A jaundiced guide to the capital
June 30, 1989
Once or twice a year, I can’t remember for certain, Chicago's Reader would devote an issue to stories about the dimly perceived world beyond the last stops on the el lines. Springfield, my home town, was one of the dimmer spots on that globe, and I tried to explain it for anyone who found herself there. I doubt the Visitors and Convention Bureau folks approved of it.
The piece is no longer much use as guide to the city. A great many of the businesses mentioned no longer operate, for example. Looking at it now, I wonder whether it should even be here. But it is here, and the gags are still good.
Springfield's claims to fame—and to the pocketbooks of other Illinoisans—derive from its selection in 1837 as the state capital. The statehouse complex downtown at Second and Capitol is dominated by the capitol itself, a magnificent 1860s pile newly revealed in its original splendor by an expensive refurbishment; it's been decades since the General Assembly has lived up to its setting. The statues and memorials would make the grounds an Illinois theme park if more Illinoisans knew history well enough to get the jokes. (The bronze likeness of never-indicted U.S. Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen holding an oilcan is choice.) Visit when the General Assembly is in session (until mid-July, resuming in the fall) and see why legislature watchers dismiss Chicago's City Council as a lemonade stand run by juvenile delinquents. There's a visitor center with parking on College Street and info about tours.
Among other nearby state buildings, the Illinois State Museum, at Spring and Edwards, is preeminent, a giant attic crammed with the state's accumulated knickknacks; the tornado tree and paperweights are popular, but alas the bugs ate the giraffe.
Nearby at Fifth and Jackson stands the executive mansion, maybe the priciest pied-a-terre in the state. Admission is free and there are occasional tours. Across the street at Fifth and Edwards is the house of once-important poet Vachel Lindsay; he lived there, he died there, he wrote the best poem ever likely to be written about the Salvation Army there. It's free and limited tours are available. Also in the neighborhood, at Fourth and Lawrence, is the Dana-Thomas house, designed in 1903 by Frank Lloyd Wright and bought by the state as a dollhouse for the governor. An early Prairie Style mansion, the house survives with virtually all of its original furniture intact. Closed for restoration until spring 1990.
The most famous house in Springfield, of course, belonged to Abraham Lincoln. Like most Springfieldians with ambition he left town for a more interesting job in the big city; unlike most, he came back—as a corpse, true, but nobody here minded.
Lincoln is one of our genuinely great national leaders and an endlessly fascinating man. The reconstruction of the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, four square blocks centered on the Lincoln home at Eighth and Jackson, is too tidy to be persuasive, but the house itself—newly reopened after a meticulous down-to-the-foundations restoration—seems honest enough. The place draws pilgrims from around the world; admission (by free ticket) on summer weekends and holidays often requires a wait.
Nearby Lincoln sites are easy to find; they're practically the only buildings left standing in the parking-lot-blighted downtown. At the door to the local library, on Capitol just off Eighth, stands perhaps the silliest statue of Lincoln ever made. The train depot where Lincoln made his graceful farewell to Springfield, at Tenth and Monroe, is more rewarding. It's open daily June through August. Near the square at Sixth and Adams are his restored law offices, and on the square itself is the restored Old State Capitol, where Lincoln delivered the "house divided" speech that made him a star. Neat candlelight tours are offered there Friday and Saturday, mid-June to mid-August, with entertainment and costumed interpreters; the latter may not actually turn back the clocks to the 1850s but bored kids might think they've stopped for a while.
Across the street at Sixth and Washington is Prairie Archives Book Sellers, located, the proprietors say, "in the heart of Springfield's wine district." It's worth a trip for their souvenir T-shirts that show Lincoln saying, "You'd have to shoot me to get me back to Springfield."
