top of page

Silk Purses and Sow’s Ears

Converting the capitol into an office building

Illinois Times

September 7, 1979

Over the decades the Illinois capitol has been defaced by thoughtless remodelings in a foolish attempt to make it usable as office space. Murals were painted over, ornate ceilings covered with acoustic tiles—you get the idea. Thank goodness the proposed ”improvements” to the building I write about here were not approved in the end.


As art, the Illinois statehouse suffers from a rather too obvious desire to please. Apparently not sure which of several then-current styles would look best, the architect strove to include them all. Its 405-foot height makes it as conspicuous as it is eccentric. (It is the closest thing to a cathedral we will ever have in the state.) This museum of vanished craftsmanship does what any successful building is supposed to do, because in its lavish expenditure of resources in the pursuit of irrelevancies the statehouse perfectly embodies the spirit of the government it was built to house.


I like the statehouse, for reasons that I cheerfully admit are idiosyncratic. For example, it is one of the very few places left where one can hear an echo, an experience likely to soon join the corset and the honest day’s work among the vanished artifacts of the 19th century. (Echoes are especially popular, of course, among those of us who love most to hear ourselves talk. Sen. John Knuppel shares this trait; it was he who liked to step into the rotunda and bellow the name of our now-resigned transportation director—"L-a-a-a-n-g-h-o-r-n-e  B-o-o-o-n-d.”

It was with more than my usual irritation, then, that I learned in June of a proposal to spend some $8 million to amend this masterly pile. It seems that the remodeling of the Capitol failed to include fire escapes for office workers encamped on the upper floors, who as a result are left fit to be fried. Fire escapes apparently can be added by tunneling down through the inside of the building at a cost of $1.7 million. But depending on which of two variations are used, this remedy would result in the destruction of office space now used by either the secretary of state or by the staff of the speaker of the House.


This clearly will not do; state officials count office square feet the way Bedouins count camels, as measures of status. The statehouse architect was told to come up with a better idea, which in state government means a more expensive one. He told them that for eight mill they could dismantle the limestone facade along seventy-two feet of the east faces of the Capitol’s north and south wings, extend the walls outward twenty feet and replace the facade, much as was done with the Old State Capitol. The job would supply the missing fire escapes plus another 20,000 square feet of new office space.


A couple of questions suggest themselves. The first is, how was it possible to build those offices in the first place in flagrant violation of the state’s own fire code? The state fire marshal’s office is right across the street, after all, and his staff is well known for going much farther out of their way than that to make life miserable for hapless small business people unlucky enough to have doors that open inward instead of out. There are several possible explanations, all the result of past state officials doing things you wouldn’t want your children to be caught doing.


Given the General Assembly‘s habit of painting itself into corners, we may also ask why we should believe that the proposed emendation won’t cause even costlier problems ten years from now. The supporters of the remodeling plan insist it won’t (they dismiss the more modest remedy as jerry-rigging) but legislators as a class have the same kind of reputation as a paroled embezzler—which in a more  perfect world many of them would be.


Their track record with the building is  not reassuring. Ground was broken for its construction in 1868, but it took eight years before anyone could move in and another twenty years before it was finished. By the time it was done the cost had ballooned from $3 million to more than $4.5 million.


The present remodeling project has been going on since I was a child and still isn’t finished; many sixth graders who visit the statehouse every summer think scaffolding, was a popular form of 19th century ornament. The project was undertaken during the administration of Paul Powell, who as Secretary of State had custody of the building; under the circumstances, I suppose we should be grateful the thing is still there at all.


The most pertinent question is why the state can’t just take the $8 million it would save and move the threatened offices into a new, fire-safe building built. The cost per square foot for such space under the remodeling plan would be roughly $400, or $2.77 per square inch. The standard three-bedroom ranch house built at that cost would set you back nearly a half-million bucks. The Capital Development Board, by comparison,  expects to spend only $6.7 million to build a new computer center—a specialized building, mind you—which will provide close to 70,000 square feet at a cost of only $96 each.


Of course, the state argues that it can’t relocate that part of the speaker’s staff because the division would have unspecified but presumably dire effects on the course of state government. There are those of us who think a divided staff here and there in the statehouse might be an improvement. It seems a simple enough housekeeping problem. There is no  shortage of room in the statehouse, merely an excess of tenants. Most of the major state officeholders are lodged there. The arrangement flows from no constitutional or administrative imperative; they locate there for the same reason that an Orange Julius stand locates in one of the better shopping malls—it’s a prestige address, and the traffic gives them high visibility.


In the past this concentration made a certain symbolic sense, I suppose. (Though a literally symbolic arrangement of officeholders would have put the treasurer in the basement, and the lieutenant governor out at the fairgrounds.) But that was before the explosion in the size of legislative staff stretched the Capitol to its limits, like a child’s balloon that’s been filled with too much air. Whether this expansion in legislative staff is good or bad is immaterial for the moment. What is important is that the statehouse is becoming more and more a legislative headquarters building.


Why, then, can’t planners acknowledge the fact and move the non-legislative officers out? There is no reason why the  comptroller (to pick an example at random) can’t discharge his constitutional duties from the Stratton Building, or the Centennial Building, or for that matter from a trailer parked at the Lincoln Towers. (Officials have been doing the people’s business from hotel rooms and bars for years, after all.) There is even a precedent; the Supreme Court used to be housed in the Capitol (in the south corridor, in chambers now used less augustly as a legislative hearing room) before its own building was finished in 1908.


Maybe it wouldn’t work. Like Nature, the General Assembly abhors a vacuum, and whatever savings of space that might be accomplished by a housecleaning probably will be quickly negated as the two houses continue their bloat. In the meantime, on August 16, the $8 million fix-up proposal was referred to a legislative subcommittee by the Legislative Space Needs Commission, ostensibly because the subcommittee could better take public comment on its wisdom. Gov. Thompson made his views known on August 30. Exercising both fiscal and common sense, Thompson vetoed $565,000 in planning funds for the project, saying that before he would spend the money "we should identify a solution to the fire safety problems that is feasible, economical, and does not threaten the historical value of the Capitol."


Supporters of the project threatened to override, but then they’re always threatening something. The fact is that trying to convert the statehouse into an office building is like turning a silk purse into a sow’s ear. An intelligent person wouldn’t consider it; a prudent person wouldn’t attempt it. But as this episode proves again, neither intelligence nor prudence is a common virtue in the General Assembly. ●




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.


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. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




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. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

bottom of page