The end of the Hotel Abraham Lincoln
December 22, 1978
An eyewitness account of the demolition of the Hotel Abraham Lincoln in downtown Springfield, probably the grandest and stupidest spectacle the capital city has ever seen. I wrote about the circumstances that led to this unhappy climax here.
At Fourth and Cook streets it looked like rush hour on a Monday morning. The curbsides which are usually vacant on Sunday mornings were crowded with cars, and the knots of people who got out of them moved briskly north toward downtown. It was the morning the state was going to blow up the Abe Lincoln Hotel, and they'd all come to take a look.
L. and I joined the stream, slightly exceeding it in briskness, because it was already eight-fifteen and there were only fifteen minutes before detonation. We, like everyone else on the street, had resolved to ignore the advice of authorities who asked sightseers to stay away. We headed west toward the knoll now occupied by the Illinois Bar Association headquarters and the attorney general's building; it offered the perspective of height, and as the papers had said that the building would be taken down starting with the west wall, we reasoned (correctly) that the view from the west would be best.
We skirted police barricades by cutting through to Jackson Street along the driveway that runs between the Lincoln Towers apartment/hotel building and the Third Street railroad tracks. Party-ers were crowding the balconies up and down the hotel side of the fourteen-story tower. They were shouting at people they knew below, laughing, singing; many were drunk. I wondered to myself how early one would have to start drinking to get loud drunk by eight in the morning, then L. muttered something about their probably having been at it all night long. The driveway was splattered with spittle, some showing traces of Bloody Marys, put there by the drunks on the balconies above, a few of whom were plainly trying to hit the people walking past them below.
The crowd on the ground was for the most part sober, quiet, a little tense. They looked at their watches a lot, occasionally tried to stamp the cold out of their feet, chatted, trampled on the lawyers' ivy and shrubbery. One woman wondered aloud whether the pigeons roosting in the old hulk would have enough time to escape when the dynamite went off. Everyone, it seemed, had a camera strapped around his neck, something that puzzled me at first—pictures of the takedown would doubtless fill the pages of the papers the next morning—until I decided that a photograph taken on the spot was proof that the taker had really been there, his accreditation as a witness for anyone in the future for whom the taker might think it important to know.
L. and I watched with the rest (the papers said there were 5,000 of us in all) as the seven explosive charges cracked, like a tympani roll struck with hard mallets, and the Abe collapsed in an impossibly large cloud of dust. People clapped and left. A couple of hours later L. and I were entering a northside grocery store in search of enough powdered sugar to enable her to finish decorating Christmas cookies, an annual rite. On our way through downtown, we had seen lines of cars stretched down Capitol and up Fifth Street in a smoking processional, each car carrying sightseers past the ruins.
"I didn't expect it to affect me personally the way it did," she said as the automatic doors wheezed open. "I mean, I never knew it when it was a hotel. The only experience I ever had of the place was when it was abandoned and I had to hold my nose when I walked by it because of that horrible musty smell that came from inside it." L. found her sugar and picked up a pound box. "So why did it bother me?"
"I'll tell you why it bothered you. Because neither of us will ever live long enough to see a building like that one ever built again in this city, and because every time they destroy one of those places they make Springfield a smaller place."
L.—motoring south now, passing a tacky two-story frame and brick apartment house of the type that seems to sprout on every vacant lot like dandelions—"Yes, I know. I wouldn't care if they knocked that thing down, because I know they could put up another one like it tomorrow." I nodded agreement. It had occurred to me that morning, while we were all standing there waiting, that they should have left the Abe standing just they way it was, as a monument, the way European cities left some of their bombed-out cathedrals broken and burned as a reminder to their people of certain things they have a tendency to forget too easily.
For the rest of that day the memory of what I'd seen than morning replayed itself over and over. Something about it nagged at me, something familiar and strange at the same time. Then I remembered. I went to my bookshelves and took down my "Orwell Reader" and flipped to a memoir George Orwell wrote in 1936. He called it, "Shooting an Elephant," and it was based on something that happened to him while he was serving in Burma with the Indian Imperial Police. He had had to shoot a rogue elephant that had killed a man. When he pulled the trigger, he wrote, he didn't ever hear the report. Then:
In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line in his body altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralyzed him without knocking him down. At last, after what seemed a long time—it might have been five seconds, I dare say — he sagged flabbily to his knees . . . . And then down he came, his belly toward me, with a crash that seemed to shake the ground even where I lay.
I reread the lines and put the book away. The sightseers, by the way, kept filing by the corpse of the Abe in long lines, until it got dark. ●