Monument to a Dead Building
The “lost” lintel from the old Lincoln Library
November 24, 2010
“My” library growing up was Lincoln Library, Springfield’s public library, then housed in an Andrew Carnegie-funded building that opened in 1904. It was neither beautiful nor a practical library space, but it did shout, in a classical architectural accent, “Learning Is Important.”
The old building was torn down and replaced in the 1970s. There was little talk of preserving it, as the City of Springfield had no money to buy another lot. A few bits of ornament had been saved. The discovery of one of them, forgotten until 1910, prompted this piece.
My column about it was not one of my best, and it was not improved by my error in perpetuating a misreading of the library’s role in the larger Carnegie library project. The goof was brought my attention by Mike Kienzler, the newspaperman-turned-historian who edits Sangamon Link, the online library of information about Springfield area history made available by the Sangamon County Historical Society. I dithered about correcting the published version online, then forgot all about it until I recently reread Mike’s excellent history of the library building at https://sangamoncountyhistory.org/wp/?p=6686
From Kienzler we learn that Carnegie became aware of the structural problems in many of the libraries he helped finance and regretted that he had wasted his money on buildings with "no practical library plan. Too many pillars.” Writes Kienzler, “The context of the quotation leaves the impression that Carnegie was referring specifically to Springfield’s library. That’s the wrong impression.”
All the Carnegie libraries were wasteful of space, not just Springfield’s. The version below corrects that misimpression. While I was at it, I fixed some other minor errors and smoothed some bumpy prose.
As far as I know as of 2021, the long-missing relic from the old building was never publicly displayed or otherwise used and languishes still in storage.
What, I wonder, is the overdue fine on a library lintel that was lost for 36 years? The carved stone lintel that stood atop the main entrance to the old Lincoln Library building had been salvaged when the building was demolished in 1974 and trucked to a storage yard at the state fairgrounds. There it sat forgotten until workers ran across it earlier this month.
Springfield’s public library had been run for many years out of a succession of rented spaces downtown. It got a building of its own only after someone else paid for it, specifically Andrew Carnegie, who gave the city $75,000 for the purpose in 1901. As designed by the St. Louis firm of Mauran, Russell and Garden, it was a temple to Culture. Entering it, one passed from the street under the recently rediscovered lintel, through a vestibule with wainscotting in Genoa Alps green marble into an entry hall from which led a formal staircase that split left and right that took one up to the high-ceilinged main floor illuminated by arched skylights and rooms whose entrances were framed by Ionic columns.
I loved that building—I have a drawing of it by long-time Illinois Times artist William Crook on a wall in my home—but sentiment does not change the fact was that it was a lousy place in which to house a library. The interior layout was almost laughably inefficient; I can’t think of an enclosure that had less usable space for its volume, unless it would be the inside of Roland Burris’s head.
In an interesting Web history of the Carnegie libraries, Leigh Kimmel reports that more than a few towns squandered the Carnegie money through poor planning and “ill-conceived grand architecture.” According to Kimmel, Springfield’s building was typical of the rest, being “a chaos of columns and wasted air space.” Those early libraries so provoked the old capitalist that he mandated that future projects of the sort be more simply designed to ensure that future donees got working libraries for his money and not architectural statements about Learning.
Small and inefficient, the Carnegie building was replaced in 1974. The architects who designed the new library erred as egregiously on the side of practicality as their predecessors had erred on the side of grandiosity; told that the old library lacked space, the architects gave Springfield a public library that offered only space.
A lousy library facility the Carnegie library might have been, but the building should have been saved for other purposes, perhaps to house public galleries and meeting rooms and the library’s local history collection. Fat chance. Sensible citizens did at least salvage bits and pieces of it. The Roman Cultural Society installed six of the columns salvaged from the wreck in the Society-funded garden in Washington Park.
Across Illinois one finds the relics of sanctified public buildings on display, like the bones of saints. Germania was a statue representing Germany that stood at one of the entrances to the German section of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Built to advertise the virtues of Portland cement, the work was discarded after the fair and used as fill in the construction of the nearby lakefront. Germania rose from the dead in 2002 when its broken remnants were found during construction work; the only surviving statue of the army of statues carved for the fair, the remnant was mounted in 2003 in a park shelter at 56th Street and South Shore Drive not far from the old fair site.
When the Art Institute’s main lobby was renovated in the 1980s, decorative objects from the AI’s collection of architectural holy relics from that city’s dead buildings were mounted on the walls of the balconies overlooking the grand staircase. There are displayed elevator grilles from Louis Sullivan’s Stock Exchange building, leaded glass windows by Frank Lloyd Wright, ornamental friezes, finials and lighting fixtures, even a column capital. Outside, at the museum’s Columbus Avenue entrance, is the entrance arch from the Stock Exchange, which the American Institute of Architects Guide to Chicago appropriately calls “the Wailing Wall of Chicago’s preservation movement.”
Something like would do for the lintel. Rather than leave it to rot unseen at the fairgrounds, why not mount the lintel as an outdoor sculpture in a public place—preferably the grounds of the municipal government complex, within view of the council chambers. Aldermen would be reminded of the folly of poorly planned and ill-conceived public projects that remove from the community things that cannot be replaced. A war memorial of sorts, that says to passersby, Never again! ●
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