The Building Arts
Some architecture in Downstate Illinois
See Illinois (unpublished)
Another excerpt from my never-published, never-ending guide to the history and culture of Illinois. Chicago gets the plaudits as the center of architecture in Illinois—there is no such thing as Illinois architecture—but the Downstate reaches of the state offer many surviving structures that instruct, amuse, and beguile.
These notes constitute nothing like a comprehensive catalog of such structures, nor is it a consideration of architectural styles as they have been expressed in Illinois. The larger cities have compiled such lists of locally significant structures, and records of the Illinois Historic Structures Survey conducted in the 1970s include descriptions of more than 50,000 architecturally interesting properties throughout Illinois.
Architecture in Sinnississippi
Not many 40-year-old office buildings are tourist destinations. The John Deere Administrative Center, corporate headquarters for the world's largest manufacturer of farm equipment, attracts between 40,000 and 50,000 visitors a year. Master architect Eero Saarinen designed the seven-story main office building, which presides over more than a thousand acres of hilly ground on Moline’s southern flank, overlooking the Rock River. The “Rust Palace” is notable as the first major building to use Cor-Ten steel, which rusts to form its own weather-coating. The frames of Chicago’s Time-Life Building and Civic Center were fashioned from the same metal shortly thereafter—a rare case of Moline beating Chicago to a trend.
The complex includes a 400-seat auditorium and exhibition space fronting a Japanese-style garden and a three-story addition added in 1978 and connected to the main building by a 200-foot long glass bridge. The headquarters thus was as grand as corporate vanity and indulgent shareholders could make it, and remains an excellent early example of a suburban corporate Versailles of the sort built all over suburban America in the 1970s and ‘80s.
While short of trophy buildings, northern Illinois outside Chicago is nonetheless a trove of American architecture. Much of it is in Galena. The Guide notes accurately that in Galena the visitor finds “a résumé of the nation’s architectural experience.” New buildings went up there with each successive economic boom, and each era built in the fashion of its day—Greek Revival, Federal styles Italianate, Queen Anne, Second Empire, Gothic Revival, Romanesque Revival, and a few done in styles all their own. Galena’s largest mansion, the 1857 Belvedere, has been likened to a Tuscan villa and a wedding cake but probably most deserves the label “Steamboat Gothic;” as built for a local steamboat magnate, it looks like a landlocked river palace.
Architecture in the Land of Lincoln
Central Illinois buildings are like its people and for the same reasons—they represent all regions of the U.S. When they could, those people built in the style and using the materials familiar from home. Rather than a distinctive regional architecture, therefore, its buildings are a mishmash of imported styles that, like its people, were pure examples of their type at first but gradually mingled to create a mongrel regional style.
Central Illinois’s significant buildings tend to be regarded so for their history rather than their design. Lincoln’s home is the classic example; the most famous house in central Illinois, its architecture is interesting mainly to the extent that it differs so dramatically from that of the log houses in which Lincoln lived as a young man.
If the grandest buildings in central Illinois, indeed in all Downstate, are in Springfield (in statehouse complex) so is the best. A few blocks from the statehouse at Lawrence and Fourth is the former home of socialite Susan Lawrence Dana. In 1902 she commissioned a young Frank Lloyd Wright to remodel her family house. The result was one of Wright’s best early Prairie School designs. The house was later purchased by a local business with most of its original furniture, art glass, and light fixtures intact, in which form it passed to the State of Illinois—unusually for a Wright house of this vintage, whose contents are usually sold off in bits and pieces to pay for repairs to the leaking roofs.
If the statehouse, six blocks away, impresses with its sheer scale and opulence, what is now known as the Dana-Thomas house impresses with beauty and subtlety. (A local bookstore offers T-shirts bearing the likeness of Wright above the waggish caption, “I can design a building that would look good even in Springfield.") Its 35 rooms boast the largest collection of original Wright art glass and furniture in its intended setting—more than one hundred pieces of white oak furniture, two hundred fifty art glass doors, windows, and light panels, two hundred light fixtures and skylights, and original sculptures and murals.
