Tolling for the Chapel
Progress rolls over the good sisters of Springfield
June 9, 1994
Writing pleas to save and reuse old buildings in Springfield was like putting urgent messages in bottles and tossing them into the surf, and by mid-1994 I had pretty much run out of bottles. A few weeks after this piece appeared I was on my way to the West Coast.
That was a quarter-century ago. Since then a gratifying number of downtown Springfield’s period commercial buildings have been reborn as office, restaurant, or residential spaces. This happy trend has been driven by younger businesspeople, with much help from federal tax credits; nothing in Springfield happens unless the business community wants it, and the city council was as eager to approve such projects as they had been eager to disapprove them in the past. Art and craftsmanship and history still mean little when it comes to preservation policy, only profit potential.
I confess to having a sentimental fondness for the place. As a youth I occasionally visited the old chapel at the Sacred Heart Convent on Springfield's once-west side. Not that I ever attended services, mind you. I was to be found high on the outside of the ninety-one-year-old building, on the fire escape with my high-school friends. Our ambition was neither vandalism nor adventure but contemplation. Our conversations often took a metaphysical turn after midnight in those days, and staring at the moon with a snootful was as close to prayer as I got.
Thus it is that I feel a personal sting at the news that the teaching sisters of the Dominican order want to raze the chapel to expand the Sacred Heart-Griffin High School. School enrollment is booming, at least at the moment. The news (for example) that Springfield High School was considering installing metal detectors—not in the science labs but in the hallways—ignited a fervor for religious education among the town's spiritually-minded middle class parents.
The last-minute attempt to forestall the destruction of the chapel by giving it official status as a city landmark did not save the building, but it did raise some interesting questions. Here's one: Why should those of us not connected to the convent or the school be troubled that this block, which used to one of the loveliest on the west side, will soon look like just another office park? The Sacred Heart chapel is neither the grandest or the most architecturally distinguished of the city's churches. Besides, Springfield already has a sizable collection of underused church buildings as a result of its semi-official apartheid policies and would hardly seem to the poorer for losing this one.
The preservationists' generic reply is familiar enough that I need only summarize it here. Our "heirloom buildings," whatever their intrinsic architectural or historic status, are crucial to our sense of local identity and to cultural continuity. Even mediocre structures of the nineteenth century possess materials and workmanship that can't be duplicated today. That makes them rare, even if they aren't beautiful, and a civilized society values both beauty and rarity.
But what, you say, have the values of a civilized society to do with Springfield? Not much, in the opinion of the practical men at the State Journal-Register. That paper editorialized against the landmarking of the chapel both on its opinion columns and in an extended apology for the demolition published as a feature article in its editions of May 28. The paper mounted the well-worn soapbox on behalf of Private Property Rights, objecting that a public body such as the Springfield City Council has not the right to dictate to a private body, especially a religious one, what to do with its places of worship.
The complaint is ingenuous. Even churches remain subject to civil law in this republic. Civil law dictates how private parties may treat their property in a hundred ways, from construction techniques to zoning, on behalf of the larger public good. Every property owner cedes certain property rights (for example, the right to leave their front lawns unmowed) on the principle, long established in American law, that private property not only exists in, but largely constitutes the public realm.
A local landmark in particular becomes public of a sort by virtue of its appropriation by community memory. The fact that the public has subsidized the operations of this particular landmark for decades also gives the public standing in the matter of its demolition; I will cede the sisters the absolute right to dispose of their dispose of their property if they cede to me and my fellow taxpayers their claim to exemption from public taxes on their property and income.
Another, somewhat more telling point made by the SJ-R was that historic preservation has not been a success in Springfield. No disputing that conclusion. A number of aldermen eager to defend the sisters against the depredations of the Historic Sites Commission concluded that the best way to guarantee the protection of the chapel was to demolish the city's preservation process. They called a special meeting to approve the demolition request before it had even been submitted to the council; when that was nixed by a no doubt amused city attorney, the redoubtable [alderman] Mr. Redpath proposed to immediately undo the existing city law requiring that a council contemplating demolition await a recommendation by the HSC set up for that purpose. Ward 7 representative Gwenn Klingler set a new standard for aldermanic discourse when she explained her vote to grease the demolition was meant to send a strong message to the Historic Sites Commission for having waited too long to begin the landmarking process—that message being that the way to improve the landmarking process was to speed up the demolition of historic buildings.
The sisters have stressed their helplessness in the matter. Over the years the chapel building served the order and later the high school variously as classrooms, gym, infirmary, bandroom, and peer counseling center. They regret their decision to raze the old building, of course, but the structure is not usable in the state it is in. No doubt that is true, although it was the sisters who let it get into that state.
Local preservation activists, answering criticism that they waited too long to landmark the building, have explained that they never dreamed that the nuns would tear down their old chapel. History suggests that they shouldn't have been surprised. The convent was built on the estate of Jesse Dubois, a contemporary of Lincoln whose fine mansion graced the south part of the grounds until the sisters reduced it to rubble in 1969.
The chapel proper is still used for worship only by the high school, the rest of the community using the convent chapel built in 1968. The planned new wing of the high school reportedly will include a new one-and-a-half-story chapel with movable seating—the very latest in liturgical convenience. The principal of the high school told the SJ-R that while the sisters value historic preservation and history, the education of the young is a greater value. I for one would not want to send a kid to a school where history was seen as a separate value from education; nor, were I a Catholic, would I want my church to be known more for its fine new schools than for its fine old churches.
The chapel is hardly the first notable old Springfield building to die in a bad cause. The town's biggest and most glorious movie house is gone. Its graceful Carnegie Library—gone. Mansions of prominent citizens such as Bunn and Cullom—gone. Nineteenth-century commercial buildings by the dozen—all gone. Each added grace, variety, and proportion to the cityscape; each was a cue to consciousness. None has been replaced with anything that approaches it in quality.
What is it about older buildings that so much of official Springfield seems to hate? In the case of the demolition of the Sacred Heart, some believe that this reluctance owes to the memory of the council’s mostly Catholic members who had been taught that it was wrong to disagree with a nun, especially a nun who has a ruler in her hand. Others—architects, engineers, and other feeders who perform the same function in the building ecology that fungus performs in a forest when an old trees falls down— smell a commission.
Neither reason completely explains the resentment expressed toward preservation as an ethic or toward preservationists as a group. Is it that so many of city officials are newly arrived to the political if not the middle class? Do their memories of exclusion make them hate the city's past and the buildings—most of them monuments to past elites—that symbolize it? Does their anti-preservationist impulse reflect the parvenu's infatuation with the new and the modem? Are they, like so many Americans, oblivious to or even contemptuous of the idea of history in a country where every generation re-invents itself? Or is the nineteenth century as ugly, alien, and jarring to the average Springfieldian as the late twentieth is to preservationists? The franchised America of the eternal present would seem to be where most Springfieldians feel at home.
The political contest between the forces of preservation and those of vandalism is usually characterized as a struggle between Progress and the Sticks-in-the-mud, but in fact it is the preservationists who are forward-looking. It is the sophisticated, the educated, the traveled elements in our nation's cities that value the architectural heritage of the past. Only in backwaters like Springfield does the discredited nineteenth-century notion that change is progress still hold sway. Thus the preservationists seek to advance the future by protecting the past, while the city council and the good sisters of Sacred Heart, by giving heedless priority to the present, push Springfield backward into tomorrow. ●