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The Tourists’s State Capital

Visiting the statehouse complex in Springfield

See Illinois (unpublished)


A school-sponsored visit to the statehouse is a ritual that has been enjoyed by millions of Illinois schoolchildren over the years, usually because it means a day out of school and the chance to lark about on a bus for hours. The education in state government thus acquired has had no marked effects on civic commitment; voter turnout in Illinois, for example,  is as low as it is most other states its type. Still, the capitol’s preposterous grandeur never fails to make an impression of one kind or another, and is worth a visit just for that.


Unfortunately, the State of Illinois has never made visitors particularly welcome to the capitol complex in Springfield. It is a working capital, and tourist amenities are lacking and visitor parking is hard to find, in spite of the acres of under-used state-owned parking lots that blight the landscape thereabouts. The Armory and the Stratton building suffer in dignified decay, with no hope of rescue or replacement any time soon, and the three great halls in the old Centennial Building still cry out to be restored and put to some better uses.


Nonetheless, a visit to that part of Springfield is more rewarding today than it was for years. The Illinois State Museum has survived its reckless shutdown in good shape, at least physically. The capitol building has been spectacularly revealed by restoration, as has the Supreme Court building, and the executive mansion and grounds have undergone a major renovation.


Please note that some of these remarks originated in columns for Illinois Times, or later migrated into columns when the material became orphaned by its lack of a publisher.

See also Politics & government: The capitol complex.


The new, then old, then new old state capitol 

What is now known as the Old State Capitol was Illinois’s statehouse from 1839 to 1876. Its cornerstone was laid in July 1837, five months after legislators voted to move the state capital to Springfield. Employees began moving into the partially finished building two years later, but political squabbles and money troubles, delayed the building's completion until 1854. While the carpenters hammered away, legislators convened in local churches—an experience that had no discernible effect on the virtue of the lawmakers.


The building was designed by Springfield architect John Rague in the Greek Revival style then popular. The result offered grace, balance, and symmetry rather than monumentality. Original plans called for it to made of brick, but after construction began it was decided to use buff-colored limestone from a local quarry—a happy improvement. The building enjoyed a general repute for a time as the most imposing state capitol west of the Alleghenies.


The Old State Capitol made an astonishing addition to the skyline of a town that only a few years earlier had boasted that it had frame houses as well as log ones. It was as startling a departure in scale from the rest of the town as the present statehouse was to be 40 years later. In addition to both houses of the General Assembly and the Illinois Supreme Court, the capitol had rooms for the state's five elected chief executive officers and their staffs.


Lincoln spent much time in the building. He tried more than 200 cases before the Illinois Supreme Court. He made use of the state court’s law library. (Friends recalled that he especially enjoyed the story-swapping and game-playing that took place in the clubby atmosphere of the court library and clerk's office.) He delivered his famous "House Divided" speech ("I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free") in Representatives Hall in 1858 at the start of his campaign for the U.S. Senate. Presidential candidate Lincoln received well-wishers and favor-seekers—rather more of the latter than the former—in the second-floor Governor's reception room. (That room has since been recreated from a contemporary woodcut showing the President-elect greeting his visitors.) Lincoln paid his final visit to the Old State Capitol in 1865 when his body lay in Representatives Hall, where 75,000 mourners paid their last respects.


Lincoln of course was not the only dignitary associated with the building. To a whole generation of Illinois political leaders, the capitol was as familiar a place as their parlors. Stephen A. Douglas was at home there, as his Democrats controlled state offices for most of the period the building was used. The old statehouse also has a macabre association; it was from the capitol grounds, in 1846, that the Donner party (inevitably described as “ill-fated”) embarked for California, most of them to encounter death by starvation in the snows of the Sierra Nevada.


As Illinois boomed, state government boomed with it, and the once-huge new statehouse soon was bursting at the seams. The state voted to build a new capitol, a really big one this time, six blocks away. The now-old capitol was sold to Sangamon County for use as a courthouse. Within twenty years the county government also outgrew the building, and by the 1890s some county officials were arguing the need to tear it down and replace it. In the end, however, the county was persuaded to find its needed space by raising the old building on jacks and installing a new first floor beneath it. The lifting of the building was an engineering marvel, if an architectural travesty that destroyed the proportions of Rague’s design.