What was dangerously radical in 1902 has become safely mainstream, as the number of Illinoisans capable of appreciating Wright’s work has swelled with affluence and education. A fact little mentioned by tour docents is that, a century after its completion, virtually no other house based on its precepts, however modest its scale, was ever again attempted to Springfield. A visit to the McMansion developments on the capital’s west side will make plain that Wright has no more influence on today’s housing than he had in 1904—a fact that says more about Springfield and central Illinois than about the quality of Wright’s work.
Not far from the Dana-Thomas house, at 101 East Laurel Street, is a lesser Wright creation. The Lawrence Memorial Library, a working library located in the Lawrence Education Center, was designed by the architect for Susan Lawrence Dana in honor of her father. The library was restored in 1992.
The region has its share of architectural oddities. In the Logan County village of Atlanta, the octagonal Public Library on the corner of Race and Arch streets is on the National Register of Historic Places; although it was built in 1908 it features the classic details of the 1840s. The 150-year-old farmhouse known as Allendale, about two and a half miles northeast of Virginia on the Cass County prairie, is believed to be the only adobe house in Illinois. It was not immigrants from the American Southwest who built it but a canny Scotsman who came up with this thrifty solution to an old problem of how to build in a place where there is little lumber.
A charming setting is as vital an asset to the small college as Nobelists on the faculty is to the research university or the capacious football stadium is to a big state school. Among the comeliest spaces in central Illinois towns are its college campuses. Boosters of MacMurray College in Jacksonville, for example, are not shy about pointing out its physical resemblance to the restored colonial Williamsburg. (The Annie Merner Chapel on the MacMurray campus was modeled on classic New England churches.) Prospective Blackburn College students are promised “a New England-like feeling” when they visit that campus.
Like so many buildings in Illinois, Beecher Hall at Illinois College was built in a slightly out-of-date style that its immigrant builders remembered from their youths in faraway places. In this case, the transplanted Yankees who ran the college asked local carpenter and joiner James Kerr to give them buildings in the late Georgian style they had known in New England rather than the newer Classical Revival that had replaced it since their emigration to the West. The results can be seen in Beecher Hall: semi-circular windows, the Flemish bond brick pattern, and dormer windows (now removed).
Across the region, citizens have gathered to preserve examples of once-common types of vernacular structures. Stone Coal Log Cabin Village on the Pana Tri-County Fairgrounds displays original log buildings from early Illinois prairie years. The Christian County Historical Society Museum features an 1820 log house, the 1839 Christian County courthouse (where Lincoln argued cases), an 1854 farmhouse, and an 1856 one-room school.
The restored Clayville Tavern, outside Pleasant Plains on Route 125, was one of the stagecoach stops on the Beardstown-Springfield road. Built about 1825, the tavern became the nucleus of a small village that flourished until the railroads put an end to the stagecoach. In 1960, the deteriorating building was restored as a museum by locals who later donated it to then-Sangamon State University, which used it for years as the center of instruction in rural crafts. In Logan County, the wooden Stagecoach Inn on Middletown's public square served passengers traveling between Springfield and Peoria. In 1874 a local man bought the building and moved it to his farm; in 1986 the Middletown Bicentennial Commission moved it back to a site two blocks from the original site, and began restoring the inn to its original condition.
As is true across the state, the only buildings of pretension in the small towns of central Illinois are county courthouses. The present Shelby County courthouse, two stories of red brick heavily ornamented with limestone, is distinguished by its elaborate, not to say extravagant, design complete with pillars, buttresses, and towers. Other courthouses worth a look are in the seats of Christian, Jersey, and Morgan counties.
All the region’s other courthouses added together do not match Macoupin’s in Carlinville, however. This courthouse was once the largest in the United States. Certainly for decades it was one of the more notorious. The “Million Dollar Courthouse” was the $1,509-toilet-seat of its day, a symbol of excess and crookedness in the letting of government contracts. At its opening the building was larger than the Illinois statehouse, and was exceptional in its proportions as well as its overall size—it appears too tall for its bulk—but the 1939 Federal Writers Project guide to Illinois guide generously suggests that this was a case of striving for originality rather than incompetence.
