A Lively and Active Neighborhood
The NPS's stage-set authenticity at Lincoln's home
February 11, 1982
It was churlish, I suppose, for me to complain about the National Park Service reconstructing the Lincoln Home neighborhood as if Eighth Street in downtown Springfield was Yosemite. Western parks is what the NPS does, not historic sites. And the NPS has been a better steward than the State of Illinois ever could have been. Still, interpretive opportunities have been lost in the home neighborhood.
It's a little bit of Virginia, right here in Illinois. Abraham Lincoln's house in Springfield since 1971 has been owned and operated by the National Park Service, those wonderful people who brought you Yellowstone Park. Like many adoptees it has changed its name, from Lincoln's home to the Lincoln Home National Historic Site. The house and the four city blocks around it have been transformed too, from a shabby rooming house neighborhood into a sort of Williamsburg West. My readers will not be surprised when I say that this has not altogether been a good thing.
In order to appreciate what the Lincoln home site is, it is useful to pause to consider what it is not. It is no longer, in spite of claims in the NPS brochures to the contrary, a neighborhood. Nor, more happily, is it one of what the New York Times in 1978 called "these historic site circuses" such as the Sound and Blight Show which has disfigured the Old State Capitol since 1976. Finally, and most significantly, it is not—in spite of the hard work expended by the NPS—a "nineteenth-century environment." These four city blocks are prettier than they used to be. Even if the ten newly restored houses in the "historic core" on Eighth Street look better now than they did when they were new, as I suspect, they are so handsome that one is willing to forgive their restorers their departure from strict verisimilitude.
Even with these triumphs, alas, the site remains less than the sum of its parts. Consider for example the problem of Seventh Street. Before the federal cavalry liberated it, this two-block stretch was one of Springfield's more pleasant urban thoroughfares. It harbored a church, a potpourri of nineteenth-century houses mixed with later office and apartment buildings which, though undistinguished individually, nevertheless were sympathetic to their elders in both materials and scale. It was home to law offices, a few unobtrusive small businesses, apartment dwellers, medical people. Today they are (except for the church and the Italianate Stuve house which is used by the NPS as offices) all gone. The rest, to paraphrase the bard, is parking lots.
Prior to the NPS takeover, parking for visitors had been provided on Ninth Street, a major traffic artery which skirts the rear of the home, a block away. However the NPS and local Lincolnites, acting on the quite justified assumption that the average American tourist is an idiot, worried about traffic, and that approaching the home from the back so confused some visitors that there was a risk that they would turn around and drive straight back to Terre Haute without eating that hamburger or buying that tankful of gas the tourism commission is always telling us about. So new lots were built on Seventh for both buses and cars, and Ninth Street was graced with noise-buffering green space.
The decision to put parking lots along Seventh Street was understandable, even predictable, given the marketing imperatives which shape the history biz these days. I am more interested in the many failures of design at the site as a whole. A peculiar dissonance pervades these four blocks, which is the mark of an underlying confusion of means and ends. The components of the site, from its restored buildings to its water fountains, often are at odds with each other. The low-slung and angular visitors center, for example, is stylistically at odds with the boxy 19th-century architecture of the rest of the buildings in the site, in spite of the architects' stated aim of recalling the tin-roofed outbuildings of the period; I am fascinated by the number of tourists who seem to gravitate toward the Stuve house instead of the visitors center, as if they saw in that Italianate house a more plausible official link to the area than in the center's self-consciously allusive jumble of brick.
This dissonance extends to the little things as well. Many of the signs are done up in the NPS's official Webelo wood-burning style; though merely affected in Yellowstone, they are jarring in an urban setting. Every tree, every bush is so manicured that it feels more like an HO model train set than a city; I have often been tempted to squeeze the trees to make sure they weren't made of painted sponge. I'd bet a beer that if you picked up a stone and turned it over you'd find a National Park Service inventory number stenciled on the underside.
