Positive Incentives

Springfield’s lazy, hazy, razing days of summer

Illinois Times

July 24, 1981

I have noted in several settings how important Springfield’s old buildings were to my understanding of history and of my own identity. I took their careless destruction personally, which disqualified me as a reporter on the trend but qualified me perfectly as a critic.

 

"The automobile [is] the mechanical cockroach that has eaten our cities." 

             Guy Davenport, in The Geography of the Imagination

 

The Greeks told the tale of Erysichton, who destroyed the trees in a sacred grove favored by Ceres, and was cursed by her with a hunger so vast that "no abundance shall ever satisfy him." He even sold his daughter to buy food; in the end, he devoured himself in a fatal attempt to appease his appetite. I thought of Erysichton the other day when I read that three more landmark buildings in downtown Springfield are going to be torn down to make way for parking lots.

 

For example, St. John's Hospital plans to destroy the seventy-five-year-old Culver Construction Co. stoneworks "castle" on Ninth Street. This is not exactly news; next to termites, old buildings in Springfield have no worse enemy than churches and hospitals. St. John's may be exempt from taxation, but it should not be exempt from condemnation. To St. John's I say, "Physicians, heel thyselves!"

 

Of even greater import is the decision by Blaine Stuches and Earl Roland to tear down two late 19th-century commercial buildings they own on Fifth Street, just south of Monroe. Both buildings are part of the downtown national historic district established in 1978. In published interviews, Stuches has expressed his regrets over the impending destruction. Like most downtown property owners, he pleads necessity; he is, he hints, as much a victim of the market as his buildings. He and his partner, you see, also own the twelve-story Ridgely Building across the street, at Fifth and Monroe. Built in 1927, the building housed the Ridgely Farmers State Bank, which went bust in '32. It is one of the very few major downtown buildings to survive the modernization blight of the 1960s, which resulted in its once-distinguished neighbors up and down Monroe Street—from the United Mine Workers Building at Fourth to the Ferguson Building at Sixth—being made to look like farm implement dealerships.

 

Stuches and Roland have announced their intention to restore the Ridgely Building. This is happy news. But Stuches, noting that the building is now only 70 percent occupied, has said he needs more parking space for tenants, even though there are 2,756 parking spaces within a two-block radius of the building, according to the regional planning commission's 1981 parking survey.

 

Is this folly? Is the sky blue? There is a shortage of first-class, reasonably priced office space downtown. The people who manage some of the largest buildings agree that of the many factors that determine a building's rentability—location, prestige, maintenance, cost per foot, design—parking is a problem, but not the problem. Given the existing inventory of on- and off-street spaces, given the possibilities (so far untested) of expanding existing surface lots vertically (perhaps using low-interest industrial development bonds or the new tax increment financing plan recently proposed by city hall) access to parking would not seem to be insuperable. Expensive, yes. Insuperable, no.

 

Stuches asserted to the State Journal-Register eight months ago that the Fifth Street buildings were dilapidated fire traps. So they are. But so was the Maldaner's Building before Carolyn Oxtoby converted it into high-class apartments. So was the laundry that restaurateur George Baur reopened as the Opera House. So was the Hickox House (site of the celebrated local pub, Norb Andy's) until Charles Gramlich decided to rehabilitate it into an office. So was . . . but the point has been made a hundred times. One man's fire trap is another man's opportunity.

 

One of the surprises that adulthood held in store for me was the realization that people who own big buildings (who I, in the innocence of youth, believed to be influential) were in reality merely the errand boys for the "market." The market told them how to use their buildings, at what price, and on whose behalf, told them when to build or destroy, to buy or sell.

 

Perhaps. Still, I wonder how the market—which ultimately is merely the public expression of collective private anxieties, hopes, and greeds recast as law—is shaped by the fact that so many of the men and women who own and develop property are busy people who drive big cars, individualists whose impatience with things like speed limits and no parking zones and zoning codes is so elaborated as to amount to a political philosophy. Given who has a hand in their drafting, it is no surprise that the laws of the marketplace place little value on fine workmanship or graceful architecture, and none at all on coherence or continuity or diversity.

 

If the market attaches no value to these things, government, representing the public rather than the private interest, must. Officially, the City of Springfield is pursuing an aggressive redevelopment policy, whose ultimate aim is to make such properties as the Fifth Street buildings too valuable to use as parking lots. But for the moment the city does less to protect its dwindling inventory of historic structures than it does to protect stray dogs. The city is being run by a businessman-mayor who was elected on a pledge to bring a business approach to city hall.

 

Thus the city shies from punitive measures, preferring to develop what it calls "positive incentives" for redevelopment. What that means is the city worries less about helping property owners keep buildings standing than it does about helping them make money from them. The "market" continues to rule that it is not possible to do both; while it waits for wisdom, the city allows the wreckers to work on.

 

The city code attaches as little value to historic buildings as the market does. It fails to even address the issues of preservation technology in its building code, for example, and the sections of the zoning law pertaining to the historic district are ludicrously lax. All one needs to destroy a building in the downtown S-3 zoning district is a demolition permit. There is talk of making parking lots a "conditional permitted use" downtown, which would at least offer an opportunity for a public hearing and city council review of such projects. But while the city is not even close to voting on such a reform, it has found time to develop a revised animal control law which, if passed, will allow the city to file criminal charges against pet owners who carelessly allow their dogs to be killed in traffic. There is no such penalty for property owners who carelessly let buildings die.

 

I can't think of a single building that was saved because of the city's positive incentives, though I can think of a whole bunch that were lost because it lacks negative ones The city could, through its taxation policies, building codes, and zoning laws make it unprofitable, illegal, or embarrassing to tear down historic buildings. That would be bad business, true. But it would be good government.

 

While city hall chats on about positive incentives, the city is falling down around its ears. Redevelopment schemes to repopulate the resulting sores, such as the tax increment financing plan now being drafted, are well enough, except that they miss the central points about preservation: 1) Building a new building is more expensive than salvaging an old one; and 2) no matter who builds them or who designs them or how much they cost, new buildings will never be as well made, and probably not as handsome, as what stands there now. ●

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 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. 

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

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