Springfield catalogs some of its history
November 5, 1981
Springfield, which markets itself as a place worth visiting because of its history, has never quite figured out what that means. “Its history” usually means Lincoln, of course, but the misunderstandings are more fundamental. Official Springfield persists in its view that history is something that happened in its period buildings, when it is closer to the mark to say that a city's history is its buildings.
This piece excoriates the Springfield Historic Sites Commission for botching its new historic sites register. Like the parent who sneers at a third-grader's papier mache volcano because it looks like Grandma's mashed potatoes, I expected too much of the commission. But that doesn't change the fact that this list looked like Grandma's mashed potatoes.
Once in a while one encounters a work so flawed, so clearly at odds with its purpose, so unrelievedly and absolutely a waste of time that one’s irritation gives way, first to bafflement and then to a grudging admiration that the unaided human hand could come so close to perfection. It happened to me once when gazing at the statue of Everett Dirksen on the Statehouse grounds. It happened again while I read about Reagan’s economic plan. And it happened a third time when the Springfield Historical Sites Commission (SHSC) released its initial recommendations for the new Springfield Historic Sites Registry.
The fifteen-member SHSC was founded in the 1960s, mainly to protect the then-declining Lincoln home. Since then its mandate has expanded to include the identification and protection of first, historic sites generally and, later, architectural sites. Because it has no money, no legal authority, and no staff, its aspirations have always exceeded its influence. Even on those rare occasions when it has done something it hasn’t done it well; the local “historic district’’ established adjacent to the Lincoln home area, for instance, is remarkable for allowing parking ramps among its permissible uses.
The aim of the registry, like all such rosters, is to foster preservation by identifying those structures, buildings and otherwise, which in the words of the adopting ordinance have “significant and enduring historical, architectural, archeological, and/or cultural value to the citizens of Springfield.” The initial list includes forty-nine such structures—buildings, statues, bandstands, bridges, even a dam. Additions to the registry will be made as time goes on, both by the SHSC and via the SHSC by petition from the public.
The SHSC says the job took two years, but you’d never know that by looking. The commission did not survey the city itself, but merely reviewed previous inventories done in the 1970s by the Illinois Department of Conservation. Some 250 sites were evaluated using a form devised for use in Decatur, which will give you some idea. Points are awarded each structure according to its putative architectural, historical, and cultural significance, as well as its physical condition and its relation to its environment. Seven or more points and you win a cookie; fewer than seven and they’ll make a drive-in bank out of you.
In devising this evaluative system, states the SHSC, the “overriding element [is] simplicity.” Simple-minded is closer to the truth. The form is typical of those used in so-called preliminary “windshield surveys.” Structures are either “good” or “fair,” their significance either “major” or “minor.” Close comparison is impossible; the form allows neither detail nor subtle distinctions.
In this case, however, the form followed the function. Criteria for each of the various evaluative categories are vague or contradictory or nonexistent. (There is no stated standard of age, for example, even though there are no post-World War II structures considered.) The system suffers too from conceptual incoherence typical of volunteer groups. For example, one can argue that the Federal Building does not have national historical significance (as the SHSC alleges) merely because it is the national government that owns it.
And while John Palmer and Richard Yates and Pierre Menard may have been significant figures in state history, that in itself does not make the statues of them on the statehouse lawn significant. Yet those statues—none of them conspicuous works of art—are on the initial list, along with those of Lincoln and Douglas and Szaton’s hopelessly romanticized coal miner. This mistaking of the singer for the song runs throughout the registry process. I would like to see Washington Park on the registry. (Not so strange; Paul Goldberger points out that the two best architectural landmarks in New York City, the Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park, are not buildings.) It deserves to be included, not because it was named after old George, but because of its value as a piece of design and its local associations.
Naturally, people will disagree about the merits of the design of buildings, and disagree as well about the merits of their builders. The SHSC tried to standardize the evaluation process, which merely organizes bias rather than eliminating it. But even if objectivity is a hopeless goal, one may still reasonably hope that evaluations be informed and consistent. These recommendations are neither; the present occupants of several buildings are misidentified, and ownership is sometimes misplaced.
