A Place to Stay

The Hickox: City life in a country capital

Illinois Times

June 2, 1978

From 1970 until the summer of 1981, my partner and I lived on the top floor of a three-flat on South 4th Street in Springfield, a half block from the Illinois governor's mansion and on the other side of the block from the house of Springfield poet Vachel Lindsay. The building was the first to open of the five-building complex erected from 1917 to 1929 known as the Hickox apartments.

 

It was a beautifully appointed building in its time,. It catered to upper-middle-class tenants, and it was a bit of cosmopolitan New York or Chicago dropped into the capital. The Hickox remained a respected and desirable complex until, well, the time we moved in. I can imagine the older tenants peeking at us on move-in day through the curtains and releasing a worried sigh. They didn't know we were a couple of young fogeys who found the building well-suited to our taste and habits. It was good home to us, and the place where I began my writing career, and I recall it vividly and fondly.

 

When the first tenants moved in fifty-some years ago, the management issued little cards with each tenant's name engraved on them, one card to be placed above each of the doorbells, another to go on the brass mailbox downstairs. The building was brick and real wood with fifteen apartments on three floors, most of them tidy, small rooms for people with tidy, small lives. When it was new it was equipped with the latest in conveniences—there were even built-in ice boxes in the corridors, from which residents could draw ice as needed—but though still comfortable it can no longer make any claims to be modern.

 

Neither, for that matter, could most of its recent tenants. The place was home to mostly women of middle age, some retired professionals, most living alone on a pension or the investments of a dead husband, quiet women who moved in when they were young because the building offered comfort and unobtrusive class. Building and tenant were a perfect match, and for some of them the marriage had lasted as many as thirty-five years.

 

The tenants had shared the same address long enough to have evolved rituals by which their occasional contacts—usually in the carpeted halls or in the rear courtyard where some of the ladies raised flowers in plots assigned according to an informal but scrupulously observed seniority system—were controlled. Mail too big for the brass mailboxes was sorted on the stairs by whoever found it first, mail for the people who lived on the north side of the building arrayed on the north side of the stairs, one step per person, that for the southsiders the same. Though there were friendships among the residents (two widows on the second floor used to leave their doors open and ghat across the corridor) relations were cordial but polite, as if each, aware of the intimacy forced by close quarters, had resolved that the space of the others, already so small, should not be intruded upon without invitation.

 

Lately, age disrupted the social ecology of the building. Some of the long-timers died, others moved away: the University of Chicago graduate (she used to put her alumni magazines on the communal reading table in the first floor hallway, with the "Reader's Digests" and "Ford Times" where they lay unread for months) who moved to Arizona; the second-floor widow who moved to a nicer apartment with a dishwasher (though she came back once in a while to see her old friend across the hall, who now had no one to talk to and almost never came out any more); the spinster in the third floor efficiency who left to live in a nursing home; the prim single woman on three who married a man who owns a jewelry store.

 

Because the building was still an attractive place to live these wounds were quickly healed. But the newcomers were not like the old residents. The long-timers occasionally swept the walk and picked up litter from the yards when the landlord's men did not. They did this not from any excessive desire for neatness but simply because they considered the yards and the walks to be their walks and yards, part of their home. The fact that they also were the walks and yards of a dozen or so other people made no difference.

 

The newcomers rarely did those things. Many were young and unmarried, starting their lives, not ending them, people not looking for a home but just for a place to live for a while. The single woman on three, for instance, who left when she moved into a bigger place with a roommate, or another who got married, or a third who was transferred to another state job. She left her apartment to her younger brother who fancied himself a writer but who really was just a drunk with pretensions who, in a state of sodden confusion, periodically got into bloody fistfights with his friends. A medical student. A reporter. A woman who went to work very early in the morning and whom no one ever saw any other time, a hard-of-hearing black woman who read Gunnar Myrdal, kept her lights on twenty-four hours a day and turned the sound on her TV way up so she could hear the Today Show. Most of these comings and goings were unremarked except by the silent ritual of the long-timers checking the names on the mailboxes to see who their new neighbors were.

Living in the building became like traveling on a cross-country train and watching the local passengers troop on and off at each stop. So unsettled was the building's tiny population that one of the residents carrying a box of trash out the back door was met by one of the long-timers who resignedly asked, "You moving out, too?"

 

Before, one knew one's neighbors, and to the extent that each considered the building common territory each kept a protective eye out tor the welfare of everyone in it. Strangers were easy to spot and those who had no business in the building were sent on their way. But now one's neighbors were the strangers.

 

The new people came in and out so fast that one couldn't get to know them at all. They kept to themselves. You have to introduce yourself, some of the long-timers complained, and you could never be sure that when you did you wouldn't get a door slammed in your face. Some of the older women, vulnerable in their age, their imaginations grown nervous on a diet of television horrors, entertained dark fantasies about the halls being filled at night with burglars and dope addicts and worse—an extravagant fantasy that the younger people laughed at, because the building was as safe as a bank.

But then a strange young man moved onto the second floor. He dyed his hair and entertained violent friends until dawn and one night fought and left the white tiles at the foot of the stairs red with blood and broken glass, the sight of which froze the people who saw it next morning when they picked up their morning papers like a soundless scream. And a young woman—second floor, in town to help open a new department store—was attacked in her room by an intruder. In the space between her calls for help and the time the police came, those who had dismissed the old women's fears wondered whether they, not the women, were the ones who'd been silly.

 

Like a bad fever, those months passed. The strange young man moved out, the beer-loving writer was replaced by a nice young couple—he a student, she a teacher—from Chicago. Nice people, nice neighbors. But they won't stay there long. People rarely do any more. It's no longer that kind of building. ●

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 

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 important 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. 

Click  here 

to buy the book 

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

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