In that enlarged form the Old State Capitol served Sangamon County for another sixty years. By the 1950s, even the enlarged capitol-cum-courthouse was too small. While the years had rendered it outmoded as office space, the building in that time had acquired new importance as an historic shrine. In 1961 Sangamon County sold it back to the state so the latter could restore it. The courthouse square was excavated for make room for an underground parking garage and a subterranean home for the Illinois State Historical Library. The original stone façade was dismantled, the pieces carefully numbered and stored, and later reinstalled atop a new frame. The original interior had been destroyed during the 1899–1901 renovation, but while the interior of the reconstructed building was new, the space was old, as the rooms fit the original floor plan.


The result is a building that looks like the one that Lincoln saw that enfolds the same space he occupied, but not, weirdly, the building he used. Because the structure is not itself  historic, the rooms can actually be used, with the result that the new/old building matches the function of its original too. Just as schoolhouses in frontier villages doubled as churches and meeting halls, so did parts of the Old State Capitol host concerts, dances, levees, and civic affairs, as well as political rallies and conventions. Today its doppelganger is again a venue for community events, being available (for a fee) for weddings, receptions, and other events for which the Elks Club or the American Legion hall is not quite special enough.


 The new, now old state capitol


Once Illinois’s 1839 capitol was abandoned, Springfield no longer had an automatic claim to be the state’s political capital. A new statehouse could have been built anywhere, and Peoria, Chicago, and Decatur were among the cities that tried to snatch the prize from Springfield. Springfield leaders were alert to the danger, however, and offered as an inducement an attractive site for a new capitol in the form of a large block of land west of downtown that was originally purchased in the hope that Lincoln would be buried there. Sangamon County also offered to purchase Rague's old state capitol for use as its courthouse—the last time that body of government showed much interest in recycling—which lowered the cost of the project to state taxpayers. Thus persuaded, the state chose Springfield as the state capital a second time.


Illinois’s current capitol is not the historic shrine that its predecessor is. Lincoln never set foot in it, and none of Illinois’s great political debates were held here. No leader has been assassinated here, although plenty of careers have died there. The statehouse is surprising somnolent, save for the final weeks of a legislative session, when there usually too much going on for a visitor to make sense of.


To be sure, the building has seen its shares of real news. In 1933, two hundred Progressive Miners union members stormed the Statehouse; expelled from the gallery of the House, they marched on the governor’s office where they indulged in minor vandalism before the governor ordered the state police to evict them, which they did, enthusiastically. During the Equal Rights Amendment “debate” in the 1970s, demonstrators threw pig blood onto the floor of the building’s rotunda. But these days politics is more decorous, and the statehouse—a usage preferred if only because it avoids the perennial confusion about whether “capitol” has one “a” or two—serves mainly as an astonishingly expensive stage set. Interest groups and candidates use it as a backdrop for photo ops, and media use it as a scene-setter for state news reports.


Cost and construction


In some ways, the most interesting history attached to the building is the story of its own construction. The customary turning of the symbolic shovelful of earth to mark the official start of construction was not considered enough of a groundbreaking for a building of such a scale, so the job was done instead with a plow, as dignitaries turned a furrow outlining the foundation. Newspapers reported that no speeches were made on the occasion—perhaps the dignitaries were out of breath from their exertions with the plow—and a local newspaper reported that “the whole operation was performed in a sensible and business-like manner.”


Those are not words usually used to describe a state operation, and “sSensible and businesslike” certainly do not describe what happened afterwards. The new statehouse seemed to take forever to be built. It was not finished when the General Assembly moved into the building in 1876, eight years after it was begun. Construction continued on and off for twenty years in fact, as money as made available for it.


The cost overruns became a scandal. In 1877 and again in 1882, voters refused an approval of appro­priations to complete the building, and in the 1870s critics even mounted an effort to abandon it and move the capital to a different city. The sheer size of the building was a factor in its cost, as was suspected theft and design about-faces. The building’s “front door” facing Second Street originally featured a massive staircase of 37 marble steps that carried visitors to a main entrance on the second floor; after 17 years the stairs were ripped out, and the original “basement” converted to the new ground-level entry hall, with the former entry hall on the second floor converted into offices for the governor.