This stage-set unreality goes to the heart of why Lincoln's house, in spite of its virtues as a piece of restoration, fails in its broader mission to evoke the past. Officially, the NPS aimed to make this bit of Eighth Street an "island in time" (its words) which would "reflect, as closely as practical, it appearance during Lincoln's occupancy." Yet every detail of the site outside the house itself works against this illusion—plastic trash bags inserted in the nineteenth-century rain barrels, the traffic barrier erected by the city back in the 1960s which still stand across Eighth Street.
Then there's all that grass. The NPS razed the nonperiod houses in the "historic core" of the site, leaving eight or nine vacant lots. The agency's plans apparently do not call for the eventual reconstruction of the buildings. Instead, the lots have been planted in grass and surrounded by individual wooden fences, every board of which is painted spanking white. The effect is anomalous. The surviving structures are unmistakably urban in character. Yet the two blocks are now so sparsely populated as to convey a rural sense of scale.
It isn't just the scale that has been unsettled. The core is too clean. There are no weeds, no horse droppings, no trash piles, no flies, no nothing. Lincoln could never have lived on that street, because people could never have lived on that street. To quote Shiva Naipal, who was describing an altogether different kind of government project in Africa, it's as "dainty and functionless as a child's toy." For the 1964 World's Fair, the Disney Studios fashioned an "animatronics" robot replica of Lincoln. Springfield officials sought in vain to persuade the Disney people to install the machine in the Lincoln house after the fair. A Lincoln doll in a doll's house. It would have been perfect.
The NPS site is thus awkwardly suspended between two interpretive poles, neither a period reconstruction nor unashamedly a theme park. The ambivalence would evaporate were the NPS to risk moving to one extreme or the other. (I stress NPS; the service is as hidebound as any bureaucracy, and local staff members are very limited in the liberties they may take with policy.) I am intrigued by the possibilities of a full-scale reconstruction in the manner of Massachusetts' Plimouth Plantation. Area university students could research and rebuild the missing . houses, using period tools and techniques, as part of history curricula. Interpretive staff could live on the site—really live there, planting gardens and keeping a few chickens, in effect impersonating the originals during business hours. The object of the enterprise would be to mess it up a bit, make it as dirty and sprawly and noisy as Lincoln knew it to be, a technique which would be incomparably more entertaining and more instructive to boot.
Failing that we might do well to bring the site all the way into the late twentieth century. The staff at the site deserve praise for their attempts to not turn the site into a mausoleum. They have involved local volunteers in site events and made the site's facilities available for community use. In spite of this the site since 1971 still seems somehow in the city but not really a part of it.
This is a shame. The site sits across the street from both the local library and the city-county government complex. It is scarcely five blocks from the center of the downtown district, and only two from what bids to become a new major office area along Ninth Street. A few people who work nearby already take their lunch outdoors in the park-like areas inside the site boundaries; indeed, the low brick wall across from Lincoln's house itself is one of the city's most agreeable spots on a May mid-day.
Even so, the site remains as uninviting as a formal parlor. One is afraid one will kick over a plant stand, or wrinkle a doily. How much better it would be if we were to abandon this halfhearted attempt at period accuracy and make the site a part of the modern city again. One of the reasons locals don't enter the site any more is that there is no longer reason to. If one is to bring people back into the site, one must give them a reason. Lease the restored buildings as law offices, doctor's offices, restaurants (subject to reasonable conditions, of course). Rent others as dwellings. Knock down the fences and open the yards as public park space.
Make the Lincoln home site an urban oasis, in other words, and turn an expensive mummy case into a civic asset. Architecture critic Paul Goldberger offered some advice to the State of New York about the restoration of a row of early nineteenth-century buildings in lower Manhattan which might land profitably on the ears of the NPS in Washington. "May the state resist the temptation to make this a pure and perfect Williamsburg," he wrote, "and may it remain a lively and active neighborhood." That would do more to revivify Lincoln's memory than a hundred interpretive slide shows, and serve it better. ●