Gimcrackery

When a state runs its landmarks on the cheap

Illinois Times

April 2, 1992

A cash-strapped State of Illinois relies too much on volunteers to operate its historic sites, with predictable results.

 

Last fall Donald Hallmark, since 1981 the superintendent of the Dana-Thomas house in Springfield, briefly abandoned his post. He'd written a memorandum criticizing some 30 of the volunteers who conduct tours and run the gift shop at the restored Frank Lloyd Wright house. Some were hard to get along with, the memo reportedly complained, or not up to their duties, with the result that running the volunteers took more of his time than did running the house. The memo was obtained—let us not use an ugly word like "stolen"—from Hallmark's desk and circulated among the volunteers. Any of us would be embarrassed to have revealed what we think of our colleagues, and there was talk of a resignation.

 

Springfield (goes the local boast) is a volunteering sort of town. This is testament to the public-spirited generosity of its people, as well as the fact that there's isn't much else to do in Springfield. People volunteer because they're bored or lonely or because their therapist told them to develop an interest or because they can't figure out how to work the cable converter.

 

The state is especially dependent on volunteers to run its historic sites. The Springfield Junior League long ago adopted the Lincoln home as a project, out of sisterly solidarity with Mary Todd, their patron saint. Unpaid guides are also used at the Old State Capitol and the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices.

 

The problem with running an operation with unpaid help is that you usually get what you pay for. (The worst thing about working with volunteers is that when they act as if they're doing you a favor by just showing up, they are.) Coordinating a volunteer force of more than 200 must be like trying to turn a herd of turkeys into a marching band. The job is not made easier by the fact that volunteers are drawn mostly from the ranks of surplus labor; managers in every state agency under the civil service system know how hard it is motivate people when they know they can't be fired. As a result, the single most frequent cause of medical claims filed by state historic site managers is persistent pains in the ass.

 

Really. You could look it up.

 

The state's dependence on the kindness of strangers raises the question whether the Dana-Thomas house is a luxury the state of Illinois can afford. I do not question the state's purchase of the house for a million dollars; that may have been the only sound fiscal decision Jim Thompson made in fourteen years. But having acquired something that tens of thousands of people want to see, the state cannot provide the staff needed to show it to them properly.

 

What was a problem became a crisis when Gov. Jim "James" Edgar announced budget-cutting staff reductions that required that the house be closed for the four months that will end July 1. The expected savings during the closing were so laughably small—$55,000—that it seems feasible to replace them by charging a modest admission fee.

 

Admission fees are common at other Wright house museums. The Wright Home and Studio up the road in Oak Park is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation but is run by a private not-for-profit foundation. Tours are guided by volunteer docents, with paid support staff and other operating expenses defrayed by an admission charge of $5 per adult during the peak tourist season. This makes the Wright house cheap thrills by Chicago area standards, and 74,000 people happily paid the tariff last year.

 

Of course, this is America, where people are accustomed to not paying their way, and attendance will certainly fall if even a modest entrance fee is imposed. Fortunately the revenue possibilities at that place are rich. For example, they might want to charge tourists to leave the building rather than enter it; I've had some docents so annoying I would have paid $10 to be allowed to leave the group early and head to Norb's.

 

Both Dana-Thomas and the Wright home already look to profits from the sale of house-related gimcrackery to bring in a few bucks on the side. Springfield's Sumac Book Shoppe has much to learn about squeezing the customer. On a day-after-Christmas tour in 1990, I found the tour staging area so cold that I took refuge in the adjoining shoppe, which was a little warmer because of the heat generated by friction as credit cards were pulled in and out of wallets. Dana-Thomas House golffe shirts and Dana-Thomas House refrigeratorre magnets were being flogged there, as well as the usual mugs and posters and prints and guidebooks and T-shirts of the sort you never see at LincolnFest; all bore 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 heaterre if one had been available, but this was one time that a retailer didn't see me coming.

 

They will get better at this sort of thing with time; how long did it take managers of movie houses and ball parks to realize how their drink sales would be boosted by oversalting the rest of the menu? But selling doodads in the gift shoppe is lemonade-stand stuff compared to the more substantial possibilities revealed in the Chicago Tribune of March 11. There readers were told of the impending sale at auction at the Leslie Hindman gallery of various donated fragments of a 1953 Wright house. The sale benefited the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy, which plans to use the proceeds to maintain extant Wright houses including the home and studio in Oak Park. In a similar way, Wright's own Taliesin Foundation has been selling off drawings to finance its restoration work.

 

The Dana-Thomas house is crammed with Wright furniture and glass that would fetch up to half a mill a piece. Sell them off one by one, one piece per year, and the state could afford not only Mr. Hallmark's salary ("when you care enough to hire the very best") for the next fifty years but partial compensation for the docents in the form of free throat lozenges and support hose, which I think would be nice.

 

And don't give me that "precious patrimony" stuff. Selling off tomorrow to pay for today has been Illinois government's guiding principle since statehood. In that span it has exploited to the point of depletion—or countenanced the exploitation by others—of irreplaceable assets, from farm soil, coal, and clean water to its own children. Of course, that means that the grandkids will find a tour of the Dana-Thomas house in 2050 to be as barren of interest as a conversation with Alan Dixon, but to hell with them. This is America. Let them find their own damn virgin continent. ●

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. 

History on the Fox

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

2,000 words.)

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 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. 

Illinois Center for the Book

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.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

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