Whatever its other qualities, the building certainly was imposing. Poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald grew up a few steps from the statehouse. Of it he wrote:


It tow­ered and bulked and cut off the winter sunset, the sheer cliff of it going aloft in arches and verticals in one great pile . . . . “No castles, no cathedrals, and no kings,” wrote Emerson of America in 1833, “Land of the forest . . .“ Well, here was our castle and our cathedral . . . 


Visitors are told that at 785 feet the edifice is 74 feet taller than the U.S. capitol (although the fact that the Illinois building is smaller in every other way is mentioned less often). Its central space is acoustically magnificent at least; once on a visit to his friend, then-governor Henry Horner, Carl Sandburg bellowed in the rotunda of the statehouse to hear how his voice would echo under the huge dome.


The competition for the capitol’s design was won by the Chicago-based architectural firm of J. C. Cochrane and George Garnsey. (A $3,000 prize had been offered for the best architectural plans; the winner revealed later that he had spent $2,700 of the $3,000 bribing the legislative commis­sioners making the award.) Speaking of his firm’s design, Cochrane wrote that he had discarded “all unnecessary and useless ornament” such as the peristyle, or ring of columns of the sort that surrounds the dome of the U.S. capitol and London’s St. Paul cathedral.


Pared-down Cochrane’s design may have been by then-current standards but to more recent tastes the statehouse seems heavy, vulgar, and ostentatious. The north and east wings, for instances, are faced with those massive porches—loggia, columns, roofs consisting of classical architrave and pediment. (The building’s “back doors,” on the south and west wings, remain unadorned, and visitors can see there how the pre-porch wings looked.)

Impressive perhaps, but few have dared to call the building beautiful. The word “eclectic” often is used to describe its architectural style, which is a bit like calling Illinois politicians pragmatic. The building is the visual equivalent of the cliché-ridden Labor Day picnic speech. The Old State Capitol, four blocks away, looks like a prim spinster to its successor’s hooker; the older building has a dignity that the newer building utterly lacks.


In a famous poem, Vachel Lindsay (who could see the building’s dome from his house on Fifth and Edwards) likened it to “A speck, a hive, a football,/A captive balloon!” In middle-age, Robert Fitzgerald recalled that the architect had modeled the porches that adorn the east and north facades on the temple of Jupiter Stator in Rome. (Considering the antics that have gone on in the statehouse, Rome’s Coliseum might have been a more apt model.) The result was a building that struck Fitzgerald—and millions of others—as “impure and ungainly.”


Whatever its failure as art, the building makes the damnedest bird roost ever built. The statehouse’s myriad ledges, nooks, and crannies have attracted flocking birds on and off for decades. In 1885, a Secretary of State is said to have hunted pigeons from the roof of the State House with a shotgun—a perk of office that his successors have surrendered in favor of noise-making cannons and laser beams.


Government agencies seem bound by a version of Parkinson’s Law, in that bureaucracies expand to fill the space available for them. The capitol is huge but not rich in usable space, and was soon filled to overflowing. (In the not-distant past, filing cabi­nets used to adorn the remoter corridors.) In time, many agencies originally housed in the statehouse decamped for buildings of their own that were more appropriate to their needs. Today, apart from providing offices of the requisite majesty for such constitutionally ordained elected officials as the comptroller, the building is devoted to the legislature. The two houses of the General Assembly are here, as are hearing rooms and offices for related staff, bureaus, and commissions.


Transforming such a pile into modern office space has taxed the ingenuity of the state's architects and the patience of its taxpayers. Uncounted millions have been spent over the years to equip the statehouse with air conditioning and computer lines and electricity and telephones. Several new buildings could have been built for what has been spent merely keeping this one functional. It would be cheaper to maintain it as the museum that in many ways it is, but no one talks seriously about that alternative.


Using the statehouse as an office building detracts from the ambiance of the building as well as the efficiency of the state operations. The building is the symbolic people’s palace, built to house what Fitzgerald called “the elect of Illinois and beyond that to represent the dignity of the Republic, heir to all ages and builders.” The spectacle of the statehouse lends what little majesty attaches to several minor state offices and dignity to the major ones, and their holders are loath to give up either.


