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More burg than Beauburg

Public architecture of the capital is not capital

Illinois Times

September 28, 1979

Being the state capital and a county seat, Springfield has more than a few public buildings of all types. Few are good examples of their type, save one, which was an avowed imitation of older structures. They have not ennobled the city, but that might be demanding too much; Springfield is probably beyond ennobling by even the greatest architecture.


The  new courts complex mentioned here was never built, by the way. And I did an injustice to Springfield's Municipal Building by describing it as dull. It is in fact a good if modest building in the neo-Art Deco style. It also illustrates the maxim that today's new buildings that disappoint will be favorites in 40 years, because everything else built in the interim will always be worse.


This version has been revised slightly for readability.


I was strolling west on Adams Street in downtown Springfield not long ago, busily dodging wrecking balls and asphalt pavers, when I passed the new computer center being built bv the State of Illinois on the north edge of the Capitol complex. I usually go to some pains to avoid looking at the building, which resembles a half-open bread box; it is perhaps the only lot in the city 1 would rather see made into a parking lot. In any event, the computer center reminded me of the new Department of Revenue building going up two blocks to its north, which in turn reminded me of the courts complex planned for Fifth and Capitol, which in turn reminded me that, because it is a center of government, most of Springfield’s major buildings are public buildings. (It is important to distinguish between public buildings and public structures. The latter include some of the city’s more graceful designs—the Lindsay Bridge is an example—and its least; the new parking ramp at the Prairie Capital Convention Center, for example, has a lot more burg that Beaubourg about it.)


There are a few maxims worth remembering about the design of public buildings, especially in the smaller cities of the Midwest. One is that they must always be designed in idioms that are from ten to twenty years old. This is a persistent motif in government; it is the principle by which governments order their problem-solving priorities.


Another maxim holds that public buildings be designed in one of apparently numberless variants of the classic style. This is a broad net that sweeps in a clutch of Revivals and Neos but which has at its root a commitment to a certain classical proportion, symmetry, and style of ornament; it includes (their apparent dissimilarities notwithstanding) such buildings as the state armory and the Stratton office building.


The result isn’t necessarily buildings that are ugly—the computer center being an exception to that and most other rules about public buildings—so much as they are dull. My particular favorite is the newest Sangamon County Building. Built in 1966 (and outmoded less than a dozen years later) in an anemic International style, it aspires to a certain spare elegance but remains a blot on the landscape. Part of its costs went for marble which is used to its unhappiest effect in the corridors. In the hands of the craftsmen of the last century, the marble in the new statehouse imparts warmth and visual variety; in the spartan style of the ’50s used in the county building, it imparts coldness and distance. Whenever I visit the place, I half expect a mausoleum salesman to appear at my elbow explaining to me what a comfort it would be to my loved ones if I let myself be planted in such a stout box.


The Municipal Building is also dull, but in a friendlier way. If I had to compare them. I’d say that the county building makes you feel unwelcome; the city hall makes you feel welcome, but you can’t think of why you came. If the League of Women Voters ever sell enough cookies to build a place of their own, that’s what it will look like.


The State of Illinois is Springfield’s busiest builder, of course. Most of its major buildings were done in the neoclassic style so long favored by governments trying to lend themselves a grandeur they did not deserve; clothes might make the man, but buildings do not make the government. There has been a wave of new state buildings in the last twenty years, of course, but as different as the new arrivals appear from their older cousins like the Centennial Building, they all share a deep conservatism of design. The designs for the state’s new courts complex and its revenue building, which between them will transform four full square blocks of downtown Springfield, have not been made public. We must hope for the best, which in the case of the state is a very ambitious hope indeed.


In the meantime we may study the two newest additions to the taxpayers’ asset inventory. The new Lincoln Library is a better library than its predecessor—even though, inevitably, its roof leaked—but it is probably not a handsomer design. Because of its upper-story overhang (built for energy conservation) and because it is too large for its site, it looks like an aircraft carrier at its moorings.

The building that everyone is talking about, however, is the Prairie Capital Convention Center. Not so much its design (which reminds me of the Titantic for reasons that have nothing to do with its shape) but for its construction. Convention centers around the country have shown a dismaying tendency to fall down lately. Wind did it in Kansas City, snow did it in Hartford, a jet plane helped do it in Rosemont. and people are setting up pools to see who guesses what might do it in Springfield, and when. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it isn’t safe. It’s just that if I were the manager, I wouldn’t go around tempting fate by advertising shows that will bring the house down. I mean it’s one thing to have our public buildings put us to sleep, but it’s quite another to have them put us to rest. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

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 Encyclopedia of Chicago


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.

Illinois Great Places

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.

McLean County Museum

of History

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."

Illinois Digital Archives


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 Illinois State Museum


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

“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. 

History on the Fox

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

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

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.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

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.

University of

Illinois Press

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.

University of

Chicago Press

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

Vivian Maier.

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. 


Illinois Center for the Book

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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