The architect of the building was F. F. Meyers of Springfield, also the architect of the Jersey County Courthouse in Jerseyville. The Macoupin courthouse was Meyers’ first important commission. Meyers was familiar type in the capital city—the architect-hustler. In the 1870s and ‘80s, open competition for architectural services was introduced but rather than put the selection of architects on merit, as was hoped, competitions instead led to bribery and other tricks to influence the outcome. Meyers so denigrated architects entered against him for the job of designing a new Texas capitol commission that he was sued, nor was he averse to cutting his fees to underbid competitors. Myers moved from Springfield to Detroit when he was picked to design the Michigan capitol, and in the latter city concluded a busy and successful career.
Meyers concocted a mongrel style for the building. Some experts opt for the such vague labels as “Victorian Classic Revival” to denote its style; it has elements of Italianate or French Second Empire styles, but such details are of moment only to pedants. A massive Corinthian porch shelters ornamental outer iron doors that weigh more than a ton each; inside, the Circuit Court room is dominated by a varicolored marble bench flanked by replicas of the Corinthian columns of the portico.
By the way, the old county jail across the street from the courthouse is another Meyers creation. Built with cannon balls embedded in its walls to forestall prisoners carving their way to freedom, the jail was built just after the Civil War, when America, happily, had no other uses for cannon balls.
Carlinville has a third architectural distinction in addition to its “cannon ball jail” and courthouse. In the part of town known as the Standard Addition is one of the largest collection of Sears Homes in the country. Starting in 1917, Carlinville saw its population grow by one-third when Standard Oil of Indiana opened two new coal mines. The company solved the resulting housing shortage by building its own subdivision consisting entirely of mail-order home-building kits purchased from Sears and Roebuck.
Alas, the mines closed and the miners moved on– after ten years only eight of the 156 homes were still occupied—and in 1935, Standard Oil decided to sell off the five- and six-room houses for $350 and $500 cash. Even in the Great Depression they found buyers, since comparable new houses were selling for around $4,000. Of the one hundred and fifty-six houses of eight different models that were built, 152 still stand; locals boast that it is the largest single repository of Sears homes in the United States.
Most of the building in a rural region like central Illinois, of course, gets done on farms. Round barns were the rage up to World War I or thereabouts—yet another farm improvement urged on Illinois farmers by the clever people at the University of Illinois, who pointed out that cornerless barns would be easier to clean. More than a dozen survive in central Illinois.
The loss of period commercial structures in the cities is widely mourned but the same thing is happening in the countryside. Happily, vestiges survive here and there of the old ways. The 60-foot-tall J. H. Hawes grain elevator, built in 1904, was typical of the “skyscrapers” of the early Illinois prairie; it is untypical in that it still stands on its original site in the Logan County town of Atlanta. Made of wood, it is the only fully restored country grain elevator in Illinois of its type listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Architecture in the Grand Prairie
The architecture of the east central part of the state is as polyglot were as its Euro-American settlers. There is no Grand Prairie style of vernacular building, but any city large enough to have a full-time fire department offers examples of various imported vernacular styles.
A fair number of these structures survive. Even small towns in the region have mustered the means to rescue a train depot, a church, a bank—most, sadly, rendered redundant by economic change or population loss—although these relics tend to be of historic rather than strictly architecture merit. Restored train depot in Rossville, along with Mann's Chapel (1857), the oldest church in Vermilion County, house museums in Catlin and Georgetown, and three Danville houses linked to Lincoln. The Bunker Hill Historic Area in Kennekuk Cove County Park offers three structures—the Vermilion Chapel (the oldest frame-structured church in the county), Red Oak School (a one-room schoolhouse built in 1914), and Newtown Store, a general store from the mid-20th century. (Similar restorations. Renovations may be seen in Decatur and Kankakee.) The “Pioneer Gothic Church” at North Franklin and Seminole streets in Dwight was the first church in that village and is an excellent example of American carpenter Gothic. The building attests to the antic variety of small-town religion; built in 1857 by Presbyterians, it later housed congregations of the Danish Methodist (1892), Christian Scientist (1924), and Baptist creeds.
