Saving the “Castle,” Monument to the American Dream
Springfield’s Brinkerhoff House makes new friends
January 13, 1978
Saving the house of a local grandee has sparked—or in the case of the house described here, revivified—local historical preservation efforts. The politics of such campaigns dictate that such buildings be overpraised; this house was neither architecturally distinguished nor particularly historic compared a hundred other structures that Springfield has seen torn down in recent decades. Still, when it comes to the loss of a town’s built history, every little bit hurts.
The Brinkerhoff House survives, even if much of the detail that made it distinctive is gone, It was added to the National Register of Historic Places on December 18, 1978.
"Close that door. We don't want to waste any of this heat." Doris Bucari shut the ponderous main door behind her and led her guest into another room—and another century. They were in the George M. Brinkerhoff mansion, called "the Castle," on the campus of Springfield College in Illinois, at 1500 North Fifth Street. The three-story, towered brick house is a century old and has been used since the college bought it in 1929—until 1974 that is, when a leaking roof forced the Ursuline sisters of SCI who run the co-ed junior college to close it. Now Doris Bucari and a growing number of her friends want to help the college fix it and open it up again, to fill it with people again, for club meetings and parties and receptions and classes and tours.
Bucari and her visitor are alone in the building. The rooms are mostly bare as volunteers have toted away much of the furniture that cluttered them when it was used by the college. There is something unsettling about big, old houses, and this one is bigger and older than most. The empty air echoes with more than the sound of Bucari's footsteps.
"This is what I'd call the drawing room. The Brinkerhoffs did a great deal of entertaining, of course, and this room must have been the center of it." It is an oblong room,twenty by thirty feet in size and maybe fifteen high. It opens into shuttered windows at one end—the shutters are made of walnut, finely louvered, made when the house was built and used ever since—and spills over into a library at the other end, with a white fireplace in one wall. "There's a fireplace in every room, as you'll see," explains Bucari. "They still work, too, I imagine, except for the fact that there's a century's worth of pigeon droppings in the chimneys."
As is the case in all the downstairs rooms, the drawing room is entered through cathedral-type doors, fashioned precisely of oak, with accents in cherry, walnut or mahogany. Wood adorns the door frames as well, and the window frames and the massive sliding doors that separate the larger rooms. The wood glows with browns and reds, as if translucent.
As she walks back and forth among the rooms, Bucari explains a little about the group and why she's there. "Last October, we formed a group called The Brinkerhoff Home, Incorporated. We're a not-for-profit corporation. The sole purpose of the corporation, you see, is to save this magnificent house." Tentative plans are for the Brinkerhoff Home, Inc. to have use of the first floor with SCI having use of the second, for offices or classrooms. "The sisters at the college have gone along with us, but we're not a foundation; we don't do anything except the house."
George Madoc Brinkerhoff was a Pennsylvanian who came to central Illinois in 1859 to teach math and Latin at Springfield's short-lived Illinois State University. He was a sober-faced man, who fifty years after he'd abandoned the classroom for more profitable pursuits, still had the look of a schoolmaster. He lived in an age in which there were more opportunities than there were men to take them up, and Brinkerhoff, like many of his generation, picked opportunities as though they were roses in a garden. He was city comptroller, clerk for the state auditor, and officer of the Springfield Iron Company, a real estate broker, a mortgage banker and a floriculturist. He knew Lincoln, Douglas, Bryan and a dozen lesser men of note, and he helped build Lincoln's tomb. He died in 1928 at the age of eighty-nine, and the list of pallbearers—Irwin, Pasfield, Hatch, Vredenburgh, Ide, Converse—reads like a Who's Who of Springfield capitalism.
Brinkerhoff built his house in 1869 and lived there until he died fifty-nine years later. He paid either $17,000 or $35,000 to build it—accounts differ. It is set on one of the lovelier spots in Springfield on a spit of high ground that falls sharply away to the north and east. Shade trees and shrubs dotted the grounds, for Brinkerhoff was an avid grower who, in later years, made raising plants his living. There is a picture, taken many years ago, that shows the entrance to the old place festooned with morning glories and roses and other climbing plants, a bushy garland of plants that outdid in intricacy the convoluted wood carving with which some anonymous artisan had adorned the porch. Brinkerhoff had on the grounds a large greenhouse where he raised his roses. He had a smokehouse, too, and a dairy and a stable; to the north, behind the house, there were vineyards and vegetable gardens. It all showed what a diligent laborer in capitalism's garden could grow, given luck and a green thumb.