Worse, several of the buildings surveyed officially have no physical condition at all, having been dismissed by the SHSC as “seriously deteriorated.” The commission also refused to award preservation points for architectural significance to buildings which have been so “severely altered” that they “cannot be restored because of the financial . . . restraints." Thus are salvageable buildings, such as some fine old houses on North Fifth, consigned to the dump—a foolish practice made even more foolish by the SHSC’s failure to define “financial restraints.” For example, the John Johnson house on South Second, which then housed the American Legion, was judged to be beyond redemption—the same building that a local businessman has since begun restoring inside and out for use as a corporate headquarters. The Weber house on Seventh Street, which earned seven points, would have earned none before Nanchen Scully restored it, as would have the Beedle house near Lincoln’s home and the Hickox house on East Capitol. As these and other projects prove—members of an historic sites commission would seem to be the last people to whom one should need to point this out—many buildings which appear in irretrievable decline by the ignorant not only can be rescued but can be made to turn a profit.
Would that one could say as much about the SHSC. Error is piled upon error in the registry project, like bricks in a wall. (Even including the name. “Register” is usually preferred to “registry” to describe such a catalog.) Even if one knew absolutely nothing about the group—a condition endured, so far without complaint, by probably 98 percent of the city—one could draw an accurate portrait of the membership from its collective judgment on the historical or cultural significance of these structures. The Kumler Methodist Church earned no points for local historical significance while St. Paul’s Episcopal Church did, which says more about the panel’s views of the relative merits of Methodists and Episcopalians than it does about the churches. The Ferguson house on North Fifth is cited as historically significant for no other apparent reason than it was once lived in by a socially prominent banker—harmless enough flattery, except that no home of a miner, mayor, or even newspaperman was similarly honored. A house on South Sixth even earned a point for minor cultural significance because it was sold to the founder of the Sangamo Club in 1882!
In the absence of any supporting research, judgments as to the cultural significance of structures were just as arbitrary. Apparently churches were automatically awarded a point for minor cultural significance. (Except for the Springfield Catholic cathedral, which got two, presumably because it’s a big church.) The commissioners won my admiration by also giving a point to a gas station, but lost it again by refusing to give a point to the old State movie house.
As noted, structures were also ranked according to how well they related to their environments. Here again the criterion was simple to the point of idiocy. Attention was paid to scale with no regard for stylistic harmony. Edwards Place, the hideout of the Springfield Art Association, earned top marks in spite of an offensive new wing. So did the Marine Bank, whose Academic Revival facade looks almost embarrassed amid the ersatz Greek columns of its recent expansion.
Most incredibly of all, the former Herndon’s store on South Sixth, a piece of Shopping Center Kitsch which the Department of Conservation experts dismissed as a “modern intrusion” into a block of mostly nineteenth-century commercial buildings, earned top marks too—marks which according to the SHSC’s own criteria are to be awarded only to structures which are part of a “strongly homogenous” block.
It’s instructive to consider the buildings that aren’t on the proposed registry. Not all the city’s good buildings were evaluated; the principal inventory from which the commission worked was itself merely a representative, rather than a comprehensive, listing. As a result, of the twenty-seven buildings which form the core of the National Register of Historic Places’ downtown Springfield historic district (two of which have since burned or been razed), seven were not even considered for the local registry. More telling is the fact that of the twenty such buildings in the historic district which were considered by the SHSC, only eight were deemed fit for the registry. One may conclude either that the SHSC has higher standards than the National Register, or, more plausibly, that the SHSC has no standards at all.
Enough. The Springfield city council has adopted this initial registry. Being sane men who feel a responsibility to their public, the council members did not ask my advice on how to vote. But if they had, I would have told them to vote no. The registry confers no status to these places, and the SHSC, true to its traditions, shrank from suggesting any restrictive or punitive ordinance which might actually help protect these properties from ruin; like most people of their background, they over-estimate the influence of membership in exclusive clubs.
Besides, people might read it, and then everybody would know what so far is clear only to a few, namely that official Springfield, in spite of its pretensions otherwise, really neither knows nor cares about history. ●