Most visitors find Frank Lloyd Wright an unexpected presence in this part of the state. In 1900 Wright built two houses on adjacent lots in Kankakee. They were the first built examples of ideas he’d published a few months earlier. The B. Harley Bradley and the Warren Hickox houses show the characteristic traits of the prairie house: a cruciform plan, horizontally banded windows, and roofs with projecting eaves. Most critics agree that they lack the harmoniousness of later designs in this style, but they remain interesting if only because one can detect in them traces of the influences the vain Wright was always reluctant to acknowledge, such as Arts and Crafts maven William Morris.
Wright began work on four Prairie Style houses at Decatur’s Millikin Place, but surrendered the commission when he went abroad in 1909. The projects were finished by Marion Mahony, Wright’s former chief draftsman, in a setting whose landscape designed by husband Walter Burley Griffin, another Wright protegé. One of the clients was manufacturer Adolph Mueller, whose house is today owned by Millikin University, which houses its presidents there.
Small town or large, the buildings that are preserved tend to be the showiest, and that usually means the rich man’s house. In Danville, the Colonel Harmon Mansion was built in the early 1850s by a local attorney and friend of Lincoln, who sanctified it by his occasional visits. (He once ate a Thanksgiving dinner there.) To show off his money, Asahel Gridley, Bloomington's first millionaire—railroads, land, gas works—built a mansion in 1859 dubbed The Oaks, which still stands across the street from the city's public library. In Decatur is the Italianate mansion of three-time governor Richard Oglesby, a big house built for a big man.
Decatur, Bloomington, and Kankakee have whole districts of such houses. Kankakee’s Riverview Historic District (“a picturesque glimpse of a bygone era”) features the Charles E. Swannell House. Franklin Park, the centerpiece of the Franklin Square Historic District in Bloomington (bounded by East Chestnut and Walnut and North Prairie and McLean streets) was the starting point for partisan torchlight parades in the late nineteenth century. Franklin Square contains houses of former Vice President Adlai Stevenson I and Governor Joseph Fifer. Also nearby is the Victorian mansion of David Davis, the ample associate of Abraham Lincoln's. Completed in 1872. the house is built of yellow hard-burned face brick with stone quoins in the corners. It has a 50-foot tower and eight marble fireplaces. Architectural historian Frederick Koeper, in Illinois Architecture, found the house to be “robust and substantial, like Judge Davis himself,” one that shows “a heartier architectural appetite” than most houses of its type—even if some of what its designer stole from the plates of his masters was only half digested.
Koeper noted that such houses are where the “assertive individualism of the post-Civil War period is best displayed.” Few are more assertive than the house that Decatur banker James Millikin had built for his family on Pine Street in 1876. Like so many of the period, the Millikin “homestead” is a vaguely Tuscan villa built in reaction to by-then staid Greek Revival style. Anyone who doubts that businesspeople form our aristocracy should take note of the language with which Millikin University (which now owns it) describes the house, which sits “in regal splendor “ on its lot, “one of the queens of residential architecture and decoration in Decatur.” These Victorian mansions once were denounced as ostentatious, even vulgar, although time has same effect on reputations of houses as the people who built them, making both more respectable.
Architecture in the American Bottom
A few physical relics of what once were the major French settlements in Illinois area survive along the Illinois side of the Mississippi opposite St. Louis. There are enough of them to spark the imaginations of a large and busy band of local historians and to make plausible the founding some years ago of a French Colonial District in the American Bottom.