Thus the present statehouse is not likely to be abandoned. Unlike its predecessors, which were fairly modest buildings, the 1876 statehouse is just too big, and has cost too much money for the state to abandon it. Nor could the state possibly build a replacement that could come close to matching it in scale, opulence, or craftsmanship. Not that many would want to try. The shadow of the James R. Thompson Center—a building that, like the 1876 capitol, was criticized for costing too much, and for being garish and impractical—falls as far south as Springfield, where it darkens hopes that the state might commission a new capitol from a cutting-edge architect.



White elephant


When construction of the statehouse began in 1868, a cornerstone was engraved and filled with a copper box crammed with the usual souvenirs. But the massive stone was found to be cracked, so workmen removed it, transferred its copper box of mementos to a new cornerstone, and disposed of the old one. That was no easy job, as the cornerstone wasn’t much smaller than a small car. Rather than stand the expense of hauling it away, the workmen followed the practice of construction crews everywhere and buried what Paul Angle called this “cal­careous white elephant” where it lay, on the statehouse lawn.


The interment was forgotten, and it was later assumed that the original cornerstone had been stolen or destroyed. In 1885, workmen digging a foundation for the new, stair-less east entrance found the original stone. It being still every bit as large as it was in 1868, it was not removed but re-interred on the spot. In time its presence was forgotten again, record-keeping never having been a forte of statehouse administrators. In 1944, repairmen found the original cornerstone a second time; this time it was removed and put on display (where is still stands) on the northeast lawn, presumably so that officials would not forget where it was a third time.  


Among the mementos thought to be still entombed in the replacement cornerstone in the northeast corner of the building were a set of original construction plans for the building. In 1966 officials searching for the original plans of the capitol—statehouse officials seem to have been forever losing things—thought to look in the time capsule. The cornerstone was opened and the box removed; the plans, alas, were not there; the cornerstone bears a scar of the operation that can be seen today. [See also God Lets Bob Ingersoll Off.]


The people’s art museum


In the opulence and variety of its decoration at least, the statehouse really is Illinois’s civic cathedral. Describing the many kinds of stone used in it or the details of its miles of carved friezes and cornices is as exhausting to the guidebook author as looking at it often proves for the tourist, and we will here dispense with it.


The building’s statuary does deserve mention. Plaster statues of Lincoln, Douglas, and Gov. John Wood originally lined the second-floor hallways; today these and five other state government notables stand in alcoves set into the second-floor rotunda. The 1895 statue that dominates the rotunda’s first floor, "Illinois Welcoming the World," is a bronze version of a work that was first displayed in the Illinois Building at the 1893 Columbian Exposition. As sculpted by Julia M. Bracken, the face and figure of what is popularly known as Miss Illinois are those of turn-of-the-20th -century stage star (and paramour of Diamond Jim Brady) Lillian Russell, star of such hit shows as “Whirl-I-Gig,” “Hoity-Toity,” and “Woop-Dee-Doo.”


Paintings so abound in the statehouse that, measured by the square footage of painted surface, the Illinois capitol ranks as one of Illinois’s biggest art museums. Everywhere there are murals, portraits, and commemorative paintings. The walls of the ground-floor halls of the north and south wings are the accepted Big Moments in Illinois’s Past rendered in paint: Marquette and Joliet at an Indian Village on the Des Plaines River in 1673, Fort Dearborn at the Mouth of the Chicago River, New Salem, and Lincoln At New Salem 1831; in the north hall, Fort Chartres on the Mississippi River Near Prairie du Rocher, Future Governor Edward Coles Freeing His Slaves While Enroute to Illinois 1819, and U.S. Grant Taking Command at Cairo in 1861; and Starved Rock on the Illinois River Near Ottawa.


There are many, many others.


When the original entry staircase was removed in 1886, the original “basement”—actually, the ground floor—became the new first floor. That space needed duding up for its new prominence, so three murals were added to the ceiling of the east foyer. One depicts "Charity" distributing the bounty of a cornucopia, a painting that no doubt has inspired many a legislator and special interest lobbyists as they make their ways toward the workplace.


