A plan for the Lincoln home neighborhood
November 11, 1990
The Lincolns' house on Eighth Street is Springfield’s best Lincoln attraction. His tomb contains the dead Lincoln, yes, but the house brings him to life, as much as that is possible. The stewardship of the house and environs by the State of Illinois and later the National Park Service has left much to decry. I tried helpfully to point that out to them, but they never seemed to appreciate it.
I talked to a nice man in Denver the other day, a Mr. B., who for several years in the 1970s headed the National Park Service design team that planned the Lincoln Home National Historic Site. I had hinted rudely that some criticism of the feds' work in Springfield might be fairly made, and he volunteered the judgment that the Lincoln home project was one of the successes of his tenure.
Doubtless it was. In the shuttered world of the federal bureaucracy any project is a success that doesn't fail as miserably as such projects usually do. I am obliged to say, however, that after nearly 20 years the place has not grown on me. Familiarity inured me to all sorts of foolishness in Springfield—I ate horseshoe sandwiches and even voted once or twice—but the failures of the Lincoln home site to either inspire or teach continue to nag. Out of politeness to Mr. B. I will phrase this in as kindly a way as I can: The LHNHS is a monument to muddle.
The National Park Service had three options in developing those four blocks along Eighth Street when it took them over in 1971. One was to restore the house while leaving the existing neighborhood physically intact. Another was to restore the house and build a park around it—set the house on a doily in effect. The last and most ambitious option was to make the restored house the centerpiece of a larger restoration that might give visitors some taste of the times and place as well as of the house itself.
Ever innovative, the Park Service chose to do none of the three. Or rather it attempted all three at once. Ostensibly restored to its 1850s appearance, the old neighborhood still boasts numerous nonperiod features, from landscape plantings to architecture. (There is a 1890s porch on the house across the street from the Lincoln house, for example.) And although the new setting on Eighth Street is parklike, it is not a park; the meticulously maintained lots are off limits to picnicking or play, even lounging.
Detail after detail betrays confusion at the heart of the Park Service's concept for the site. Springfield in the 1850s was not New York, but neither was it Yellowstone, as the pines that screen the parking lot suggest. The visitors center was built of brick (virtually all the houses on the site were wood frame) and boasts a ridged metal roof that, it was explained, recalled the sheds and barns of the original neighborhood. The result is a building so inconspicuous that first-time visitors routinely overlook it. And for all its concern for context, the center's low-slung and angular profile managed to disappoint the many locals who found it much too modern.
Most disappointing is the Park Service's continuing failure to achieve the promised recreation of the 1850s Eighth Street as an interpretive setting for the house. The old boarding house ambience of Eighth Street may have been historically incorrect but it would have been more familiar to Lincoln than the Park Service's version. It resembles a residential block as much as White Oaks mall's center court resembles a city square; the empty lots have been tidied up with cute white board fences that make the street look like an HO train set. (This is one of those rare cases in which vandals who tear out the pickets actually improve a public property.)
The NPS strove expensively for authenticity in its restoration of the Lincolns' house, yet authenticity is mocked elsewhere in the site's core area. Non-period houses were banished, for example, but non-period trees were not. (It is extremely unlikely that the street Lincoln knew had trees that were so numerous or so large.) The NPS would never dare install a TV set in the parlor of the house, yet the street outside is so cluttered with motorized carts and leaf blowers and snow plows that it is not Springfield's 1850s downtown it invokes but one of its 1990 subdivisions.
For visitors to experience the street as the Lincolns did, they would need to see clothes hanging on wash lines. Vacant lots would not have looked like suburban lawns but weedy outposts that no doubt were appropriated by neighborhood kids as playgrounds (and possibly by their parents as dumping grounds). Fences weren't always painted, and the grass wasn't always mowed.
The Park Service has made some attempts to alleviate the stage-set atmosphere of the core area. Leasing restored period houses for residential and office use. to give them that lived-in look, is one example. So are the wood plank walkways that crisscross the site. But the lesson of those rude walkways is lost in an environment that is immaculately paved and turfed. Wooden walkways were a real amenity when the alternative to wood was mud. They would make their point more convincingly if the modern Eighth Street itself was dug up and left as it used to be; the pedant in me finds rather appealing the vision of NPS guides yelling at visitors to remember to scrape their boots before they come inside, as Lincoln and the kids no doubt were reminded by his wife. And what experience would make a visit to Springfield linger more vividly in the mind of tourists than having to use an outdoor privy just like the Lincolns?
There is much that a responsible agency would not want to recreate about 1850s Springfield, such as the sting of coal smoke in the air or the stink of hogs in the streets. Less happily, there is probably no chance that the houses now missing from Eighth Street will ever be reconstructed, even if detailed records were available. (Only a few of the missing 1850s houses appear in photos taken in the 1880s, although the outlines of all of them appear in insurance company maps from the 1850s.)
Their re-creation being apparently impossible, why not opt to restore those missing houses imaginatively by borrowing a page from an award-winning design done by Venturi Scott Brown? The architects did not rebuild Ben Franklin's long vanished house at the Park Service's Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia's. Instead, its presence on the site is suggested by a timber frame of the structure that outlines the walls and roof line, even the chimneys of the original. It is a sketch in wood whose insubstantiality is a tease. It conveys a sense of bulk without having any, and in doing so variously evokes a child's drawing of a house or a computer image. What addition to an unreal street could be more perfect than unreal houses? What better place for a ghost to dwell than a neighborhood of ghost houses? ●
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.