A loss to the arts—but oh, the banking convenience!
December 16, 1977
Exhibit No. 1 in the case against Springfield as a home for the arts is the destruction of the Orpheum Theater complex downtown. Its loss sparked the formation of as much as a preservationist movement as venal ol' Springfield is ever likely to see, not that it's made much difference in the years since. If tomorrow a local developer proposed to rezone Lincoln's tomb as a self-storage facility, thus putting it on the tax rolls, the city council would ask only, “How big do you want the sign?”
Springfield is not the only Illinois city with an Orpheum. Waukegan, for example, managed to do with its Genesee Theatre what Springfield could not with the Orpheum, although in fairness that resurrection took place forty years after the Orpheum was razed, when attitudes and government preservation policy had advanced.
Mourning the past does not resurrect it. But it can sometimes be useful, if only to remind people of the costs paid by the present for mistakes made in the past. The case in point is a familiar one: Springfield’s Orpheum Theater.
The Orpheum stood on Fifth just south of Jefferson Street, one of those plaster-and-gilt confections that lived up to the hyperbolic phrase “movie palace.” It had been built in 1927 as a way station for vaudevillians traveling the old Orpheum circuit. It flourished as a vaudeville house and later as a movie theater for thirty-eight years. But hard times hit in the 1950s. Television made it possible for people to be entertained at home. Box office receipts thinned. By the 1960s, the Orpheum, whose 2,750 seats had made it the biggest theater between Chicago and St. Louis, slipped into the red.
The Illinois National Bank in those days was doing business out of a converted men’s wear store at Fifth and Washington, just up the street, and needed room to expand. Other banks were building drive-in windows and the INB felt obliged to do the same. To make room for the new drive-in facilities, the bank bought the Orpheum and, in 1965, reduced it to rubble.
The story so far is a familiar one. But though the Orpheum is gone its ghost refuses to lie quietly. The stage at the Orpheum—which was designed, remember, to accommodate live performances—its cavernous capacity, and its acoustics made it a first-rate auditorium for the performing arts. Its destruction was a loss the town is still trying to make up.
One example: Virginia Riser Scott wrote in the Illinois Times recently about the Springfield Ballet Company’s need for a stage measuring fifty by forty feet with a fifty-foot flyspace for scenery. “Ironically," she said, "the city had such a theater in the old Orpheum.’’ Three years ago the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, one of the world’s finest, stopped in Springfield on its first downstate tour in years. The only available hall was the Springfield High School auditorium. Because the place holds only 1,200, tickets had to be expensive. Worse, pianist John Browning, traveling with the orchestra, did not perform in Springfield; the SHS stage is not large enough to accommodate both the orchestra and a concert grand piano. More recently, Sangamon State University sponsored a concert appearance by famed Spanish guitar virtuoso Carlos Montoya. He, too, played at SHS. Laments the SSU staffer in charge, “We could have sold 2,000 tickets. But we could only seat 1,200.” Eight hundred people, in short, denied a chance to hear Montoya. When rock bands or folk groups come to town, they play in ice rinks, cafeterias, or gymnasiums.
The search for a replacement for the Orpheum continues with gathering urgency as the arts renaissance locally makes the need for one more and more acute. At first it was thought a performing arts facility could be built into the Prairies Capital Convention Center, but inflation caught up with that hope. Locals lobbied next for the addition of an auditorium to SSU’s planned Public Affairs Center. But getting money for the project (whose costs repeatedly exceeded estimates) from the General Assembly proved difficult—especially in the face of resentment that the taxpayers of Moline and Carbondale and Kankakee should foot the bill for Springfield’s arts facility. Funding is imminent, but even when built it will provide what SSU officials admit is only a “limited fine arts capability.”
Few people argue that tearing down the Orpheum was a mistake, (except maybe the bank). But could it have been saved in 1965? Probably not. Movie houses in the 1950s and 1960s were converted into furniture stores and meat markets and parking lots by the hundreds. A recent article in American Film reveals that the number of movie theaters in America skidded from a high of 18,631 in 1948 to 9,150 in 1963—a drop of 51 percent. The Orpheum's future as a movie house was over by 1965. There was talk, however, of again using the Orpheum for live performances, this time by local arts groups. It would have done admirably. But the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, the most logical new tenant, could not afford to even maintain such a palace, much less buy it. Theater and dance groups were too small, too poor or already had facilities of their own. The government, which could have afforded to save such buildings, chose not to, and tax incentives available to today’s owners did not become part of the law until years later.
But . . . . It may be ceded that arts groups alone could not have kept the Orpheum open without necessarily ceding that demolition was the only option left. The Orpheum was more than just a theater; it was part of a three-story complex which stretched from Jefferson south on Fifth to an alley at mid-block. The ground floor space along that half-block was occupied by a variety of retail shops and restaurants; the upper floors were offices; the old Orpheum ballroom had been converted for use as a laboratory by the state’s Department of Public Health (itself is an early example of adaptive reuse). The complex provided rich opportunities for redevelopment as commercial, office, and residential space. Revenues from other parts of the complex would have subsidized the losses incurred by the theater. But, far from realized, these opportunities were not even investigated. It is easy to cast the bank as the villain in the piece; it was not—at least not the only one. The best that can be said about the INB is that it acted no more irresponsibly than any other bank would have in similar circumstances.
There are several reasons why the Orpheum should have been saved. It was an irreplaceable work of craftmanship, if not art, a symbol of an era, the sentimental Mecca of a generation of film-loving Springfieldians. Still, none of these reasons was enough in itself to keep the building standing; historic preservationists are sometimes correctly accused of wanting to keep useless old hulks standing as monuments to a dead past. But those who mourn the Orpheum are not mourning a monument. We have been twelve years without a decent place to hear music or watch dance or see a play. We could have used that building. ●