Brinkerhoff and wife Isabella entertained often and well. His house was built for it, his friends expected it, his family presumably reveled in it. A 1941 newspaper article described the house as a "symbol of gracious hospitality" and said, "No one who was ever a guest in this interesting old home ever forgot that experience."
* * *
A trysting couple in the 1880s who sought refuge in the tower of the Brinkerhoff house from a stuffy after-dinner chat in the parlor could see most of Springfield. Had they looked north a half-mile they would have seen the forty-five-acre compound of Springfield iron works, of which their host was an officer for fifteen years. Close by the mill works were rows of two-roomed cottages, squeezed into lots only forty feet wide. That was where the Irish and Austrian and Latvians lived, the shearmen, the nut tappers, the punchers and their kids, too, who sweated through twelve-hour days like their fathers, for seven cents an hour. In a sense they had paid for the castle on the hill, like people like them paid for all the fine houses in Springfield in sweat and sometimes in bodies broken on the machines. Nineteenth century capitalism built both the mill shacks and the castle on the hill. The shacks, though, are gone. America does not celebrate the common man, only the uncommon man every common man hopes to become. The houses of the rich are monuments to the great American dream.
On December 6 last year members of Springboard, Springfield's arts organization, were invited to attend what the flyer said was "a special evening of pure nostalgia." A tour was being offered through the old Brinkerhoff house. Tea was served and the rooms decorated with lighted candles and fresh-cut greenery. "The old place just came alive," Bucari recalls. It was her idea. "It was simply beautiful."
One of the rooms that was opened that evening was the library, next to the drawing room. The SCI campus bookstore, fittingly, used to be here. On the other side of the runway-sized main hall are double parlors, and beyond them the kitchen and the wainscoted dining room, the latter warmed in the past by a black marble fireplace. An engineer's report done recently notes that the house boasts some 4,100 square feet of living space—a total that does not include the attic, the full basement, the entranceway, the halls or the staircase. The scale of the rooms hint at the time when courting, births, deaths, marriages, in some cases education, business deals, reunions, amusement, and music were all treats tasted at home. They were rooms big enough to hold a whole world.
"We have to get a new roof on it," says Bucari, staring at some fallen plaster in the rear parlor. "That's Phase One. The new roof and new gutters and flashing and everything will secure the building and keep the water damage from getting any worse. We've had an engineer look at it, and we think we can get the job done for $30,000. We'll need more than that for other things, of course, but that's a start. Phase Two is complete restoration. We hope to spread that over five to ten years. The total cost for that work—and I'm talking now about replastering on the inside, taking out some of these temporary walls, rewiring the place and so on—is going to be something like $160,000, though we haven't set an official fund-raising goal yet.
"The sisters, of course, don't have that kind of money. And the men on the college board, they're all hard-headed, factual businessmen. We had to do some kind of selling job. They agreed that if the community did it, it would be acceptable to them. So that's why we formed the corporation.
"But we're not going to make a museum out of it. I think we may restore the front parlor just the way the Brinkerhoffs had it. It will take you back; it'll give people a feel for that time. But that's all. I think we ought to start in that room in 1869 and bring the house forward.'' Bucari glances about the room, now empty except for some straight-backed chairs left over from its office days. The original furniture was sold many years ago. "They must have had some beautiful pieces," she says.
* * *
In 1929 the house was sold to Springfield Junior College, as SCI was then known. The school had been chartered in March of that year, and for the first year the house was the college, since it housed both the classrooms and administrative offices and the thirty women who made up its first class. Later, some of the second-floor rooms were turned into dormitory space. Downstairs were offices, an adult education center, and a bookstore. There is a paint-spattered sink in the basement that attests to the building's career as an art studio. In 1946, during its first year, the Springfield Theater Guild even used the basement rooms—the catacombs, they called them—as a set shop.