For decades Springfield was an innovator in organized recreation: race riots in 1908 and mine sabotage in the ‘30s were both performed against a backdrop of gambling and prostitution that thrived for half a century, ending in the late 1940s. Today the locals cavort at the Fourth of July's LincolnFest (which may or may not be "Mid-America's largest free family street festival" but which certainly is Springfield's largest) and the Old Capitol Art Fair, always held on a rainy Saturday in mid-May. The Air Rendezvous at Capital Airport draws big crowds even though no one has ever crashed. Some locals hope that whatever does crash lands on the world's third largest bell tower, in Washington Park at Chatham Road south of Lawrence, site of mid-June's International Carillon Festival.
Springfield's nightlife was not expected to survive the local advent of cable TV. There are exceptions. Tradition-minded lawmakers still caucus until 3 AM at Bauer's Opera House on First Street just south of the statehouse. And Bruce's, a down-home tavern at 11th and South Grand, hosts Blue Monday, a weekly jam session featuring fine blues players from Saint Louis and Chicago who pull off the road to take a leak and stay long enough to play a set or two. The best source for up-do-date event information is the Times Out section of Illinois Times, the free weekly appearing each Thursday.
The outdoor recreation favored by Springfield's under-40 set is drinking too much light beer and driving into roadside trees. Residents whose boredom is not pathological recreate at Lake Springfield, which offers a public swimming beach, boating and fishing, a fine children's zoo, tennis and golf, and Lincoln Memorial Gardens. The gardens were designed by Jens Jensen, author of Chicago's Humboldt and Columbus parks, among others. Locals also treasure Washington Park, which in addition to the carillon offers a conservatory and gardens, tennis, picnicking, and bike and jogging paths. Out of the way for tourists, but the place locals go if they want to get away from tourists.
Competitive sports in Springfield used to be limited to politics and adultery but today's fan has more to choose from. The LPGA tour stops at the Rail Golf Club each Labor Day to compete for a $250,000 purse. You can watch the horses run at Capitol TeleTrack, the off-track parlor at Chatham Road and Wabash, and Springfield even has a team in the six-foot-five-and-under World Basketball League. Best of all, Springfield is home to the Saint Louis affiliate in the Class A Midwest League which also includes the South Bend White Sox and the Cubs' Peoria Chiefs. Watching a game at Lanphier Park (officially, Robin Roberts Stadium, after a local boy who made good) at 15th and North Grand will make you remember why you love baseball.
As a tourist and convention center Springfield is amply if not stylishly moteled.; there are nine budget establishments alone, representing all major chains offering double rooms for under $40. Most of the budget inns are near I-55, but there is a Best Inn and a Quality Inn downtown, closer to statehouse and Lincoln sites. Moderately priced national chains—Holiday Inn, Sheraton, Days Inn, HoJo's—are clustered at the Stevenson exit off I-55 and have the usual amenities, but are close only to it and each other, at prices from $45 to $75 per double.
Downtown also offers the recently refitted Best Western Lincoln Plaza—farthest from Lincoln sites but nearest the capitol—the Capitol Plaza, and the Mansion View, which actually has a view of the governor's mansion, all costing about $50 for a double.
Sadly, Springfield's great old downtown hotels—where the poker went on till dawn and bribes flew back and forth across open transoms like a volleyball over a beach net—have all been razed or converted. Their full-service replacements include the Forum 30, nee the Hilton, on Adams across from the downtown convention center. Those liking a bit of pretension with their posh should try the Ramada Renaissance, also on Adams.
Bed-and-breakfasts were long in coming to Springfield; locals resisted the innovation out of fear they'd have to take in legislators. Two in operation are Corrine's and the Mischler House (718 S. Eighth, two blocks from Lincoln's home).
A warning: big doings like the state fair leave the city all booked up (visitors to the recent World Pork Expo had to commute from lodgings in faraway Decatur and Bloomington), so book early.
A local wag charges that there is nothing to do in Springfield but drink and get divorced. That would explain both why the phone book lists 102 taverns, and why they're all full.
