A Poor Piece of Work
Tidying up the Lincoln home area by paving it
June 10, 1977
The City of Springfield has, in general, been a poor steward of the Abraham Lincoln house neighborhood. That record had much to do with the decision in the 1970s to hand over the house lot and four surrounding city blocks to the National Park Service to protect it from creeping blight and garish commercial development. One understands why when considering this proposal to establish an historic district on land abutting the NPS site.
Note that the handsome Graham House mentioned below has survived, but three of the buildings in that block of Seventh Street, including the Prince Sanitarium, have been destroyed for parking.
There is presently threading its way through the city's bureaucratic maze a proposed ordinance calling for an amendment to Article XV, Chapter 49 of the Springfield City Code. The amendment would establish an historical district along the west side of South Seventh Street between Capitol and Edwards, similar to the historical districts which now control development in the neighborhoods of Lincoln's home and the governor's mansion. The ordinance was prepared after much discussion by the fifteen men and women of the Springfield Historical Sites Commission. It reveals much about why historic preservation is in such a parlous state in the Capital City, and for that reason deserves a closer look.
The major provisions of the ordinance are straightforward enough. The amendment it proposes is intended to insure that "development of the property directly fronting the . . . Lincoln Visitors" Center will not be incompatible with the historic heritage of the area." This will be done by requiring that "the exterior design of the buildings in the district will be in harmony with the historic shrines" in the neighborhood. The amendment establishes specific design standards governing building height, setback requirements, sign size and placement, landscaping and so on.
The goal is laudable. The amendment itself, alas, is not. Consider if you will Sec. 49.15.17, which sets height limits for buildings within the district. Early drafts of the proposal included a fifty-foot ceiling on buildings (roughly five stories). The fifty-foot limit did not, however, survive the City council. When the amendment was circulated among the council members informally a few weeks ago, they—not wishing to handcuff the movers and shakers who might want to develop property in the district—said they would approve the measure only if the height limit was raised to 250 feet. The HSC obligingly agreed to the revision on a vote of nine to four—this in spite of the fact that it would be impossible to build any twenty-five story building which by its nature is not, in the words of the amendment, "obviously incongruous with the Lincoln Home National Historic Site."
Nearly as vexing was the issue of allowable uses. Originally the commission had considered adopting the relatively modest list of uses now allowed in the city's two existing historical districts. But several members argued that this, too, would make for a not-quite-free-enough brand of free enterprise. So the commission appropriated (with some deletions, such as taxidermists, taxi stands, and physical culture studios) the more generous list of uses allowed under S-3, or commercial, zoning. The resulting list sanctions no fewer than fifty-two different uses. They range from churches and private residences to hardware stores, brokerage houses, department stores, hotels and motels, commercial museums, taverns, and parking facilities. Massage parlors are frowned on, as are-drive-ins, but just about anything else goes.
It is curious, though considering the commission's record not surprising, that there is not a single word in the four-page proposal about actually preserving any of the buildings now standing in the district. They include the Prince Sanitarium and the 115-year-old Graham house three doors to the south, plus several other structures which, though of more recent vintage, share a common scale. Together they give these two blocks an intimacy and sense of proportion rare in Springfield. That kind of environment is worth saving, and no amount of landscaping, no amount of sign control could restore what a twenty-five story hotel or a parking ramp would destroy.
The provisions of the amendment controlling signs, setbacks, and landscaping are badly needed (and not just in historical districts) and I for one will be glad to see them added to the code. But on the whole the amendment as proposed is a failure. It does nothing significant to insure that development in the area will be "in harmony with the historic shrines in the district." It betrays a pro-development bias more seemly in a chamber of commerce than in an historical sites commission. And it fails even to address the issue of preservation in one of the center city's more preservable blocks.
To their credit, a few commission members have fought against the weakening of the amendment by their fellow commissioners and the city council. (It was the council, led by the mayor, that raised the height limit to 250 feet. They also fretted over possible objections by property owners. So, showing the solicitousness that surfaces whenever tax money is at stake, they ordered that copies of the draft be circulated among the owners for comment.)
Between them, the council and the commission that advises them have done a poor piece of work one that tells us everything we need to know about the Historical Sites Commission. ●