The students nicknamed the place "the Castle." Some years ago the Gothic-inspired cupola was struck by lightning; it was removed and the now-headless tower was sealed off at the top. The porch was stripped of its wooden filigree, which was replaced by a more utilitarian aluminum. The exterior brick was painted red (by "some idiot," sniffs Bucari) and the ornate brackets that braced the third-story cornice removed. The changes were remarkably few, considering what usually happens to old buildings, and most of them are correctable.
Around 1974, water started to seep through the roof; not even 19th century workmanship was able to survive 105 years of prairie climate without springing a leak here and there. The water dripped into the third-floor attic, through the floor into the ceiling plaster over the second-floor bedrooms, eventually trickling into the first-floor ceilings. Wherever the water went the inch-thick plaster gave way, exposing the skeleton of lath beneath it. Repairs were possible, of course, but they were expensive and there were other claims on the school's budget. That new boiler had to be bought, and there was painting that needed done and the board of trustees reluctantly said no, we can't afford it, and closed the building.
Still, the house is no derelict. The stairs carry their load without a creak, the floors are level and sound, the foundation as stout as a fort's. Lowell Anderson, historian and Brinkerhoff Home board member, touring the place, said, "This house just refuses to die."
* * *
The Springfield aristocracy of the 19th century built their houses to last for generations, to house a way of life they expected to last; their houses were the manifestation of their unbounded confidence in America and the world they'd built. They were wrong about the future, and houses like the Brinkerhoff mansion not only outlived their owners but eventually outlived even their usefulness as houses; they are too big, and money is harder to come by for the great-grandchildren of the newly rich. So they sit empty or are opened as curiosities to battalions of dull-eyed schoolchildren or, worse, are chopped up into cheap apartments and bled for rent until they collapse from neglect or are elbowed into oblivion by a parking lot or a fast-food joint.
Not all of them die. The Bussey mansion in Champaign. The Millikin Homestead in Decatur. Edwards Place a few blocks from the Brinkerhoff house in Springfield. A dozen stories, every one with a Doris Bucari pushing ahead, with never enough money and in the face of indifference. "Save the Old Brinkerhoff home," said the flyer announcing the open house, "save everything old and good."
* * *
Doris Bucari treads gingerly up the front stairway. It is an impressive blend of aesthetics and engineering, snaking around in a tight spiral unsupported by any exterior props. "Can't you just imagine wedding receptions in this place?" asks Bucari, who already sees the house in her imagination the way it will look when it's restored. "With the bride tossing her bouquet over the railing to the crowd below?" It is an affecting picture.
There are eight large rooms upstairs, not counting the baths and closets. The Brinkerhoffs had six children. "It's not like nowadays," says Bucari. "Children didn't so off to live on their own. They lived at home until they married."
Up another flight. The third floor consists of three large unfinished rooms. Old newspaper accounts say these rooms were "floored for dancing purposes," and Floyd Baringer, in his Historic Homes of Springfield, talks of there being a ballroom there. It seems impossible. The rooms' walls are unfinished, the rafters exposed, the ceilings low where the roof slants toward the eaves. A perfect storehouse, almost a perfect playroom, but a ballroom?
Pigeons do the dancing there now. Some Korean students lived in the Castle a few years back; it is said they used a pigeon trap to catch birds with, to make pigeon pie.
* * *
Four years ago, Ed Russo, who now runs Lincoln Library's Sangamon Valley Collection, was poring over microcopies of the local newspapers from the 1860s, looking for information about Springfield architect George Helmle, about whom Russo was doing a paper. Helmle was a student of one Elijah E. Myers, and that is why Russo's eye was caught by a notice—he didn't take notes and today doesn't remember where he saw it—that the Brinkerhoff house had been designed by E. E. Myers.
"I know it's a Myers house. The rope-type wooden trim around the porch, those arch-top windows, the dentiled cornice—they're all so typical of a Myers house," explains Russo. "It's only a matter of time before I can prove it. For one thing, Samuel Sloan, who Myers was studying with at the time he came to Springfield, did a house in Germantown, Pennsylvania, that's just like the Brinkerhoff house. It all fits. I just need a piece of paper to prove it."
Russo's quest is of more than academic interest. If it can be established that the Brinkerhoff is the work of Myers—a man who, like many of his contemporaries of the Victorian period, is finding renewed favor among students and critics—the value of the house as an architectural artifact increases enormously.
