The Old Capitol: The Higher Vaudeville
They built it; they didn’t come
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? ●