Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
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Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
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Why the Presbyterians Should Not Tear Down Buildings for a Parking Lot
God approves more parking for Springfield
July 21, 1978
Predictably enough, the demolitions discussed here did not result in church expansion or a day care center and senior citizens housing consistent with the church "mission." Instead downtown Springfield got another ugly unlandscaped surface parking lot that was eventually sold to the federal government which—thanks good—at least put a building on it.
I was brought up to not disagree with policemen and men of the cloth. This I did, not from piety but prudence, because both were assumed to speak for a higher authority. But I am forced, reluctantly, to disagree with one now. In the "Illinois Times" of July 14–20, 1978, there appeared an exculpatory essay by Howard L. Milkman Jr., pastor of Springfield's First Presbyterian Church. Its subject was the plans recently announced by the church to acquire some half-dozen buildings on Sixth Street and Capitol Avenue adjoining the church's property. The buildings there will be torn down eventually, though when and in what order has not been decided, and replaced by some new structures devoted to some yet unspecified church work. In the interim the space will be used for parking.
Several factors swayed the congregation to take this step, according to Milkman. One was the need for parking, a chronic problem for downtown businesses, including churches. Another was the threat from fire from nearby structures; one, a two-story commercial/apartment building immediately to the west of the church, was gutted by fire last winter. Third was the desire to grab a once-in-a-generation opportunity to secure space for the church's future expansion. Finally, and according to Milkman the most important, the congregation was reaffirming its commitment to remain in downtown Springfield. "We intend to stay downtown," Milkman insisted, "and insuring that we may, we vitally need space."
The project, when completed (plans are contingent on financing) will result in the destruction of a half-dozen commercial structures which together house some fifteen or sixteen small businesses or organizations. (The district is headquarters of the city's fluttering activist wing, owing to the tolerant politics of the Kreider sisters who own most of it; that half-block houses the local ACLU offices, the League of Women Voters headquarters, Rudolph's Bean coffeehouse, and the state ERA office—four reasons some people might want to improve the area out of existence.)
The prospect of more downtown buildings being reduced to dust is a melancholy one for many, and it was in anticipation of their objections that Milkman wrote his defense. He says, for example, that his congregation had no interest in merely buying a parking lot, and that the land would be used eventually for church "mission"; a long-range planning committee is exploring possibilities that (if Milkman conjectures rightly) include a day care center and senior citizens housing.
Until then cars will use the space. How long is also unknown, but church officials say privately it could be anywhere from two to five years and possibly much longer. The church will make money from the lease of spaces, and Milkman cites the construction of the new state courts complex and the civic center as reasons why the opening of such lots would, far from being a bad thing for downtown, be a welcome one. The project, in short, should not be seen as a negative, self-protective move by the church by one which, by enabling the First Pres to stay downtown, by ridding the area of antiquated commercial structures, and by adding needed parking space, actually advances the cause of downtown's survival.
With that and a garden, I could grow vegetables.
The threat of fire is real enough. But an alley separates the church from the nearest building, and in any event tearing down a building to prevent its catching fire is like shooting church members to prevent their becoming sinners. The church says it needs room to expand but it has no clear idea why. Indeed, it appears that the church is having to invent a use for the land. Senior citizens' housing? There are at least three major new such projects going up within a few blocks of the church. Day care? For whose kids? Surely not the congregation's, few of whom live anywhere near downtown.
The suspicion lingers that the church is indeed buying a parking lot. Milkman notes ambiguously that the civic center and courts complex will be opened soon, events important presumably because they will add pressure on parking downtown. But both facilities, whose designers anticipated the need for parking, include substantial off-street parking space.
Parking is not much of a problem, of course, during Sunday services and for evening programs when downtown is vacated by weekday parkers, since on-street parking is free and there are hundreds of spaces in lots and ramps within five minutes of the church. But if the purpose of the new parking lots is to provide parking for church members during the weekdays, how can church spaces be leased to the non-church-going public? It appears that the parking public will subsidize the parking for church members, which is a reasonable business arrangement—and should be labeled as such.
But these are side issues. Milkman rightly notes that the First Pres parking issue is secondary to the broader goal of the church remaining downtown where it's been for more than a century. Milkman argues persuasively (though not conclusively) that in order to stay downtown it must have room to expand. Other Springfield churches have left downtown for the suburbs. Downtown churches as a group have been victims of the urban population shifts of recent generations. First Pres, for instance, used to be a neighborhood church. Its families lived in filigreed comfort in houses on Sixth and Seventh streets nearby. But the grandchildren of the founders now live in Leland Grove or similar outposts and retain their attachment to the downtown church out of sentiment rather than convenience. It is said (not by anyone connected with either church) that more than a few First Pres families now attend Westminster Presbyterian on the west side because it's more convenient.
Churches, in short, are competing in a buyers' market. Apparently the First's decision to stay downtown was not a unanimous one, at least at first, and there is always the risk that the church will lose more members who seek spiritual solace somewhere closer to home where they can get back in time for the start of football after Sunday services.
But the price of providing suburban convenience downtown is high, perhaps as high as the price of not providing it. I have seen too many buildings torn down to react calmly to the prospect of seeing more. I am not especially enthusiastic about the particular buildings threatened by the church project. But when buildings of any sort are taken down in wholesale lots, as they have in recent months downtown, one must begin to worry not about the destruction of individual structures but about the destruction of something larger. The dilution of the built environment threatens downtown itself, what Ada Louise Huxtable, in a recent dispatch from Paris, called "the delicate fabric of streets, lots, buildings and character that are the physical base of the city's unique style."
How many limbs can one lop off a tree, we need to ask, before it dies? Do we really want to turn downtown into another Town & Country shopping center? Will the church have to help destroy downtown in order to save it? Milkman says that "concern for the downtown area" has led to its "rejuvenation" in recent years. I'm not sure the word fits the facts; downtown Springfield has been rejuvenated in the same sense that a man who's escaped from a shark attack with only one leg eaten off can be said to have been rejuvenated. Rejuvenated connotes a rebirth, finding new uses for downtown, not its mindless demolition in an attempt to "adapt" it—meaning wreck it—for uses which are inappropriate to it.
Milkman ended his essay by asking for suggestions from those who care about downtown. I suggest that before any decision is made to convert the property to parking, the church should explore the possibilities of restoring structures in the parcel by adaptive reuse; that in addition to consulting with the higher powers, the appropriate church committees should get in touch with the state Department of Conservation's historic sites office for information about loans and reimbursement programs and with area architects experienced in such work; that the church at least entertain the possibility of preserving the attractive facades white' rehabilitating the interiors for new commercial/ educational/residential uses; that it at least consult with SCADA and other groups about the possibilities of finding new commercial tenants for the properties to generate rental income to offset costs of conversion for "mission" activities; that it consider whether or not its “mission'' may not be carried out in existing buildings, thus obviating the need for expensive new construction; and finally, that it think again whether it is downtown the church is committed to or the church itself which happens to be located there, and further whether it is possible to advance the causes of one without irreparably harming the other.
It may prove in the end that there are no more attractive options than leaving the block intact and having the church leave or having the church stay and seeing the rest of its block devastated. But demolition should be a last option, not the primary one; downtown can't stand many more such "improvements." ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
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A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
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“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
Illinois Labor History Society
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
Illinois Migration History 1850-2017
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
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Southern Illinois University Press
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
Northern Illinois University Press
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
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Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.
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