. There are so many parts to the building. I also have a collage that shows some of the rooms in the building now. Obviously, they are in disrepair, but it gives you an idea of what was there.”

The 2003 Elks Club Steering Committee members are: Chandler Anderson, Judith Barnard, Rev. Norma Lee Barnhart, Jon Bates, Kurt Bell, Sarah Bell, Brian Bowers, Jenine Cannell-Puri, Gary Carlson, Ginny Gregory, Lori Gustafson, Frank Houtkamp, Jerry Kortman, Rep. Chuck Jefferson, Jim Keeling, Dick Lewis, Paul Logli, Jon Lundin, Doug Mark, John McNamara, Da

ve Morgan, Don Moore, Larry Morrissey, John Nelson, Phil Pilcher, Steve Pitkin, Frank Schier, Doc Slafkosky, Karen Smith, Mary Ann Smith, Glen Turpoff, and Tom Walsh.

The first meeting of the Elks Club Steering Committee will most likely be held in January.

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