When it comes to eating, Springfield may seem at first to have outgrown its steak-and-potato past. You can buy swordfish as well as catfish, bar food now includes seafood marinara as well as the ubiquitous barbecue sandwich, and one popular brunch spot offers smoked trout cheesecake served with sweet and sour red onions, which proves that elements of the town have a big-city appetite for novelty. But Springfieldians still dine out less to eat than to avoid cooking. The popular places tend to be either concept-from-a-can franchises or to serve lots of steak. As a result, local opinion about restaurants is unreliable. (In a recent poll, Mr. Eggroll was named best Oriental restaurant.)
For example, Springfield prides itself on its chili, which old-line diners spell "chilli." Aficionados with more traveled palates agree that Springfield can't cook it right either, with the exception of the DeFrates clan, purveyors of two locally canned chilis, Ray's and Chilli Man. Ray's is the secret of Ray DeFrates, and was picked by the New York Times's Mimi Sheraton as the best canned chili in the whole damned country a few years ago. She dropped it to number two after somebody sent her a can of Chilli Man, since 1974 canned in nearby Litchfield by Ray's nephew, Joe DeFrates, a Terlingua chili cook-off champ. Chilli Man is reportedly the number-two seller among canned chilis in Chicago, so it will not be new to many, but you may want to pick up a few cans of Ray's to take home.
Springfield is also "famous"—meaning everyone in Springfield has heard about them—for its horseshoe sandwiches. These are open-faced concoctions of toasted white bread topped with a choice of meat atop which is spread a fondue-like cheese sauce and french fries. Some cooks add beer to the sauce, some mustard, but it's still Cheez Whiz.
Springfield has its share of upscale beaneries catering to the expense-account crowd. (Says one about Floreale, at the Renaissance, "If you have $300 it's OK.") Of these, Maldaner's Upstairs may be the best bet.
Ethnic food? A popular pasta house advertises its use of "freshly grated parmigiano cheese," and any place that calls itself Tokyo of Japan is not addressing a dining public with a firm grasp of culinary geography. Conspicuous exceptions: Romanesque for Italian (122 E. Jefferson); the Foreigner's for Greek fast food (220 S. Sixth); Alamo II (Second and Washington) for Tex-Mex; Chen's Dumpling House (1144 N. Ninth) and Hunan (1101 W. Wabash) for Chinese. Tops on everyone's list is the Magic Kitchen (4112 Peoria) for Thai food; it's inexpensive, crowded, and may offer the best cooking between Saint Louis and Chicago. State workers and others who've tried both insist that Magic Kitchen is the equal or better of any Thai kitchen in Chicago.
By any informed measure, favorite Springfield spots such as the Old Luxemberg Inn (1900 S. 15th) would be classed as ethnic restaurants too. Purists will find that local delicacies such as french-fried lobster tail sound a lot worse than they taste, and where else can you get Brandy Alexanders made with real ice cream?
It wasn't that long ago that a customer who found a piece of fresh broccoli in her soup would call the public health department to complain. For classic Midwestern belly ballast Coney Island (114 N. Sixth) sells hot dogs with onions and ambiance (how did that moose die?). Cozy Drive Inn (2935 S. Sixth) sells corn dogs made (the owners swear) to the recipe of the man who invented them. Popeye's (1100 S. 18th, also known as King Drive) would be the place to get ribs even if it weren't the only place to get ribs. The cheeseburgers at Custard Castle (1168 E. Sangamon, near the fairgrounds) come highly recommended, as does the dirty rice. And Arlin's (14th and South Grand) is a breakfast favorite among the cognoscenti; says one, "It is a dive, but those banana pancakes!"
All that said, no town that has two Steak 'n' Shake drive-ins (1580 Wabash and 2100 S. Sixth) and a Maid Rite can be considered a culinary backwater. Springfield's Maid Rite, alas, has been marooned in a sea of parking lots near the statehouse complex on Jefferson Street, where loyal staff dispense their wares from the steam cooker installed there 64 years ago. Worth a stop, says an admirer, "to see how much integrity costs." ●