Sis Boom Bah
A step toward a new downtown Springfield
August 12, 1977
As I write, it has been more than 40 years since this piece was published. In it, Mark Heyman, an astute observer of urban trends who taught at Springfield’s then-Sangamon State University, predicted, "It is unlikely that a downtown flourishing with shopping and housing can come about, certainly not within the next twenty or thirty years.'' He was correct. My optimism about the future was not foolhardy, but it did prove, well, optimistic. Oxtoby’s building still shines, but Springfield’s downtown still languishes.
It has been said, with some justification, that I never have a good word to say about downtown. This is partly a matter of principle—I've always thought cheer leading was best confined to the football field—and partly a matter of circumstance. For every bit of good news—the Old Capitol Mall, the new Roberts Brothers store, the farmers' market—there seem to be a half-dozen bad, ranging from demolitions and closings to ill-advised remodelings. I am happy to report, therefore, that this week there is an exception to that gloomy norm.
A week ago, Carolyn Oxtoby's newly-renovated Maldaner and Pasfield buildings were opened to public view for the first time (see "News of the Week"). The event got a good deal of press attention—mostly, one assumes, because of its novelty. Novel it certainly is, if only for its intelligence, but the project is significant beyond its novelty.
For example: The 200 block of South Sixth is among the handsomest business blocks left in the city. It is admired by critics more astute than myself not because it is old (though most of the structures date from the last quarter of the 19th century) but because it is beautiful. In addition to its intrinsic architectural merit, the block is the gateway to the Old Capitol. Tourists who park their cars in the Lincoln home area—first stop on most tours—usually walk downtown from there to the Old Capitol and the restored Lincoln-Herndon law offices. Their route takes them up Sixth Street.
That the block has so far survived the depredations of wreckers and remodelers alike is a small miracle; only the calculated banality of the new Herndon's front spoils the integrity of the upper-floor facade. Oxtoby's project will help anchor this block against similar mishandling in the future. It will do so by helping guarantee the economic future of two of its buildings while preserving their 19th-century fronts.
But important as it is in itself, the Oxtoby project is perhaps even more important as an example. Many in Springfield want desperately for the project to succeed. I do, as do the State Journal-Register and the Springfield Central Area Development Association (which proves that preservation makes even stranger bedfellows than politics). They support it because it will provide an example to other downtown property owners of what imagination can accomplish in the redevelopment of older buildings. Too often, property owners allow buildings to deteriorate, thinking them not worth the money it takes to keep them up. Oxtoby hopes to prove that innovation can be more profitable than indifference.
The project is not universally admired, however. Ron Sakolsky, an SSU faculty member and coordinator of the Local Power Structure Research Group of the People's Institute of Springfield, is one critic. Sakolsky (who is the Jim Dunham of the Springfield Left) has argued in print that, because of Oxtoby's wealth, "Springfield is her toy and we are . . . her playthings." He calls her a "benevolent despot" (a charge which even a socialist, who will swallow almost anything, might have trouble digesting) of a kind that "we"—Springfieldians—should work to overthrow. (I doubt that either fine buildings or college professors would long survive Sakolsky's revolution, which saddens me, but it's possible I value both more highly than they deserve.)
More to the point are the views of Mark Hey man, also of SSU. In "How to strengthen downtown" [IT, July 8-14, 1977] he observed that "there just aren't enough Carolyn Oxtoby's to actually reverse the tide [of suburbanization]." Heyman's case is a good one, and it is true that Oxtoby has been almost alone among major downtown property owners in her willingness to gamble that downtown can again be made an attractive place to live as well as work. But if her project succeeds, downtown will need no more leaders like Oxtoby. It will need only followers.
In that same piece, Heyman predicts that "it is unlikely that a downtown flourishing with shopping and housing can come about, certainly not within the next twenty or thirty years.'' Heyman again has a good case. But there are the barest beginnings of a trend—the Oxtoby project, SCADA's housing project on Jefferson, New Frontiers Development's high-rise on North Fourth, among others—that may mean we won't have to wait quite that long. What is certain is that if planners and property owners assume today that such a revivification is unlikely or impossible, and so take no steps to accomplish it, the prophecy will become self-fulfilling and Oxtoby's seed will not come to fruit in twenty or thirty years or even a hundred years. We may be mindful of the difficulties attending such a rebirth and still hope for the best. □