The eagles and shields that decorate the spaces between the statue-bearing corbels in the upper rotunda were added as part of Illinois's centennial celebration in 1918 by Springfield artist George H. Schanbacher. In 1888, Schanbacher had decorated the ceiling of the State Library (now Senate Minority offices) with murals of owls, a symbol of wisdom and thus a fitting choice for a library ceiling. A symbol of wisdom might have been considered a mockery by lawmakers, however, and when the library was converted into a legislative lounge in 1923, Schanbacher was asked to return and paint over his earlier work.


Converting the statehouse into office space has made it the scene of all kinds of cover-ups. Remodelings covered up carving and paintings that were forgotten for decades. Typical were the ornate wall decorations in Room 115, which was for a time used as a Civil War museum. In Room 300, large murals depicting Lincoln, Grant, and a Civil War soldier were painted on the upper walls when it was dedicated as a memorial hall for Civil War battle flags and mementos; the murals were covered up in the 1930s when the room‘s ceiling was lowered and not discovered until 1971 when the space was converted into a Senate hearing room.


Even artwork that was left in plain sight was not seen for decades. Clumsy redecorating had changed the original colors and blurred the sculptural details of the plaster ornaments. The stained glass in the building's  inner dome was obscured by soot and dirt; when it was cleaned and repainted in 1986, its glass was spectacularly revealed for the first time in decades—or, perhaps more accurately, was revealed to be spectacular.


Some compromises have had to be made in restoring the building. Much original gold leaf was replaced with garish gold-colored paint; restorationists have replaced the paint with imitation gold leaf made of copper and zinc. The center of the ceiling in each legislative chamber was once made of stained glass, illuminated by skylights whose reconstruction is unfeasible; the skylights have been replaced by painted panels. Some of the decorative ceiling paintings were not repainted directly onto the ceilings, as the originals would have been painted; to save money their replacements were painted on canvases in a studio and glued into place on the ceilings.


A civics classroom


The purpose of the building’s statues and paintings is not merely decorative. Like a cathedral, the statehouse aims to teach visitors the essential lessons about the heroes and  history of Illinois's civic religion. But the statehouse makes as lousy a classroom as it does an office building. For example, any numbers of works depict the triumph of the North over the South in the Civil War, a success to which Illinois contributed more than its share, and which was fresh in the minds of the building’s builders. Of other, less flattering events in the state’s past no mention is made. One can wander the corridors forever and not see a depiction of the Haymarket Square bombing, the Herrin massacre, or the East St. Louis race riot.


Even events that are depicted are not always depicted accurately. The staircase to the fourth floor is dominated by 40 x 20-foot painting showing George Rogers Clark negotiating with Native Americans at Fort Kaskaskia in 1778. The canvas was painted by Chicago Gustav Fuchs in 1886, by which time Illinois Indians had been absent for a half-century; without appropriate models, Fuchs gave his Indians costumes of indigenous people who had never lived in Illinois. 


Students who venture into the capitol expecting it to be a Cliff’s Notes crib guide to Illinois history thus will be disappointed. Not every one of  the most accomplished state leaders is commemorated in the capitol, and several of the people who are commemorated there are relative nonentities. The most conspicuously placed statues in the building, for example (not counting "Miss Illinois" in the rotunda) are the eight figures set into niches ringing the second-floor rotunda. Some depict acknowledged notables—Lincoln and Douglas (inevitably, and redundantly), along with the first African American Illinoisan to be elected to the Senate, and the first woman member of the House. But also honored are the first Mayor Daley (a small figure in Illinois history, however large he looms in Chicago) and John G. Wood, the Quincian lieutenant governor who served out uneventfully the brief unexpired term of his predecessor and didn’t even bother to move to Springfield.


Above these statues, mounted on corbels that project from the wall of the statehouse dome beneath the plaster frieze, we find ten-foot statues depicting early Illinois’s genuinely important men. Here at last is Ulysses S. Grant; Ninian Edwards, territorial governor and third governor of the state; first governor Shadrach Bond; Edward Coles, second governor and the man who probably kept Illinois a slavery-free state; Sidney Breese, Illinois supreme court justice and United States senator; Lyman Trumbull, United States senator, Lincoln intimate, and coauthor of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution; and John A. Logan, Civil War general and U.S. Senator.


