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Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
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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! ●
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.
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."
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."
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.
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
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.
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
Northern Illinois University Press
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.
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