Adieu to the Abe
Springfield’s grandest hotel dies prematurely
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. ●
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One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
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Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
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