The Famous Architect's
Jahn? Parking ramp? Springfield?
Illinois Times May 13, 2021
In a 2001 column for Illinois Times I titled “Architectural dreams” I noted that Springfield is home to four building designed by major national and international firms. None is among the best work of these firms, and it is easy to assume that they were churned out by junior members of their staffs. (The exception is a house redo by Frank Lloyd Wright, who was his own staff.)
In that column I did not mention is that a convention center parking ramp in downtown Springfield that was done by the late Helmut Jahn when he was design principal at the Chicago firm of C. F. Murphy. The claim that Jahn Jahn in his heyday designed some very good buildings in Illinois, my favorites being his Xerox building at Dearborn and Monroe, United Airline’s Terminal One at O’Hare, and a stylish condo tower at 1000 S. Michigan Avenue. He also designed some good buildings that were never built, such as a new main library for Chicago, and one that should have been built better—the State of Illinois Center on Randolph at Clark.
The Springfield project appears in his catalog raisonné but is hardly a major work, owing to the circumstances of its construction. When Jahn died in May 2021, my editor at IT asked me to reflect on that forgotten commission.
This version varies slightly from the published one.
If you had asked cosmopolitan Springfieldians in 1990 or so to name the Springfield parking ramp designed by flamboyant German American architect Helmut Jahn, most would have pointed to the municipal ramp at 7th and Monroe. As built in 1967, its louvered façade of precast concrete slats made it one of the handsomest structures of any kind in the capital.
They would have been wrong. The city ramp was the work of Springfield’s Ferry & Henderson with Ralph Hahn and Associates. A block up 7th Street is the one Jahn designed. Jahn—who died May 8 after running a stop sign in the Fox River valley (he was 81 and on a bicycle, a very Jahnian death) was a young partner in the 1970s at the Chicago firm of C.F. Murphy and Associates. He was tasked with the design of the parking ramp being built for the new convention center complex.
The Springfield Metropolitan Exposition and Auditorium Authority had asked the developer of the adjacent hotel to give SMEAA more ramp than they had money for and also demanded design changes that left Jahn testily asking them why they hired a professional for the job if they didn’t plan to listen to him. The result, as you can see today, ain’t edifyin.’
You’d have thought that his Springfield experience would have put John off public building projects in Illinois but he persisted. Jahn’s proposed main public library for Chicago was rejected in 1988 by a competition jury that chose instead to spend $150 million to build of the worst major buildings in Chicago because it “looked more like a library.” J. B. Pritzker said that what is now known as the Thompson Center, which opened in Chicago’s Loop in 1985, was a building” that never lived up to his creative genius” but that was being kind; “Starship Chicago” was a great government center but a lousy office building.
Jahn was never going to get a chance to design the new state library that opened in 1990—see “Unbalanced structure”—but we can regret he didn’t live to submit a proposal for a new Stratton Building. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
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 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.
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.
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.
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."
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 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” 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."
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.
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.
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
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
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.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
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.
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.
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
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.
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.