The Old Capitol: The Higher Vaudeville

They built it; they didn’t come

Illinois Times

February 6, 1981

If transforming the Old State Capitol in Springfield into an historic site was complicated, turning it into a tourist attraction proved even trickier. All the interests involved wanted something different from the building; no surprise then that none of them was served well.

 

The transfer of Springfield’s newly-reconstructed Old State Capitol from the Illinois Department of Conserva­tion to the state’s Historical Library in the early 1970s seemed at first glance to repeat those gruesome Soviet ex­periments of the ‘60s when heads of Airedales were grafted onto the living bodies of German shepherds; both proved that ingenuity in the service of uselessness is no achievement. Granted, a decade ago, there were sound reasons for such a transfer. The library was headed by an ag­gressive State Historian, and the DOC managed its historic properties (including Lincoln’s Home) as if they were duck blinds, and vice versa.

 

Even so, neither the legislative man­date nor the experience of the State Historian encompassed historic site management. Even less did either encompass what might be called (with apologies to Vachel Lindsay) the Higher Vaudeville that today passes as historic site interpretation. Books, not buildings, are the library’s business, and since the transfer the House of the “House Divided” has been divided.

 

Consider the example of the Sound and Blight—er, Sound and Light— show. I shan’t recap the history of this electronic extravaganza except to note 1) it cost some $600,000; 2) it was lobbied for ‘by the resurrected Abraham Lincoln Association, which serves at a front for the local Lincoln Mafia; and 3) like the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall—it is a tourist attraction more praised than watched.

 

Influential Springfieldians backed the idea in part because they hoped it would be good for business. It would entice tourists to stay overnight, leaving behind them a litter of $20 bills like so many gum wrappers. (Those arguments also were advanced in sup­port of the reconstruction itself. Fred Puglia, the Pied Piper of the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, complained the other day that he couldn’t understand why the state was trying to save Chrysler and not the old capitol—which gives us one more reason not to elect a tourism director as governor. Puglia also argued to the State Journal-Register that it would have been better to open the building on weekends, when paying tourists come to town, instead of during the week, when school kids visit, because school kids don’t spend money.) Others less frank than Puglia argued its educational benefits, saying it would make history “come alive”—the same promise made in years past by Classics Illustrated com­ics. Fitting; S&L is an electronic com­ic book, designed for adults with a twelve-year-old’s grasp of history.

 

The project was doomed from the start. Hyped by the Bicentennial and the curiosity of locals, first-year at­tendance was 41,000. In 1980, its season cut short by construction work, it had slipped to 11,000. It was ballyhooed as Illinois’s bicentennial gift to the nation, but no one checked to see if the nation wanted a sound and light show. (In fact, it already has one, in Philadelphia.) It has prov­ed to be the gift that keeps on losing. In 1978, new State Historian William Alderfer tried to cut back S&L show­ings from seven nights a week to four, pleading lack of funds. An outraged delegation of locals marched on the governor’s office, saying that the show must go on, with the result that Gov. Thompson dipped into, his household accounts and gave the library the $13,000 it needed to keep it on for six nights a week.

 

But as Howard Hughes learned, all the money in the world can’t resur­rect a corpse. The building is a shell, a stage set. Interpretation at the site looms so vital, I think, because the building itself is mute in ways that Lincoln’s home or New Salem aren’t. When the reconstruction was first proposed it was promised that the new old capitol would be a multi-use building. The building program specified that it “should not under any circumstances be a museum in which people walk through spaces that are otherwise unused.” But that promise was never kept. There had been talk about arts performances in the Senate chambers, for example, but the promisers forgot that one of the reasons local lawyers wanted a new building was that the acoustics were so lousy in the old capitol-cum-courthouse that they couldn’t hear each other talk. The oc­casional lecture held in the Hall of Representatives has since proved the truth of their complaint. The 1970 constitutional convention was held there, with results that often made it seem as if the delegates couldn’t hear each other talk either.

 

The members of the Abraham Lin­coln Association, which donated some $300,000 worth of furniture for the old capitol, are accustomed to expensively furnishing rooms that serve no purpose except to be looked at. But this pristine periodicity has taken on a compulsive aspect at the old capitol, with the result that when one tours it one half-expects to see vinyl slip covers on all the furniture. More money would help. The inability to win funds from the state is generally attributed to Alderfer’s lack of bureaucratic aggression, and to his failure to mobilize the old capitol’s private constituency on its behalf in the yearly budget wars in the General Assembly. Originally the building was to be partially self-supporting. Said Otto Kerner in the 1960s: “Taxes won’t be used to pay for the build­ing’s maintenance. Money collected from the use of the (underground] garage should take care of that.” And so it might have; fees collected by the DOC are paid into a state parks fund, out of which costs are paid in turn, including maintenance costs. But the Historical Library can­not legally receive such fees, so when the building was transferred from Conservation the revenue from its garage—the state’s share of which amounts to roughly $100,000 a year—went into the state’s general fund instead.

 

Beyond these problems there are, in addition, deep divisions among the old capitol’s factions—library, historic site, Sound and Light, trustees and staff, employees and com­munity overseers—over the question of what the old capitol complex is for. Members of the S&L citizens’ committee, for example, have com­plained that Alderfer favors spending money for “traditional library ac­tivities” instead of on guides and the S&L. “What we need is Walt Disney,” said one such member to the SJR a couple of years ago, “not an historian.” Considering that the man was talking about the State Historian, that is a suggestion of breathtaking recklessness. Alderfer has rarely been accused of excessive zeal in the service of scholarship, and indeed was one of S&L’s most vocal supporters when it was first propos­ed. Even so, he remains more of an historian than some locals want. Their complaint is that Alderfer in­sists, even haltingly, on doing what the taxpayers pay him to do.

 

The Illinois State Historical Library is more than a stage-set for Sound and Light. It houses one of the best collections of Lincolniana on the globe. The world may indeed need a Walt Disney to in­terpret its Lincolns, but it should be recalled that. any such interpretation, if it is to rise above the level of Classics Illustrated, must rely on both the Lincoln documents and the scholars which some of the old capitol’s friends regard with such an­noyance.

 

The values of show biz and those of the scholar are unavoidably in conflict; what is avoidable is trying to advance both under the same agency. The old capitol is languishing under its present stewardship. Opinion grows that it belongs under the stronger wing of the DOC(which has dedicated itself to historic site management with a new seriousness since the 1960s) or the federal Na­tional Park Service. Either agency could provide the money and the management expertise now so sadly lacking. As far as the building is concerned, I doubt that any interpretive magic can make that hulk come alive. The library needs space; why not con­vert little-used rooms into public reading rooms? The House chamber could be retained as is, a suitable venue for seasonal impersonations and similar hokum. The people of Il­linois can have their site and use it too.

 

As for the Abraham Lincoln Association, they might profitably abandon the furniture trade and re-devote themselves to scholarship, as they did so admirably a half-century ago. The Historical Library needs a patron; the ALA needs a cause. After all, what better monument could we erect to the memory of Lincoln, whose own sense of history so in­formed his thought, than a library? ●

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. 

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 important 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. 

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

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