But even here the selection seems wayward, at least in light of subsequent historical opinion. Surely no committee of Illinois historians would today vote to give one of these coveted places of honor to soldier and congressman William R. Morrison. Also, their installation around the dome gives the “Big Eight” the most exalted position in the building but, perversely, leaves them the least visible of all the building’s statue-ized dignitaries.


Inevitably, the building’s artworks from the 19th century reflect those times, puzzling some of today’s visitors and offending others. The plaster bas relief on the north balcony on the fourth floor that illustrates the forced migration of Native Americans to the West is one of a series that also depicts the breaking of the prairie or the clearing of forests, as if the state’s indigenous people were so many weeds that had to be pulled from the garden that was to be "civilized" Illinois. The statue of Pierre Menard outside on the capitol grounds poses similar problems. As a specimen of modeling and casting it is gorgeous, but he is posed offering his hand to an Indian seated at his feet, in a pose impossible not to interpret as condescending. [Note: That statue has since been removed for that reason.]


Unfortunately, political correctness has trumped historical significance in the selection of some of the more recent artwork in the capitol. In 1918, Chicagoan Robert Wadsworth Grafton painted the three large murals on the fourth floor as a part of Illinois's Centennial celebration. Recently restored, the works are Commerce (dock workers unloading a freighter), Agriculture (a farmer plowing behind oxen, women sowing seed) and Industry (men working at a smelter). They tell us nothing about real life in Illinois, and nothing that a child doesn’t already know about farming, trade, and factories. The inclusion is meant to flatter the visitors to the building who ply those trades, to express officially the respect that the state’s political masters have for the work that generated the tax monies that, it must be recalled, paid for it all.


Hypersensitivity to historical slights is not much better than insensitivity, if both lead to distortions. The south hall of the second floor is lined with paintings of former Illinois governors. Among them is Senator Fred. J. Smith, a loyal machine Democrat who spent more time in the Senate (24 years) than anyone—a career that was more a monument to his safe seat than to Mr. Smith’s capacities. Smith is the only non-governor on “Governor’s Row” in spite of fact that he is conspicuously absent from histories of his era. He is there because he was an African American, and is likely to remain there until Illinois elects a black governor who can take the place of honor that Smith is keeping warm.


For decades, history as reflected in statehouse artworks seemed to have stopped with the Civil War, as none of the paintings and only a handful of statues and portraits depicted later eras. To update the paintings in the capitol, the state in 1988 sponsored a competition to select four artists to produce new murals as part of the building’s 100th anniversary celebration. The results were in many ways self-conscious throwbacks to the WPA-style of painting that typified most of the post office murals that can still be seen around the state, such as Ken Holder’s Transforming the Prairie. Even the titles recall the uplifting social realism of the 1930s; D. F. Bushman called his composition A Clinic on Constructive Contribution.


The fourth of the new works, The Key, by Billy Morrow Jackson, illustrates the genre. Like the rest, it is large—approximately nine by nine feet. The central theme of the painting is social reform, specifically the early twentieth-century progressive move­ment in America. The work focuses on the social reformer Jane Addams. The poses are heroic, the action uplifting, as figures struggle with an outsize key in attempting to unlock Knowledge. One critic lamented that the painting is not accompanied by a guide explaining it, although one must question the appropriateness in such a setting of paintings that are intended to teach but whose lessons are too obscure to be understood without a guide.


Many older statehouse paintings also make literary and mythical allusions that are utterly beyond visitors who are not scholars. On the second-floor walls between the entrances to the executive offices of the Governor and Secretary of State are four allegorical paintings representing Art, Literature, Peace, and War; these are banal but at least are decipherable. Not so the shields painted on the walls between the corbel statues in the upper rotunda. They have ten stars on either side of a blue ribbon with a large white star in the center, which represent the ten northern and ten southern states that composed the U.S. at the time Illinois was admitted to the Union, with the large white star representing Illinois, the 21st state; it is not clear that knowing this adds to one’s enjoyment of the work, but it can be assumed that very few people would grasp the message at all unless it is pointed out.


