top of page

“People, not Pontiacs!”

Planning for a courts complex that won’t be built

Illinois Times

October 8, 1981

The saga of what became known as the “Y” Bock—the site near the statehouse of the long-demolished Hotel Abraham Lincoln and the doomed YWCA—has been unfolding since 1978. I would write several pieces about it, including this one. The worst thing about it is the lame title—one of mine, I’m afraid.


Honestly, I didn't know whether to cheer or to boo. On September 30 the Illinois Supreme Court ordered that the State of Illinois' petition to condemn the YWCA building at Fifth and Jackson in downtown Springfield be dismissed. The state wanted the Y's land to make room for a courts complex first proposed back in 1975. But the court ruled that the state, which has already bought and leveled nearly an entire city block for the project, had already acquired an "excessive" amount of land. The Y would stand.


Any victory over the state is sweet. Any ruling which reins the state's imperialist impulses is doubly welcome in Springfield, where the state traditionally has behaved as if it were the lord of the manor and its capital city were the gamekeeper's daughter. I was cheered by the ruling, but only partly because the court had reaffirmed the principle that public money may not be used by public agencies to condemn land without a proven public need for it. I was happy mainly because it meant I wouldn't have to read any more press releases from the YWCA.


The Y has a slogan which reads, "It's the 'W’ that makes the difference." They even underline the "W" in their name in their press releases—only one of the ways the Y's self-image interfered with coherence during its five-year campaign. The Y's court battle with the state had come to resemble a pulp romance. We were treated to cries of outraged virtue (a year ago the Y's executive director said, "We're not angels, but we have been sited [sic] as one of the best administered organizations in the history of voluntarism"). We were warned of the ravening menace of the state (the Y didn't actually cry "rape!" but some of its press releases came close). We even got hysterics and swooning; when the state filed condemnation papers in 1980 after negotiations on a selling price failed, the Y said, "Anyone who has taken advantage of any social service organization like the Boy Scouts, Salvation Army, Red Cross, anyone who has ever needed the services of a hospital, or gone to a library . . . YOU'VE BEEN PUT ON NOTICE THAT YOU DON'T MATTER ANYMORE!"


There were principles at stake, and the Y did not hesitate to appropriate several of them in defense of their case, with the result that the agency came variously to be seen as a champion of women's rights, historic preservation, voluntarism, community service, and downtown Springfield. But the issue at stake in the Y's first skirmish with the state was not voluntarism or preservation but money. The state had originally offered $650,000 for the Y's building. A jury in May, 1980, reckoned it to be worth $1.3 million; the Y, claiming that it would have cost $2.2 million to replace it 'way back in 1976, appealed.


As Y director Carolyn Miller Coffman explained last week, "The main reason we wanted to stay here was because we weren't offered enough money to replace the building." Had they gotten their price, in other words, they would have hied to the suburbs where their members would not have to cope with the intricacies of parallel parking. Worse, the Y last year defended itself against the state's power of eminent domain by reminding us that the Y is "not some new radical group"—the implication being that the unwarranted appropriation of property belonging to a new radical group would be okay. Self-interest is one thing; disingenuity another.


But if the Y behaved dishonestly, the state behaved far worse. It would take a writer of greater skill than I possess to cram into a few sentences the full measure of stupidity, arrogance, and sheer numbskullery demonstrated by the sponsors of the courts complex. The initial concept sounded to me like the sort of thing that gets dreamed up by the boys in the locker room after racquetball: a sort of criminal justice laboratory, in which the Sangamon County circuit courts would be housed with state appellate courts and either a new law school or paralegal training center, all equipped with the latest in data processing gear. The broader purpose of the complex apparently was to learn ways to make justice quick as well as sure.


The notion made me nervous—I can think of no keener threat to the republic than an efficient judiciary—but it never mattered because the project was doomed from the start. Law schools, to pick one, are expensive, and establishing a new one in the capital was bound to excite institutional jealousies among the state's turf-conscious universities. The state was in the process of approving a master development plan for the Capitol Complex when the courts complex was first proposed; since the plan made no provision for such a courts complex, it was put outside the boundaries of the official Capitol Complex, in effect making a liar of the state, which at least saved journalists the trouble.


The gravest defect of all, however, was the assumption that Sangamon County would move its circuit courts into such a complex were one ever built. The county had built a new county building in 1966, and while the court facilities therein fail to meet the magisterial standards of the local bench, they are superior to those in most Illinois counties. Even were they not, no one had ever bothered to actually study the point: the state could produce neither a program statement nor a needs study. More amazingly, at no point in the five years during which the project has been under way did the county commit itself to do anything more binding than discuss possible financial terms of a move, even though the county was to occupy roughly 50 percent of the new complex.


The state, in short, had acted like a bridegroom who made a down payment on a honeymoon cottage before proposing to his sweetheart. In April—for reasons not yet made clear—the county formally "withdrew" from the project. The Supreme Court, in its YWCA opinion, averred that even before the county's withdrawal, "The petition attempting to take the entire block should have been dismissed as an attempt to take a 'grossly excessive' amount of land." The county's April vote merely "reassure[d] us that no necessity for the condemnation of land for a new circuit court facility ever did exist."


The state had spent $3.3 million of the taxpayers' money buying land for a courts complex which the county didn't want and for which there was never a proven need, and it did so without getting so much as a solid "maybe" in advance from its principal tenant. In the process it leveled a movie house, an insurance office, a small factory, a drive-in bank (a nice irony, that, considering that the bank tore down a church to put up its drive-in), a rental haberdashery, and a muscle salon. Most painfully of all, it also destroyed the vacant Abe Lincoln Hotel. The scars from these injuries were graveled over and the land converted into another of the state's "temporary" parking lots—an act which simultaneously eroded Springfield's tax base and created an eyesore in the heart of the city. The only consolation for distressed locals is that the governor, whose mansion sits across the street, has to look at the damned thing too.


The henchman for this dirty bit of business was the Capital Development Board. If Tennyson were governor, he might say, "Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to build and die." There is a significant body of local opinion that regards the CDB as the flushest collection of prepaid, prioritized, prime-rate, four-wheel-drive jerks who ever sat down to sup at a public trough, and on this point I am inclined to agree.


Confronted with such a blunder, one's first impulse is to look for somebody to lynch, or to vote out of office. But the principals are beyond the reach of legal retribution. Somebody owes us, however. I suggest that the state donate that land to the city for use as a public park, along with enough money to landscape and equip it—making it a place of rest for the strolling tourist, a lunch-hour refuge for the state worker, an oasis for the city dweller. Should the state fail to make this gesture of atonement to Springfield, I suggest a public campaign, modeled on the famous tea bag mailing of 1978. We should all mail a pebble to the governor with the plea that he convert that rocky feculence into something green and useful. Land for people, not Pontiacs! Greenery, not gravel! Think of it! We could even name it after Don Glickman, the director of the CDB, just to show him that there's profit in building as well as destroying. ●




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