The state is a poor host at the Dana-Thomas House
The State of Illinois acquired an architectural masterwork when it bought Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dana-Thomas House for cheap.
Sadly, in recent years the property has been managed as if it was a Department of Transportation garage. Understaffed and ill-maintained, it offers hopeful visitors an indifferent experience.
I admit that I get cranky when I get cold. I had donned my new argyles for a day-after-Christmas tour of the newly renovated Dana-Thomas House. My choice of socks was sartorially correct but a disaster in terms of comfort. Because of the crush of curious visitors, the house was limiting visitors to what had been called half-hour holiday tours, by which I assumed they meant rushed and superficial. Visitors who dropped by just after the start of one tour, as we did, thus faced a wait of as much as 29 minutes before the next one got underway.
A minor inconvenience, usually. Unfortunately the waiting area set aside in the backyard carriage house was woefully under-heated. We took refuge with our fellow sufferers in the adjoining gift "shoppe," which was a little warmer, possibly because of friction heat generated as credit cards were pulled in and out of wallets. Indeed, a more cynical man might have concluded that the Arctic temperatures in the waiting room were deliberate, a vile trick to drive customers into closer proximity with the merchandise.
The new management of the house may have stinted on their guests' creature comforts, but no effort was spared to cater to our need for external validation of our visit. I could not see clearly—my eyeglasses kept fogging up—but I recognized Dana-Thomas House golf shirts and Dana-Thomas House refrigerator magnets as well as the usual mugs and posters and T-shirts and prints and guidebooks, all bearing the handsome sumac tree motif adopted by the Office of Historic Preservation as a logo. I would have shelled out $50 for a Dana-Thomas House space heater, but none was available—a rare failure to anticipate a market.
Being obliged to wait in a space in which waiting was made so unpleasant left me hot enough under the collar, but my anger alas did not reach as far as my toes. Having made a tour of the knick-knacks I killed time reflecting unflatteringly on the priorities of our public servants. The late Gov. Thompson, I recalled, had raised nearly half a million bucks to buy a single table lamp for the house; I wondered why he couldn't have twisted a Pritzker arm or two harder enough to get the twenty bucks it would taken to weatherstrip the carriage house doors.
My eye strayed to the schedule for docents on a desk. Restoring and running the Dana-Thomas House has required the services of dozens of volunteers, who raise money (chiefly for furniture acquisitions), guide tours, and run the book shop. Had it been necessary to staff such an ambitious enterprise solely from the ranks of Springfield's architecture buffs the Dana‑Thomas House would still be a shuttered ruin. Their ranks have been swelled, happily, by recruits from Springfield's social elite.
This would have been unthinkable a generation ago. Upper‑crust Springfield has always embraced the city's more creative personalities retroactively. Looking at the reproduction of one of Wright's pedestal lamps that one may purchase through the gift shop, I reflected that if Springfield had been alert to the genius of Wright in 1943 there wouldn't be nearly so much of the Dana-Thomas House to explain, since its furniture and fittings would have been snapped up for a song at Dana's estate auction that year instead of being disdained as so much junk.
Today, the house is a sort of playpen for many under‑employed women of the upper middle class. The ideal Dana-Thomas House volunteer possesses an expensively educated mind that hasn't enough to occupy it. Susan Lawrence, who commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build the house at the turn of the century, was just such a woman. Like so many eager house volunteers, she was a society matron with social ties to the state's Republican powerful who energetically devoted herself to Art and amateur causes. To them, the house is a monument not only to Wright's genius—indeed, to hear some of the docents' versions, it isn't even that—but to the pleasures of inherited wealth, a reminder that whatever culture graces Springfield's dingy streets is the gift of the city's Susan Lawrence Danas.
Nothing betrays the sense of kinship, the almost familial affection that many of the house volunteers feel toward its long-deceased proprietress like their habit of referring to her by her first name. The rest of the world may think of the wondrous pile at Fourth and Lawrence as a Wright work but the locals know it as "Susan's house." To unregenerate feminists, such familiarity is presumptuous, even condescending in its confirmation of a double standard; it is impossible to imagine a docent at Wright's home and studio in Oak Park referring to the architect as "Frank."
Reputations as well as walls have been reconstructed at the Dana Thomas House. The evidence suggests that its famous hostess was a bit of a loony. Much is made today of her courage in commissioning such an eccentric house, but she was no more prescient about architecture than she was about astrology or spiritualism. Her choice of Wright was unconventional but radical only by Springfield's constipated standards; he had by then already built some 60 houses, mostly for Midwestern businessmen; it is possible that Dana first came across his work in a copy of that dangerous rag, Ladies Home Journal.
Historian Richard S. Taylor has argued eloquently that Dana was a protofeminist. I accept his description of her life as a woman as ambivalent and painful, but there is nothing to suggest that she ever envisioned liberation for any but her own social class. As for her many posthumous defenders, I would say only that Springfield has always had a hard time distinguishing between the principled person and the crank.
I mused grumpily that it ought to be possible to celebrate Wright's artistic achievement at the Dana-Thomas House without celebrating the values of the woman who paid for it. But as I shuffled into line as my tour group gathered at last, it occurred to me that some of Susan Dana's values deserve to be honored after all. Accomplished hostess that she was, she never would have asked her guests to stand in an unheated vestibule for half an hour without offering them at least a hot chocolate. ●
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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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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.
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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.
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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
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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.
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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.
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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:
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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.