The Old State Capitol: Tarnished Jewel
Springfield squabbles over an inheritance
January 30, 1981
A coalition of Lincoln buffs, downtown Springfield business interests, and historic preservationists thought they had things fixed when the State of Illinois reconstructed the former Illinois capitol, site of Lincoln’s “House divided” speech. They did not. As a tourist site, Illinois's 1839 statehouse lacks the intimacy of the Lincoln house, the interest of his law offices, the charm of New Salem, or the poignancy of his tomb.
This is the first of two parts; the other part is here. One paragraph of the published version was gibberish. It is here deleted. An error in the original also is corrected.
Times are tough all over. Last week it was announced that the trustees of the restored Old State Capitol in Springfield had reluctantly decided to close the building to the touring public on weekends. The cutback was forced on them, they explained, by budget-trimming of the governor (under whose capacious administrative wing the old capitol rests) and by his recent hiring freeze which left the staff at the twelve-year-old mock-up short by three or four guides.
The old capitol is the youngest of the state’s major historic restorations. It has been sickly ever since it was born, late and a little overweight (budgetarily speaking) during the Illinois sesquicentennial. Since it opened, unfinished, in 1840 as the new state capitol, the building had undergone more reincarnations than an accident-prone Hindu holy man. The state grew but the building didn’t, so it was sold to Sangamon County for use as a courthouse in 1869 for $200,000. The county quickly outgrew it in turn, and in 1898 lifted the whole thing on jacks and built a new ground floor beneath it, a solution which was novel if not exactly beautiful. A. J. Liebling, visiting Springfield fifty years later, was led to observe that the architect in charge thus “laid a trap for future archeologists, who are likely to assume, as archeologists usually do, that a lower stratum is older than an upper one.”
Liebling had no idea. Eventually the county outgrew even this emended version, and by the 1940s talk began to be heard about building a replacement. The historical significance of the structure had survived the various remodelings, even if its historical integrity had not. The House chamber in which Lincoln had delivered his “House divided” speech and in which his body lay in state six years later became a courtroom in which locals squabbled over stick-ups and speeding tickets; the last case argued in the room was to determine the negligence of a farmer whose cow fell on his hired hand.
The local Lincoln Mafia—people like Henry Converse, who have streets named after them—began agitating for the old capitol’s restoration as a Lincoln shrine. This group had long taken a proprietary interest in the Lincoln legacy. Collectively they spoke through the Abraham Lincoln Association, an organization which then meant the same thing to Springfield social climbers that the Komsomol means to ambitious party members in Moscow: Membership is absolutely required, as proof of obedience if not belief.
The job wasn’t easy. In 1945 the state voted $1.28 million to buy and restore the old capitol-cum-courthouse, sans ground floor, but local voters were too cheap to approve the money needed to build a replacement. Other, similar attempts were made to effect a transfer, to no avail. As the 1960s debuted, however, self-interest and the public interest began to overlap in Springfield. The county board wanted to do what Springfieldians have always done when they have a white elephant they can’t use—sell it to the state. Local lawyers wanted new courtrooms. Most important of all, downtown business interests (what might be called The-State-of-Illinois-for-Lunch-Bunch) wanted an an urban catalyst, a force for revitalization.
The state was still reluctant. Over the years officials have learned that when a delegation of Springfield worthies shows up it’s a good idea to lock away the silver. In 1961, however, the county board resorted to extortion when it threatened to raze the old capitol and sell the land it stood on. The proposal shocked local Brahmin—although I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it was the local Brahmin who put the board up to it. It also shocked their new ally in the governor’s mansion, Otto Kerner.
Kerner did for the old capitol what Richard Nixon did for Sigmund Romberg. He took to calling the old capitol “the second most historic building west of the Alleghenies.” (This scrupulosity was not a constant part of Kerner’s character, as grand juries later learned. Less honest writers have since elevated the old capitol to the most historical building etc. What is, or was, No. 1, I do not know. McLean Stevenson’s birthplace in Bloomington, perhaps.) Kerner helped pry out of the General Assembly the $975,000 with which the state bought back the building in 1962, and most of the subsequent project funds. In its final form it included a reconstructed interior sheathed in the original exterior stone, all of which sits atop new underground quarters for the Illinois State Historical Library and a 400-odd-car parking garage. It was, in all, a pretty job.
Alas, since it opened in 1969 the complex—the reconstructed statehouse, the library, and the sound-and-light interpretive program added to it in 1976—have suffered from low budgets and lower staff morale, assorted administrative wrangles and the fickleness of the touring public. This is not to say that the project has been a total failure. In its role as both the symbol and the agent of Springfield’s downtown revitalization it has served admirably. The old capitol made the city’s downtown mall possible, and the mall made other renovations possible; the old capitol also is the cornerstone of the city’s historic district. When it opened, the Post-Dispatch described it by saying, “No other historical preservation can make such a claim as a catalyst of urban unification.” It is not for nothing that the old capitol’s dome has been appropriated as the logo for the city’s tourism commission.
Still, the hopes of Kerner and others that the old capitol would become the crown jewel of Illinois’ preservation diadem have evaporated. Take attendance, for example. When it opened the State Journal-Register said of the underground garage, “Without the extra spaces . . . the downtown streets of Springfield might soon become choked with out-of-town automobiles.” Right. Attendance at the old capitol has dropped every year since 1971, when roughly a quarter-million people toured it. In 1980 it had slipped to about 150,000. Of this number the vast majority were schoolchildren shanghaied on tour. (Two-thirds of the traffic through the building comes on school days.) Other local Lincoln sites have suffered similar declines to be sure, attributable variously to higher gasoline prices, recession, and television. None of these is sufficient to explain the public’s indifference, I believe. But whatever .the cause, the Old Capitol in its brief heyday was never as popular as even the second most historic building west of the Alleghenies should have been.
Why? The answers lie in the tangled genealogy of the old capitol complex. The General Assembly enthusiasm for the project was never exactly unbounded. To help persuade the legislators, Kerner touched the dormant Abraham Lincoln Association and it rose like Lazarus from the grave. Among its labors the ALA raised $300,000 to buy furniture for the place.
There is a long and intimate relationship between the ALA and the office of State Historian, the executive officer of the Illinois State Historical Library, an independent executive agency created in 1889. The first secretary of the ALA, for example, later became the State Historian. But sentiment was only one of the motives for the gift. One may safely assume that the ALA bypassed the DOC out of snobbish disdain for what was still a hack-ridden patronage haven. Beyond that, there is the possibility that the ALA knew it could control the State Historian in ways that it could never control the larger, more independent DOC.
In any event the old capitol for a while functioned like a couple going through a divorce in which one spouse owns the couch and carpets while the other owns the house. The public record is unclear as to the reasons, but early in his term, Kerner’s successor, Richard Ogilvie, announced that the old capitol would henceforth be the responsibility of the Historical Library. The library staff, including the State Historian, suddenly had a building as well as books to worry about. More to the point of the transfer, the Lincoln Mafia had a new toy. ●
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