A Pretty Stable Part of Town

Making a new downtown of Springfield's old buildings

Illinois Times

February 18, 1993

Springfield's downtown was still alive and flourishing when I was a boy in the 1950s, and I found it the most diverting playground any boy could imagine. Like most Springfieldians my age, I mourned its demise the way I might mourn the of a beloved family member. I wrote often about how the city might revive downtown. Sadly, the town's officials and its landowners did last the thing they should have done first, which was save for reuse the stock of old buildings that no mall-maker could ever match.

 

Adaptive reuse on a large scale would not have saved my downtown but it might have made it possible to build a new one in its place, literally. We'll never know.

 

The seminar was scheduled to begin in minutes, and I was having a sock crisis. I had rashly chosen argyles that morning that clashed hideously with my tie. Ten years ago I would have had my choice of a half dozen shops within a block's walk of the Old Capitol at which I might buy replacements in a sock emergency. That day I found them at Osco's, in the aisle with the duct tape and the chewy dog bones and the clothes pins.

 

Osco's is the closest thing to a department store, indeed to any kind of store left in downtown Springfield. Conventional wisdom holds that our small-city downtowns are not dying, only changing. But the 19th century downtown of beloved memory has changed to the point of death.

That said, we must acknowledge that downtown Springfield is doing better than most. A few projects got built in the last 15 years and a few valuable properties have been saved. A recent example is the conversion by Charles Delano of the former Roland's store into law offices—about the only local enterprise not facing competition from national franchisers.

 

But the extent of the cultural shift away from downtown can be measured in Delano's remark to the State Journal-Register that the corner of 5th and Adams as a "pretty stable part of town," real estate investment-wise. Such projects are like heroic efforts to salvage heirlooms from a burning house; the effort is worth it but when things cool down you still don't have a place to live.

The fact that men's hosiery must be purchased in a drug store is one of the reasons that three separate downtown advocacy groups undertook a national search for a "facilitator" to lead revitalization efforts. Springfield is hardly alone in this plight; a statewide Downtowns of Illinois Associated was formed this summer, founded by the same go-getting consultant that some of Springfield's downtown boosters want to hire to work here.

 

After some twenty years of trial and much error, planners developers, and city officials have come to broad agreements about how to save American downtowns. Doing it is hard—it requires consensual planning involving both public and private sectors and the flexibility to accommodate multiple uses—and the risks are large. A larger question thus suggests itself: Is downtown worth saving?

 

So intertwined are our common images of downtown with buildings and streetscapes that we easily confuse what is downtown preservation and what is building preservation. Consultant Lawrence Alexander of the New York-based Downtown Idea Exchange derides what he calls "the old, nostalgia Main Street stuff" that so often animates downtown preservationists.

 

Laurie Scott, a planner by training who now directs a new regional Main street Partnership involving three small cities in the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor. Scott insists that downtown buildings have value as more than icons. She notes that downtowns (including the smaller ones) possess potentially valuable housing stock in their under-used upper stories; Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Washington D.C. are only some of the larger business districts that are slowly turning department stores into apartment stores.

 

Downtown Springfield's stock of buildings is the only marketable asset that downtown has that no other part of town has (or ever will have). Those buildings gave downtown ambiance, architectural distinction, and historical sense but they also offer development opportunities more interesting than conventional offices.

 

* Chicago's DePaul University is moving into the vacant Goldblatt's on State Street in the heart of downtown, and Roosevelt University occupies the otherwise orphaned Auditorium, and plans are underway to convert a historic skyscraper into student housing; the two between them have revitalized the derelict South Loop. (SSU planners please note.)

 

* In Bloomington, they are converting vacant upper floors to condos.

 

* In Skokie, town officials used tax increment financing to build new three-story "home shops" with small commercial space in the ground floor and residential space above, opportunities of the sort that can be had in existing Springfield buildings; the houses would be taxed as if they were houses, and are expected to appeal to the growing number of self-employed who now work out of home who want to live in work. Only cumbersome zoning and building codes and nervous banks make it hard to do the same with existing period structures such as Springfield used to have by the dozen.

 

"Nostalgia and historic preservation is the big thing now," adds Alexander. "For a while it was Rouse malls, then it was pedestrian malls. Every five years you get a whole new set of code words." The Chicago Metro Section of the American Planning Association's recent seminar, "Designing Old Towns for New Towns," spoke of "evoking such intangible notions as community, place, activity, and nostalgia." Such inchoate yearnings can and usually do lead to inchoate responses. Schaumburg, the classic mall-turned-edge-city outside Chicago, has been looking for developers to build an "Olde Schaumburg Centre" to create a "focal point" for the town.

 

Matching bus benches and lampposts again. One scornful columnist suggested a marketing slogan for the new place: "It's not real, but then it's not messy either." Edward Slipek Jr. is one of the more percipient journalists covering these trends, reported in the Richmond, Virginia, daily that "after muddling through urban 'removal,' downtown malls, and a dose of Rouse, Richmond has ended up with what folks wanted all along—a suburb." ●

SITES

OF

INTEREST

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.

Chicagology

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.)

BOOKS

 OF INTEREST

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.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

All material copyright © by James Krohe Jr. unless otherwise indicated