The State of Illinois’s Historic Preservation Agency calls the Pierre Menard Home “the finest example of French colonial architecture in the central Mississippi Valley.” Not many disagree. Menard was a French-Canadian fur trader and entrepreneur who died rich at 78; he also served as Illinois’s first lieutenant governor. His elegant post-on-sill frame house was built of hand-hewn timbers between 1800 and 1802 in what is sometimes called the "raised cottage" style. It stands on a hill and once overlooked the town that was drowned by the Mississippi River in 1881—arguably an improvement to the view.
The Menard house might be the best and certainly is the grandest examples of a style that the French developed in the Caribbean and carried up the Mississippi valley. It has a stone ground floor that housed storerooms, and above it a main floor surrounded by a wide verandah; topping it all was a low-pitched roof with dormers. At the rear is a separate kitchen connected to the house by a covered way; this was a design intended to reduce the risk of fire. It was a sensible design, well-adapted to the humid summers of southern Illinois through such local innovations as louvered windows for ventilation; the fact that it was not universally adopted as the standard big house style in the new country says much about the durability of tradition, which might more honestly be called people’s stubborn insistence on the familiar at the expense of the practical.
The Menard house is sometimes called a mansion by proud Illinois patriots, but the FWP guide was more accurate when it stated that the house “recalls the minor plantation houses of Louisiana.” But in Illinois of the day, even a minor plantation house was a palace. The house hints at what one tourism brochure calls “the Timeless Charm Of French Colonial Life” around 1800, one feature of which was entertaining such guests as Lafayette, the French hero of the Revolution—ours, not theirs—who visited in 1824.
Cahokia boasts three relics of its French days. The old Church of the Holy Family, built in 1799 to replace an earlier one that burned in 1783, was erected in the usual French style, with upright hewn walnut logs topped by a roof shingled in cedar. A few yards away stands the Jarrot “mansion.” This large two-story brick house is French by ownership rather than design, save for its imported windows and other fixtures. Built between 1799 and 1806 for Maj. Nicholas Jarrot, a judge of the Cahokia court, it is the oldest brick house in Illinois, and one of the first done in the Federal style, which at that date was as rare in Illinois as a harpsichord at a hoedown. In its heyday the Jarrot house was the site of much dancing and gambling; it later had a more sedate career as a Roman Catholic school. It has been undergoing restoration by the St. Clair County Historical Society for years; in 2001 it was named a National Historic Landmark for its architectural significance.
Perhaps the most famous—and certainly the most traveled—of Cahokia’s relics is the house built between 1793 and 1814 that served as a courthouse for the new county of St. Clair, which under the Ordinance of 1787 took in all of the Illinois country. Probably built in 1737, the courthouse is what to see to learn about the French style of colombage (half-timber) construction using pierrotage, or limestone rock in-fill between the logs. When the county seat was moved to Belleville the building was abandoned; by 1900 it was fit only to store farm machinery. It was dismantled and reassembled in St. Louis as a curiosity on the grounds of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1903, after which it was displayed for 35 years in Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side. The courthouse was reconstructed in the 1930s; this version still has its original 18th century black walnut timbers, although some experts insist that perfect authenticity calls for a thatched roof.
Modern Metro-East has its share of architectural oddities too. Collinsville is the home of two monuments of international note. One is Monks Mound, centerpiece of Cahokia Mounds—which, because it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the only reason that Collinsville gets mentioned in the same sentence as the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China. The other is the World's Largest Catsup Bottle. The World's Largest Catsup Bottle is a monument to one of the city’s vanished industries, and to the American appetite for kitsch. The 170-foot-tall “bottle” is in fact a bottle-shaped 100,000-gallon water tower, painted red, that served the Brooks Foods factory, a ketchup manufacturer that once operated a plant here. Built in 1949, it was restored in 1995; as one local enthusiast said, Paris may have the Eiffel Tower, St. Louis may have The Arch, but Collinsville has the Catsup Bottle.
