Springfield’s “throwaway mentality”
July 8, 1982
A report on Springfield’s attempts to slow the destruction of its historic properties by adoption of its first preservation ordinance. The new law didn’t work, couldn’t have worked, and was never intended to work, and thus was judged a success.
The attitude of official Springfield toward preservation then was all too common, especially in the southern two-thirds of Illinois of that day.
As one member of the Springfield Historical Sites Commission reportedly phrased it, "I like the old ordinance. [It] was a little loose." To those who have followed Springfield's fitful lurchings toward an historic preservation policy, describing the existing city preservation ordinance as "a little loose" is like describing [tourism promoter] Fred Puglia as a little vulgar. It's so loose that developers can carry whole buildings right out from under it.
I suppose I ought to explain. According to the State Journal-Register, the fifteen-member commission recently reviewed a proposed, tougher landmark protection ordinance. The new ordinance (which was submitted by commission member Jerry Jacobsen) would give the commission authority to prohibit the destructive alteration of officially designated historic structures. Springfield apparently is the only city its size in Illinois which does not have such a law. Its terms are hardly onerous; property owners who could demonstrate economic hardship, for example, would be exempt from its requirements.
The commissioners, however, shrank from the new ordinance as if it were an unpaid dinner check, expressing fears that such a law might interfere with the exercise of private property rights, which of course is what all such laws seek to do. The commission reportedly will study the preservation ordinance for "several months." By then there may be nothing left standing to preserve, but the hiatus gives us a chance to consider at leisure just what kind of historic sites commission Springfield has.
The commission was founded in 1963, and since then has done absolutely nothing to make that date memorable. When the National Park Service opened its Martyrland theme park at the Lincoln home in 1977, for example, the commission responded with an historic district ordinance intended (quoting a commission member) to "keep the area in good taste and good tone." To the relief of an anxious public, the ordinance banned auction rooms, gymnasiums, and bakeries but allowed taverns and parking ramps. The ordinance placed modest restrictions on the remodeling of buildings in the area, but it placed none on their destruction. Since it was passed, three handsome period structures have been destroyed and replaced by a very tasteful parking lot.
Last year the commission unveiled its Springfield Historic Sites Registry. I have no wish to reiterate my criticism of that project, except to note that since its adoption I have attended three parties at which the hostess, instead of charades, read aloud from the registry as her after-dinner entertainment. It never fails to reduce listeners to helpless laughter. Registry status confers no protections to a property, not even that of public opinion, since hardly anyone in town knows which buildings are on it. In October, when the list was presented to the city council for approval, the commission chairman, James Graham, was quoted as saying, "There is absolutely no strong mechanism to require the property be preserved other than pride of ownership." Only someone who knows Springfield would understand that Graham was not complaining but bragging.
If one listens very hard one can hear, amidst the din of 19th-century commercial structures being torn down, the bleatings of the mayor and others proclaiming Springfield to be a history-minded city. It is true that for three generations certain of the city's elite have wrapped Lincoln around themselves, much as a poor man might don an overcoat to conceal the moth holes in his suit. Apart from Lincoln, Springfield is, if anything, less history-minded than its fellow cities. (To some extent this is because of Lincoln; that looming figure absorbs vast amounts of curiosity and endeavor which otherwise might be devoted to more local topics.)
In fact, for a hundred years the city never did much beyond mount a few plaques to celebrate even its association with Lincoln, and nothing at all to preserve any sense of its own past. To this day there is not a single plaque, not a single museum exhibit, indeed hardly any mention at all of the city's own busy post-Lincoln experience. A small but telling case in point is the Vachel Lindsay Association. Unlike the Abraham Lincoln Association, which is a sort of country club with lectures, the Lindsay Association is begging for members, and while Springfield's elites hustled to keep the corpse of the Old State Capitol alive, the roof of the birthplace of the city's only poet was near collapse.
Springfield was named an All-America City in 1969, in large part because of its efforts to preserve the Lincoln home neighborhood. (That was the task the historic sites commission set at its founding.) The All-America designation was fitting; like America, Springfield's accomplishment lay more in the promise than the performance. Tourism was a boom industry in the 1960s. History became marketable, and preservation became the booster's baby. That decade is already looked back on as the golden age of historicism in Springfield. But look carefully enough and you will note that every project that dates from that era—from the restoration of the Old State Capitol to the transfer of Lincoln's home to the National Park Service to the Sound and Blight Show to the sites commission itself—was done mainly to promote tourism. And tourism has no more to do with history than LincolnFest has to do with Lincoln.
Springfield's preoccupations have always been more commercial than cultural. Most of the surviving old buildings some of us are so eager to save were built to make money, and like their grandchildren, the men who built them take real pride in the ownership only of money. They would be the first to argue the corollary, namely that if buildings are only good for making money, then buildings which aren't making money are expendable.
I do not wish to argue the case of whether and under which circumstances old buildings may be made to make money, except to point out that it takes imagination and a bit of nerve, and that there isn't enough of both among Springfield's propertied class to choke a bee. (Those who have tried it are, significantly, outcasts of one form or another.) It takes vision too, a certain broadness of view which can accommodate a notion of self-interest which transcends the moment. In 1977, when the city council was debating passage of the commission's anemic historic district designation for the Lincoln home area, a lawyer for a property owner complained, "We want to have a beautiful Springfield too, but we don't think it ought to be at the expense of people who own property." Those of us who don't want an ugly Springfield don't think it ought to be at the expense of people who don't own property, either. But we don't get named to commissions.
While we await the commission's final decision on its preservation ordinance, we may study the words of William Farrar, an official of the DOC's Division of Historic Sites, published in the April issue of Historic Illinois. About the century-old Rokker building and its companion in the 300 block of South Fifth, which were demolished a few months ago to make room for a drive-in bank, Farrar wrote, "They were discarded, yet one more example of the throwaway mentality of many urban landowners." Noting that even if the buildings had been listed in the commission's registry that probably wouldn't have saved them, Farrar went on, "If usable Springfield structures are routinely cast aside, only the rubble lots left in their places will relate well to their environment. Archaeology anyone?" ●