The Monroe Building & Pritzker Military Museum

I had come to Chicago on a self guided architectural tour, and when I walked into this building, I was actually looking for something else…

The Monroe Building, designed by Holabird & Roche in 1912, has a beautiful Gothic – Italian Romanesque interior that’s covered with tile work made by Rookwood Pottery, one of the largest woman-owned businesses in the country at the time. The Rookwood Pottery Company was founded in 1880 by pioneering artist Maria Longworth-Nichols, who built the company into a world-renowned ceramics studio. The Monroe Building remains among the largest commercial installations of Rookwood tile in this country.

Interior of the Monroe building
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

The building was restored both inside and out, including the exterior terra cotta façade and decorative cast iron entrances that were replicated from original photographs.

The building’s interior restoration included Rookwood tile floors, walls and vaults. Beneath layers of drywall and bronze panels, the restoration team found wrought iron elevator grilles and rare decorative tile work by Rookwood Pottery still intact. Historic photos and architectural drawings helped replicate missing transom grilles and original lighting fixtures. The restoration team included some of the companies involved with the building's original construction, including Holabird & Root (architects), Rookwood Pottery, and Ludowici Tile, which made the original Spanish tile roof.

The lobby was lined with glass cases filled with artifacts about the building, including tile samples and architectural elevations. I stood for the longest time, just looking up at the color variations in the tiles and the detailing of the arches, before turning to find a staircase. I ventured up for a better view of the ceiling.

And then I followed the stairs to see where they would lead…

On the second floor I discovered the Pritzker Military Museum. It feels small but houses a library of more than 45,000 volumes in a dozen languages which are accessible to members locally, and across the country via inter-library loan. After being asked if I wanted to access the library (I didn’t), I was redirected to a really interesting collection of artifacts carried by soldiers during several wars, as well as a great collection of wartime recruitment posters.

Among the oldest and most unique artifacts was a journal kept by a militiaman during the Battle of Rhode Island in 1777-79. It provides a firsthand account of military operations during the American Revolution as well as a list of daily expenditures, travel details, musical scores and remembrances of loved ones.

I got a kick out of seeing a tin containing a military button polishing kit that I think dated to the Civil War, and this field sewing kit and pack of cigarettes that I think dated to WWI. (Pictured at top)

Other artifacts here included playing cards, a shaving kit, a small compass and a row of pocket books. Here is a box of hard bread manufactured by the Pelican Cracker Factory in New Orleans, and a Bacon Can – a tinned iron can that held uncooked meat rations. The lid was secured by a friction seal, and the can was stored upright to prevent grease from leaking out into the rest of the soldier’s kit. There was also a condiment can which held coffee, sugar and salt. Once the meat was cooked and consumed, the soldier could store the condiment can inside the bacon can which would save space in the solder’s halversack. I believe it dated to the Civil War but my notes are woefully inadequate…

Shown here is a mess kit consisting of silver cutlery, a collapsible cup and a kit engraved with the 34th Division insignia, an eagle, castle and Eiffel Tower, which I believe dates it to the French Front in WWI.

Mess kit from WWI
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

The "Remember the Maine" 45-star flag was produced in 1898 as an homage to the USS Maine, which sunk in Havana Harbor earlier that year after an explosion which was blamed as an attack by Spain in retaliation for American intervention in Cuba's war for independence. The phrase "Remember The Maine, To Hell With Spain!" was thought to be a catalyst for the start of the Spanish American War.

I saw some recruitment posters that I had only seen in books, and several from battles and recruitment efforts I was unfamiliar with, including a 1918 lithograph commemorating the First Battle of the Marne in France, when Allied Forces stopped the Germans from taking control of Paris in September 1914, heralding a major turning point of that war.

Another lithograph drew a parallel between WWI and the American Revolutionary War showed General Pershing landing in France with 14,000 American soldiers on June 26, 1917. On July 2, the troops made a symbolic march through Paris, ending at the grave of Marquis de Lafayette, who I remember as being instrumental in procuring aid from the French during the American Revolution. The troops were made up of fresh, untrained recruits who would not make a significant contribution on the battlefield until the following year.

This parallel between wars continued in another poster entitled: “The Minute Men of Today are going to Plattsville”, which hinted at the bloodline between militiamen of the Revolutionary War and the Bostonians whom were encouraged to enlist during WWI. Another poster “Wake Up America Day” was also designed to encourage enlistment. Released for a celebration on April 19, 1917 to coincide with the anniversaries of the Battles of Lexington and Concord during the Revolutionary War, it resulted in only 225 enlistments nationwide, which resulted in Congress passing the Selective Service Act, which authorized the military draft on April 28.

There were other posters who targeted other groups, like one that prompted Irishmen to join up in order to avenge the sinking of the Lusitania.

Irish poster
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

My favorite and the poster I most readily recognized was this one, also dating from 1918. When the US entered WWI in April 1917, 800 women enlisted to serve in nursing and communications, and by the end of the war in 1918, that number had expanded to about 13,400. However, they were not commissioned and were not treated equally to the men who served. In spite of their service, they were not afforded the benefits of rank, pay or quarter.

Poster to encourage women to serve
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

On a nearby table stands a bronze bust of Major General Joseph B. Sanborn, who led his men to victory at Chipilly Ridge during WWI and was awarded several medals and honors. The sculptor was Frederick C. Hibbard (1881-1950), a Chicago based artist who became known for creating military memorials for the Civil War. He crafted this bust in 1924.

This museum was founded in 2003 by Colonel J.N. Pritzker and is dedicated to the story of the Citizen Soldier in American history. According to their website:

“The Pritzker Military Museum & Library believes that to better support and understand the issues of the service member and veteran community is to have a firm grasp of military history and affairs. In addition to advancing a greater understanding of military history, the Museum & Library also works towards increasing the public’s awareness of the sacrifices made by men and women who serve, in the belief of understanding that sacrifice is appropriate - but also because only a citizenry so informed can exercise adequately the Clausewitzian dictum of civilian oversight and control of the military. This theme of the citizen soldier is something the Museum & Library holds very near and dear.”

The Pritzker Military Museum & Library is a 501(c)(3) and is supported by its members. It is open 7 days a week, check their website for specific hours at www.pritzkermilitary.org.

I have boarded additional photos from this museum on Pinterest.

Find this museum on the 2nd through 4th floors of the Monroe Building at 104 S Michigan Ave in downtown Chicago. I was there for about an hour, but plan on spending more time there if you access the library or attend one of their events.

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Heather Daveno

Heather Daveno is from Seattle, Washington, where she works as an office manager by day and a self taught hatmaker by night. She spent most of her pandemic lockdown in 2020-2021 creating 800 masks for the Masks4Millions project.

In a normal year, her travels inspire her hats, which she handcrafts from reclaimed textiles and found objects. You can find her hats and masks for sale at August Phoenix Hats. She is currently reissuing her original journals as “Director’s Cuts” with expanded text and previously unpublished photos, which you can read for free at Daveno Travels.