Cars wage war on buildings in the capital
November 12, 1976
Published on our Forum page, this is one of my early Illinois Times commentaries, a precursor to the Prejudices column that began the following year.
A few weeks ago I was sitting in the office of a lawyer friend, waiting while he talked to a client on the phone. On his bookshelf he had a 9 x 13-inch aerial photo of downtown Springfield, which he was using as evidence in a bit of gentlemanly haggling over the value of some condemned property. I absentmindedly studied the photo for quite a while—it was a long phone call—and tried, as a game, to identify as many business and buildings as I could off the top of my head.
The view was from the southeast. You could clearly see the municipal and county buildings, St. John's, the broad gray ribbon on Ninth Street. The Lincoln Home area was recognizable, as was Forum Thirty (still unfinished), the new Horace Mann headquarters, the Old Capitol, the square.
It wasn't very hard—I've lived in Springfield since I was less than two months old —but something about the picture bothered me. There was an echo of something in that shot and I couldn't figure out exactly what. As my friend hung up the phone and we resumed our conversation, I forgot about the photo for the moment. It took several days before I realized what it had reminded me of. That picture looked like the news shots I'd seen of bombed-out European cities after World War II.
True, we've used bulldozers instead of bombs, but the effect was the same. There was scarcely a block downtown intact. The cityscape was pockmarked with scars where buildings had once stood before they'd been replaced by asphalt parking lots. The blocks east of Seventh, for example—the area which includes the city and county buildings and the Lincoln Home area—were roughly 50 percent parking lots. It wasn't a city built for people I was looking at, but a city built for cars.
Many bright people, like Mark Heyman of Sangamon State University, have addressed the problem of the future of downtown in these pages. They have argued convincingly that new uses must be found for downtown if it is to survive suburbanization and a changing economy. Instead of its historical role as a residential and shopping center, they argue, the downtown of tomorrow will be a cultural and entertainment center, with an economic base firmly rooted in two functions unique to the Illinois capital—tourism and state government.
Lately, as a result of these forecasts, when I am foolish enough to lament the fate of another old building falling to the wrecker's ball. I am often chastised as if 1 were a schoolboy who still believes in Santa Claus. "But downtown is changing. You can't keep things the way they were. Downtown's got to change to keep up."
No argument there. But the destruction of its physical environment is manifestly not the kind of change championed by critics like Heyman. As an accommodation to changing times, in fact, the current smash-and-pave policy of the city's downtown property owners is a disaster.
Preserving nineteenth century buildings does not require preserving nineteenth century functions. Carolyn Oxtoby's recently unveiled plans for the resurrection of the Pasfield and Maldaner properties in the 200 block of South Sixth are a good example of how to preserve the best of downtown's physical environment while adapting it to changed economic conditions. But it's fruitless to talk about preservation unless there is something left to preserve.
For example, if tourism is indeed a key to the future economic health of downtown, then it is in the interests of the city—and especially the part of it that makes its living catering to the tourist—to preserve the fast-disappearing nineteenth century character of the downtown environment. To do so would provide a period backdrop to the Old State Capitol, the Lincoln-Herndon law offices, and other attractions.
Take another example. For twenty years now, downtown property owners, especially retailers, in responding to the erosion of their economic position by the shopping centers, have tried to make downtown look like another shopping center. They've replaced irreplaceable wood, ironwork, and decorative stone with exceedingly replaceable plastic, plate glass, and aluminum instead of tapping the resources of the area—its building, its scale, its intimacy—to create a unique shopping environment beyond the ability of any shopping center to duplicate. You can't beat a first-rate shopping center by building a second-rate one, but that's just what Springfield's downtown retailers have tried to do.
Trying to match the shopping centers architecturally is foolish enough, but trying to match their convenience is what is killing downtown. If acres of asphalt is what the customers want, the retailers seem to be saying, then acres of asphalt is what they'll get. Consider Lewis Herndon's new project on South Fifth. When the Herndon's store moved into its present store in 1965, the old store on South Fifth was leased to the state of Illinois for office space. Its most recent tenant was the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, now the Illinois Office of Education.
But the state built a new office building for IOE at Second and Washington. The Herndon Building was left vacant while the dust and taxes piled up. The owner therefore decided to convert the structure to professional office space, with maybe a first-floor mall and a top-floor restaurant thrown in for good measure.
But at the rents they win probably be paying the tenants may be expected to demand on-site parking space. So Herndon bought the old Lincoln Theater building one door to the south of the Herndon Building. Built in 1884, the structure originally housed the YMCA and Lincoln Library, among others; its latest tenants were the theater and the Fifth Street Florists. The building has been torn down—even though there is a four-level municipal parking ramp one block west at Fourth and Capitol, a private lot one block south at Fifth and Jackson, and underground parking two blocks north.
Downtown, you must remember, must change to fit the times.
Grade-level parking is the most land-inefficient way there is to store cars. The trade of buildings for asphalt is a bad bargain financially and a worse one aesthetically. In the last five years or so dozens of buildings—apartment houses, single-family homes, shops and theaters—have been destroyed to make room for cars. Although the area immediately north of the statehouse complex has been hardest hit, whole chunks of other blocks have been chewed away.
During the war in Vietnam, an American field officer, after troops had reduced a suspected Vietcong stronghold to a dirty smudge on the ground, explained that they had had to "destroy the village in order to save it." In Springfield, SCADA and others argue that in order to preserve the city's center you have to bring people downtown to work and to shop. But people won't come downtown unless they can drive and in order for people to be able to drive they must have some place to put their cars. And, since land downtown is in short supply and since people apparently will not walk more than a block or two from their car to a store or office, it is necessary to tear down buildings to make room for the cars.
It is necessary, in other words, to destroy downtown in order to save it. ●
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.
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.
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.
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.
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” 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."
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.
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
to buy the book
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
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:
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.
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.