Architecture in Egypt
Humans tend to migrate along lines of latitude. They seek new places but not different ones; given a choice, they will settle in places where the climate is about the same as in their old homes, places where hard-won knowledge about how to grow and build things can be applied to surviving in a new setting. As a result, the vernacular architecture styles of southern Illinois—the French style in southwest Illinois, the Appalachian-style spring houses in the deep southern counties, the German cottages in Bellville, the Georgian country houses on the English Prairie of Edwards County—each betrays the origins of their builders.
Vernacular building—building done usually using local materials, and without an architect—has a rich and surprisingly cosmopolitan history in southern Illinois. Most accounts begin with the French, who built their houses by planting logs upright in foundations trenches rather than stacking them horizontally, as the American (in fact Scandinavian) cabin was usually built. These logs were originally set directly into the ground in a style known as poteaux en terre, later on a log foundation or poteaux sur sole. This was a practice long familiar in Illinois. Native Americans of all eras built house walls from upright bits of trees—saplings in some eras, posts in others—and the Mississippians also anchored those posts in foundation trenches, just as the French were to do.
The French had some experience in the warmer parts of this hemisphere, and had evolved a style of house construction that was admirably adapted to summer’s monstrous presence. What is today labeled the French Colonial House was circled by extended eaves that provided shade and shelter from Illinois’s summer downpours. That innovation survived until well into the 20th century in commercial contexts in the form of the Main Street sidewalk covered by a shed roof; such crude arcades can still be seen in some of the smaller towns.
The English also disdained the common American log cabin. The founders of the English Prairie settlements yearned for something like the English country houses they had left behind. Stone was to be had on the frontier, but skilled stone cutters were not, so buildings that would have been rendered in stone in the old country were in Edwards County done in painted brick. One of the poshest houses in Albion was a 43-by-40-foot hewn-log double cabin on which stucco had been slathered to give at least an appearance of stone.
In time, all the European people of southern Illinois became “American” in at least an architectural sense, meaning they abandoned old-country vernacular building designs for new American ones. “By the early twentieth century,” observed scholars John Coggeshall and Jo Anne Nash, “an individual’s choice of an architectural style was more contingent on a new Sears Roebuck catalog than Old Country traditions.”
On the frontier, close is good enough for most things, and architecture was no exception. Shawnee Bank, like the young state’s banking institution itself, was put together by craftsmen not perfectly certain of the proper design for such things. The building is neoclassical in its general aims, but it has an odd number of columns—convention dictates symmetry in such matters—and features an ersatz Greek Doric temple atop a Roman base.
By 1854, local builders were beginning to get it right. One example is the Appellate Court Building on Main St. in Mt. Vernon, a gray brick and stone structure of Greek Revival design in the shape of a Maltese cross with an arched portal and cast-iron steps. Built to house a regional division of the Illinois Supreme Court, it later became a district headquarters of the state’s Appellate Court. A. B. Mullet, one of the rare architects to make a name designing government buildings, gave Cairo its Romanesque Custom House.
Southern Illinois has not been a rich field for modern architecture. Walter Burley Griffin was the architect and planner based in Chicago who is considered to have founded the Prairie School of design, along with Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. He designed the Stinson Memorial Library on Main Street in Anna in 1913. The latter was made from reinforced concrete, rough-cut limestone, and leaded glass windows. The result is an undeniably distinctive, if somewhat heavy-handed example of the genre; contemporary accounts suggest that the result was not quite what Anna expected in a library but it was not torn down—perhaps because a town of fewer than five thousand residents could not afford to replace it.
The Peoples National Bank of McLeansboro is not quite what most people expect in a bank either. Built in 1880, the bank has inspired various descriptions. Architectural systematists label it as Second Empire French Baroque; a more descriptive label would be Mid-Victorian Cluttered Parlor. (Architectural historian Frederick Koeper calls it “architectural millinery.” The building has a square mansard roof atop a neo-Classic facade which in turn sits on a foundation of brick and rough stone. One history of the project says the building presents “an image of refined elegance such as one might have expected to encounter only in larger, more sophisticated metropolitan areas.” In fact it is just the opposite, embodying the small-towners’ idea of what an elegant building should look like. ●