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Pritzker family previews the Pritzker Military Archives Center in Kenosha County

The building was the late architect Helmut Jahn's last design

A framed piece hangs on a small white wall inside a large space. The building's red beams can be seen in the background.
Art is on display during a preview of the Pritzker Military Archives Center on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023, in Somers, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

A boundary-stretching architect’s final project rises up in a wedge of steel and glass in an unexpected location — a stretch of former farm field in the village of Somers.

The floor-to-ceiling windows are framed by bright red trusses. Black steel in a lattice pattern overlays the windows. All the bolts and welded joints are exposed, giving this 51,800-square-foot building a rough and industrial look.

The Pritzker Military Archives Center, or PMAC, was German-American architect Helmut Jahn’s final project before he died in 2021. His formal, modernist style can be found in buildings he designed in cities throughout the world, including the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago and the Sony Center in Berlin.

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The building, its form resembling the amphibious personnel carriers used in World War II, is an extension of the Pritzker Military Museum and Library in Chicago.

An angular building with bright red beams.
The Pritzker Military Archives Center’s red beams glisten in the sun Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023, in Somers, Wis. Angela Major/WPR
A US flag and other US military flags fly outside the museum.
Flags fly outside the Pritzker Military Archives Center on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023, in Somers, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The development of the military archives center was funded by Retired Col. Jennifer Pritzker, who also founded the original museum. She is a member of the Pritzker family, one of the richest families in the United States, and is cousin to Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

The archives’ exterior design is a play on the military artifacts, books and documents inside which tell the stories of citizens and soldiers starting with the American Revolution.

About 65,000 books and 40,000 artifacts were transferred from the museum in Chicago to the new archives in Kenosha County.

Pritzker said literature, uniforms, pictures, plaques and other memorabilia can help people understand how the past informed the present.

“You have to have some exposure to the artifacts,” Pritzker said. “What was it like to wear an all wool uniform with a choking collar? Then have to live in it and fight in it for days or weeks on end?”

A sketch of the building is shown on an easel.
An architectural drawing of the Pritzker Military Archives Center is on display during a preview of the facility Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023, in Somers, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Dustin DePue, the director of museum collections, said transporting artifacts from Chicago to Somers took approximately a year of preparation and two weeks of execution. The first round of material arrived in June. Every item was examined, photographed and packed up. Museum staff are still working to document the collection before the museum opens next year.

Pritzker said properly cataloging books and artifacts is important; otherwise, they have no value.

“If you don’t properly store it, you’ll lose it. Your books and documents will turn to dust. Other artifacts will start to rust,” Pritzker said.

The building’s storage areas have specialized temperature and humidity controls designed to preserve the collection.

Two people sit on a stage to answer questions.
Jennifer Pritzker, right, answers questions about the Pritzker Military Archives Center on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023, in Somers, Wis. Angela Major/WPR
Angular details of the modern style building can be seen through large glass walls.
The Pritzker Military Archives Center is open for a preview Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023, in Somers, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

DePue said the museum staff hope to increase the number of materials from the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War era. There is a focus on American history, but Pritzker said it is also important to understand the global perspective.

“In order to understand the American citizen soldier, you have to take a global approach because the colonial militias, coming from not just England, but France and Spain, to name a couple, all have origins from somewhere else,” Pritzker said.

Approximately 9,000-square-feet of the PMAC will be open to the public.

But the main purpose of the building is to safely store artifacts and give scholars access to the collection, which will be available for study by appointment.

A pathway with railing that matches the red beams of the building
Walkways surround the Pritzker Military Archives Center on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023, in Somers, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

A virtual digital gallery is in the works. One by one, artifacts and books are being scanned with the hope of giving expand access to the collection.

“Being able to digitize it just really opens up the collection to the public. That is something that is sort of a tenement of how we operate and what we want to do,” DePue said.

The PMAC’s design changed from the original plan when it was first announced.

Phillip Castillo is the managing director of Jahn, the architecture firm named after its predecessor. Castillo saw the project through until the end. He called the master plan controversial, but the archive leaders said they are very proud of the building that stands there now. The PMAC is expected to be open to the public in the beginning of 2024.

“This building looks exactly as we had envisioned it,” Castillo said.

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