Col. Elijah E. Myers learned architecture under Samuel Sloan in Philadelphia, working as a carpenter during the day and studying architecture and engineering at night. He came to Springfield around 1865, it is said because the booming Midwest offered the prospect of more commissions.
Myers built much of Springfield in that era, from commercial blocks like the now-gone Springer building at Sixth and Monroe and the John Lanphier house that used to stand at 903 South Seventh. He left Springfield in 1873 or thereabouts, ending up in Detroit. He lived handsomely out of the public purse, becoming one of the builders of courthouses, city halls and statehouses. He built the capitols of Michigan, Texas, Idaho, and Utah, the city hall at Richmond, Virginia, courthouses at Danville, Freeport, Galesburg, and Macomb in Illinois, among a dozen others. He built one at Carlinville, too, to house the Macoupin County government. It was supposed to cost $50,000 when it was started in 1867. Before it was finished it had cost $1.4 million, twenty-eight times the original estimate, an example of fiscal funny business that took away the breath of even the talented boodlers of postbellum Illinois.
Myers apparently was part of the ripoff; cost overruns became his trademark. In other times he might have been jailed. Instead the Carlinville project boosted Myers to the top of his profession. He may have been crooked but he was good. More recent generations have come to appreciate his work anew, perhaps because they, unlike their great-grandfathers, don't have to pay for it.
* * *
The tour over, Doris Bucari prepared to leave, carefully turning off the lights, closing the etched-glass doors behind her. The Brinkerhoff Home, Inc. will be meeting shortly, when a target amount for the fund-raising efforts will be set and a date for the first big open house will be scheduled.
Bucari has been active in SCI affairs for years. She is a member of the school's board of trustees—the only woman—and its lay advisory board. Partly because of Bucari's prompting, the State Journal-Register ran a story in June, 1976, headlined, "The Castle under financial siege" as part of a longer article about SCI. Some weeks before, Bucari had gathered her Questers groups, the Candlesnuffers, for an auction that netted $119.50—her "mustard seed," Bucari calls it—and the newspaper story netted another $2,000 from interested readers. It marked the start of the campaign to save the old place.
From there events followed quickly: a visit to the Millikin Homestead in Decatur, to learn how that house was saved from demolition; the formation of an executive committee of the college to explore options; eventually the incorporation of The Brinkerhoff Home, Inc., in October, 1977. On the board was Bucari, attorney George Hoffman, engineer Walter Hanson, Lowell Anderson, and several college officials—a tidy package of respectability, quiet influence, and professional expertise. Their goal, according to the bylaws, is "to repair, rehabilitate, restore, alter and improve the historic residence known as The Brinkerhoff Home for the use of Springfield College in Illinois and the Springfield community for cultural, educational, and recreational purposes." Springboard, the arts organization, is already helping out with publicity. The Junior League has been contacted. Other Questers groups have sent checks. Bucari wants to see the whole community involved. Money, of course, is the first priority. "We're exploring sources of funding. We will sell memberships and accept pledges. It's a problem because there are so many fund drives for this and that. They're all for worthy causes. But this place . . . this is important too."
It is interesting to speculate on the nature of the "community" which will pay for the preservation of the Castle. It is made up of arts groups, the leisured amateur historian, the volunteer public service/self-improvement groups which are the mechanism by which the female white middle class vents its considerable energies—in short, the spiritual kin of the house's owner. This is appropriate and not especially surprising; historic preservation is not a poor people's movement. For a great many people, however, the life embodied in the Brinkerhoff house is too alien in scale, too distant in time to move them, who never had so much. Resentment still simmers at a distance of a century. There are some, in fact, who ask how we can preserve the empty houses of the rich when so many poor people lack decent houses to live in.
That is a question not likely to deter The Brinkerhoff Home, Inc. There are good reasons to save places like the Castle that have nothing to do with a misplaced nostalgia for the vanished upper classes. The house is, among other things a lesson in craftsmanship and design of a sort seldom seen anymore, and the very scale of the house provokes certain intriguing historical questions about the society which gave it rise.
George M. Brinkerhoff died in 1928, at the end of the economic era that had made lives—and houses—like his possible. Ultimately that may be reason enough to hope for their preservation. The reasons for destroying them, after all, are seldom as good. ●