Springfield's daily builds a new home
July 3, 1981
It has been reported that the late critic Clive James used to annoy his newspaper colleagues by laughing out loud at his own jokes as he put them down on paper. No one has ever been able to accuse me of that, but only because I have always worked alone. This piece has a couple of good ones, and not all of them require an intimate knowledge of Springfield.
As for the topic under consideration that week, the opening of the new SJR headquarters would prove a high point in the paper's history, if not in the history of Springfield architecture; the building still stands in good shape but the institution inside it has since crumbled into ruins.
When I first saw the gaping hole in the ground at Ninth and Capitol in downtown Springfield the other day, my first thought was that it was being dug in preparation for LincolnFest—you know, a latrine maybe, or a bear pit. Then I remembered that Ninth and Capitol is the site of the State Journal-Register's new $8 million office building. The building is the latest in a reported $18 million worth of capital improvements, from new presses and a new production building to computerized typesetting systems,which the Copley Press has installed since the early 1970s. This investment, as the SJR proudly states, is a testament to the paper's "firm conviction in the strength and vitality of the Springfield market." Of course, it is also a testament to the efficiencies of monopoly economics. here are those of us who think that if the Springfield market were so strong it would support two dailies, but like they say, I've never had to meet a payroll.
Even so, when the building plan was unveiled in May, I was delighted to hear that the Copley chain was doing so well, if only because it keeps busy dozens of retired generals of the sort who keep General Pinochet as a pen pal; were they not busy lunching with Helen and the gang, one suspects, they'd be out plotting rightist coups. I was even gladder to hear that the building would be built downtown. I am glad when anything is built downtown. It's gotten so bad lately that SCADA holds a ribbon-cutting ceremony when a new mailbox is installed.
So what hath Copley wrought? The building was designed by the local firm of Ferry & Henderson, the same firm which designed the SJR's production building which stands immediately east of the office site and which was opened in 1973. F&H is a vastly popular firm which was to the Springfield of the 1970s what Baron Georges Haussmann was to Paris in the reign of Napoleon III. To their critics, F&H buildings are like McDonald's hamburgers: They're not very nourishing but you always know what you're going to get when you order one. The firm has done the Lincoln Home Visitors Center, the new Marine Bank, the First National Bank's bridge-like drive-in bank, the First Methodist Church, Sangamon State University's Public Affairs Center (which, remarked a professor I know) "looks like it was designed by Dali, if he'd gone to one of those schools that specialize in dormitory architecture"), and the State of Illinois' mammoth new Revenue Center. Ferry & Henderson also drafted the state's master plan for Capitol complex development which, although it quickly joined the Thompson Proposition in the state's archives of forgotten documents, nevertheless made for an undeniably handsome brochure.
The SJR building will consist of three levels above ground and one below. The upper floors will be symmetrically arranged on either side of a cylindrical atrium that will pierce the front of the building from top to bottom. The atrium will, as the SJR has said, be the most dominant architectural feature, if only by default. At first glance it looks something like a thumb, buried up to the last knuckle, with a sloping glass nail. At second glance it struck me as vaguely Persian, rather like the embassies the Shah was building before his recent demise. An architecture critic I know dubbed it Mobil Gas Moderne.
The design might lack distinction—which makes it a better building for the SJR than it may first appear—but it at least is not actually offensive, which is a compliment considering some of the other major buildings that have gone up downtown in the last twenty years. Across the street from the SJR site, for instance, stands the Sangamon County building, which is so ugly that the county board has yet to find anyone it hates enough to name it after. A few blocks up the street stands the Springfield Hilton Hotel, nee Forum 30, whose nickname is unprintable in a family paper, and the Prairie Capital Convention Center, which not only looks like a fallen souffle but is, like a souffle, mostly empty inside.
I was interested to read that the paper's advertising department will be housed on the first floor while the news room will be located on the third or top floor. As a journalist, this arrangement strikes me as reflecting a just and fitting relationship between the business and the news operation of a newspaper. Indeed, although the new set-up may be more convenient, it is hardly an improvement over the SJR's present arrangement, in which the ad department and the news room are housed not only on separate floors but in separate buildings. I trust that two stories is sufficient distance to enable the SJR's top editors from confusing one department with the other. The new newsroom, by the way, will feature a relatively unobstructed view of the statehouse, seven blocks to the west down Capitol Avenue. This no doubt will serve as an inspiration to the younger staffers. It might also boost the productivity of the older staffers, since instead of being just a block away, Norb Andy's will be three blocks away. Rumor has it that a shuttle bus is not beyond the realm of possibility.
People who have seen them say that the newsroom floor plans show more desks than there are reporters to fill them, leading them to wonder whether the plans portend a much-to-be-desired increase in reporting staff. It seems unlikely. While the Copley Press has been investing its $18 million in hardware it has been trimming back its editorial staff. The result is something like television—a triumph of technology over content. The SJR is a handsomer paper than it was five years ago but it is arguable whether it is a better one, in spite of the talents of its staff. The budget reflects a fundamental imbalance of means and ends common to journalism today; using their fancy new presses to print four-color peanut butter cookie recipes is like digging dandelions with a Tiffany spoon.
This is not the first time the paper has moved. In one form or another it or its predecessors have occupied a half-dozen homes downtown. The State Journal-Register is the bastard child of the Republican Illinois State Journal and the Democratic Illinois State Register, one which, like most hybrids, has proven sterile. The Copley Press bought the Journal in 1928, and leased the Register from 1942 until it bought it outright in 1967.
The Register's last headquarters was in the 600 block of East Monroe. In 1931 the paper installed a handsome terra cotta facade on its existing three-story building, which was not to be the last time that a Springfield business put on a false front. It was a pleasant if conventional period design then common on commercial buildings. The building still stands, its upper floor sadly vacant and awaiting an intelligent re-developer. [Note: It was later destroyed and replaced by a parking lot.)
When the Register was leased by Copley in 1942, it moved into the Journal's present quarters a half block away on Sixth Street. That building was built in 1929, and like the Register building boasts a terra cotta facade—although a somewhat more exuberant one. Plate glass windows on the sidewalk side revealed the presses in the basement, and passersby would often gather to get the latest news or just to watch the presses run; Evelyn Wood graduates could read the paper while it was being printed and thus save themselves a dime. But in 1968 the first floor was remodeled. The windows were blocked in and the facade decorated with glued gravel—although why a landlord would want to make a building resemble a driveway is beyond me.
So incongruous was the resulting terra cotta/gravel combo that many of us living in Springfield at the time assumed there was some other reason for the change. The Copley Press was believed to be paranoid on the subject of race riots—the local Copley paper was spoken of in black neighborhoods in the same breath as the Klan and George Wallace—and it was widely assumed that the windows were closed to protect the vulnerable presses from street violence. Someone—not me—dubbed the result "Riot Moderne." The old building may be put up for sale. It'd be a bargain; there's enough rock on it to make a real nice patio.
When it's done, the SJR will be written in the finest news room on the finest equipment and printed on the finest press in the finest production facility available. Unfortunately, all that will not necessarily make the SJR the finest newspaper available. The Copley Press has built a thriving business in Springfield. Now perhaps it can turn its talents to building a thriving newspaper. A newspaper is harder to build than an office and nearly as expensive—but it's more worth bragging about. ●