Adieu to the Abe

Springfield’s grandest hotel dies prematurely

Illinois Times

December 7, 1978

Springfield’s grandest hotel, which stood three blocks from the statehouse, was structurally sound (it was barely fifty years old) when it was razed in 1978 to make room for a for a new state courts complex and legal education center that would never be built.

The land on which is stood is vacant to this day. I did two pieces for Illinois Times about this fiasco; the other one is here.

 

Checkout time for the Hotel Abraham Lincoln in downtown Springfield approaches 9:30 Sunday morning, December 17. At that hour the fifty-two-year old Abe will be reduced to rubble to make room for a new state courts complex and legal education center. Gravity, not the wrecking ball, will be the agent of the Abe’s doom; crews from Controlled Demolitions, Inc., will use explosive charges to shatter the foundations of the twelve-story structure, thus allowing it to fall on itself in an avalanche of brick and terra cotta. Building the Abe took fourteen months and $1.4 million; destroying it will be quicker and cheaper.

 

Springfield is showing a morbid fascination with the project. The blowing up of the Abe promises to be a first-rate spectacle, especially since we are all used to seeing our downtown buildings destroyed piecemeal, by neglect, rather than destroyed all at once by dynamite. It has been suggested (accurately, I think) that the state could set up bleachers in the streets and sell enough tickets to the curious to pay for the razing. A clot of invited "dignitaries"—many of whom probably haven’t been downtown in years—will be there to witness the execution. Many people will film the show, and the more enterprising of the city's citizenry are likely to seize upon the event as an excuse for a party. The atmosphere doubtless will show the same mix of holiday and horror that characterized Newgate on the day of a hanging.

 

We should be grateful that the state had the good sense to hire a professional firm to do the job instead of trying to raze the Abe itself. Assuming the Capital Development Board (the agency overseeing the project) is no better at destroying buildings than it is at putting them up, everyone living within ten blocks of the Abe would have been well advised to duck under the nearest kitchen table at about 9:27 a.m. There also has been some concern expressed that the Abe actually be empty when it is blown up—a rudimentary precaution. but so many winos have taken shelter there that at times it had more guests after it closed than it had before; without it, there would be so many strange birds falling out of the sky when the hotel comes down that it’ll look like a grouse hunt.

 

The day and time of the blast were chosen because downtown streets will be largely deserted then. Largely, but not entirely; when the schedule was first announced, several downtown churches complained that they would be right in the middle of the Sunday services when the Abe joined its maker. The CDB could have kept the date secret, of course, but that might have had unfortunate consequences. Imagine this scene: A dozen pastors in the midst of their weekly perorations when, without warning or apparent cause, the Sunday morning calm explodes with a roof-shaking roar. Hundreds of the prayerful, taking the noise as a message, drop to their knees furiously babbling "Hallelujahs," each swearing that if He lets him off the hook this one time he’ll repay every cent of the money he swiped from the office coffee fund, while the preacher frantically reviews his notes to see if he can figure out what it was he said to bring forth such an emphatic exclamation point from the heavens. It’d be the greatest thing to hit Christianity since tax exemption.

 

Of course, congregations close enough to actually see the Abe collapse might assume that the Almighty himself was—what else?—making a parking lot, reading into the event a blessing for their own energetic paving work. As a quick survey of the downtown area confirms, churches need no encouragement in that direction. lt is perhaps too easy to make jokes about the whole thing, for the loss of the Abe is an unhappy affair. For a  while it was hoped that such a job would not need doing. There were the usual half-hearted plans to save the Abe by making it an office building, a student dorm, or a housing complex for the elderly, but none worked. Indeed, some have asked why, with plans being finalized for a new hotel which also will bear Lincoln's name to be built four blocks away, the Abe couldn’t still make it as a hotel.

 

The answer, ironically, is that it might have, had it survived perhaps ten years longer. Recently, architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote a bitter denunciation of what casino owners are doing to the grand old resort hotels along Atlantic City`s boardwalk like the Blenheim, the "Moorish sand castle" that is being dynamited by casino operators to make way for some Vegas hideousness or other. She notes that Business Week magazine has found the business of recycling old hotels hot enough to be called a boom, particularly "the ‘classic” hotels of Belle Epoque grandeur built through the l920s. "It may be news to New Jersey," she notes acidly, "but cities everywhere are investing in creative restoration and expert conversion of landmarks, in conjunction with quality new construction. as their ticket to the future."

 

As the Abe proves, it’s news to Illinois, too. While properties like the Abe were allowed to stand rotting, developers scurried to put up new "luxury" hotels which are nothing more than a bunch of Holiday Inns piled on top of one another, as different from the terrazzo and brass of the Abe as a Melmac plate is from Spode china. Should Springfield ever want to buy its "tickets to the future," it will not be able to do it with the Abe. Even “creative restoration” can’t restore a ghost. ●

SITES

OF

INTEREST

John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

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 Encyclopedia of Chicago

 

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.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

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."

Illinois Digital Archives

 

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.

The Illinois State Museum

 

The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Chicagology

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. 

BOOKS

 OF INTEREST

Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

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.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 

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.

University of

Illinois Press

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.

University of

Chicago Press

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

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with important interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state

(Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.

Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

All material Copyright © by James Krohe Jr. unless otherwise indicated