Statue-esque memorials


The grounds of the statehouse are decorated by a motley collection of bronzes, most of them human figures. (Recent maintenance has prolonged their lives but at the expense of the characteristic patina, without which they look, for the moment, like painted plaster.) Here, as is the case inside the statehouse, visitors who assume that the statues represent the men (sadly, few women) who most shaped the state would be misled. One permanent resident on the lawn is Pierre Menard. His achievements—Illinois's second lieutenant governor and its only prominent French American—are far from stellar, yet Menard had the honor of being the first notable to be installed on the grounds, in 1886. The fact that the son of Menard's former business partner, donated the money for the work perhaps explains the priority given by the state to a man who was an significant but not seminal figure in the state’s past.


The nearby statues of Civil War governor Richard Yates (“the wounded soldiers’ friend”) and John M. Palmer, governor and senator from that era, were jointly dedicated in 1923. Both were useful chief executives, with Palmer being the more substantial leader and formidable political presence. Their obscurity may be undeserved, but obscure they are; it unlikely that most members of the General Assembly know much more about them than that each was a governor.


The place of honor closest to the main public entrance to the building goes to Stephen A. Douglas, the Little Giant, as sculpted by Gilbert P. Riswold in 1918. This work was paid for as part of the same project that produced O’Connor’s centennial version of Lincoln and was dedicated on the same day. It conveys Douglas is all his vigor, and the base is decorated with his dying admonition to his children, whom he urged to obey the laws and support the Constitution of the United States—good advice for state officials as well. But, like Lincoln, Douglas did not make his career as a state politician. True, he served in the state legislature—most men of ability did in those days—and a brief (and undistinguished) term on the Supreme Court. But he made his mark in Washington as a congressman, and, from 1847 until his death in 1861, as a U.S. Senator, and a Presidential candidate. His signal contribution to Illinois was splitting the Democratic vote in the 1860 Presidential election, thus permitting Lincoln to win the White House.


When time came to celebrate the state’s centennial, in 1918, the General Assembly could think of nothing more appropriate than a new statue of Abraham Lincoln; as executed by Andrew O’Connor, it depicts Lincoln making his famous "Farewell to Springfield." But the contribution of Lincoln to Illinois history as a lawmaker, for example, was matched by hundreds of others, and exceeded by dozens; he was a great historical figure from Illinois, not a great figure in Illinois history. The same can be said for Everett Dirksen—one of many Illinoisans who rose to prominence and influence in Congress, but the only one with a statue.


That all the governors on the statehouse grounds, and two of the four non-governors, are figures from Civil War era, further distorts Illinois history for the non-expert. One looks in vain for depictions of such standout Illinois governors of more recent eras, such as Frank Lowden or Henry Horner. Perhaps they are missing because the 1920s, which is when the last of the “great leader” statues was commissioned, may have been the last era in which Illinoisans could muster a consensus about who its great leaders were.


The memorialization of Menard, Yates, Palmer, Douglas, and Lincoln tells visitors something more reliable about trends in statuary than about Illinois history, which is that history gets made by (and can be understood in terms of) individuals. A newer trend has peopled the lawns with commemorations of a very different sort. Instead of famous leaders, these newer statues depict Illinois’s un-famous (though often more heroic) unsung citizens—its coal miners (1964), its police officers (1990), its laborers (1992), and its firefighters (1999). Each of the groups is recalled with a statue or statuary group of the sort that in the past usually depicted only soldiers. 


Indeed, these works should be understood as war memorials of a sort. John Szaton's coal miner may look the picture of health but in fact he was meant to represent the more than 9,000 Illinois miners who died in the 82 years previous to the statue's dedication in 1964. The monuments to police officers, fire fighters, and “workers,” similarly commemorate Illinoisans hurt or killed while trying to make a living. Future monuments to the sacrifices of the state’s farmers, its shop clerks, bus drivers, janitors, restaurant cooks, and, in time, lawyers and accountants seem inevitable. There should be room for them; a "statue row" has been created along what used to be Spring Street between the statehouse and the Stratton Building.


The extension of the monument franchise, so to speak, does not yet extent to women;  on the lawns the only females are the anonymous figures that appear in the police and worker memorials. That franchise does allow, however, for non-Illinoisans. The statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Geraldine McCullough, was installed in the Capitol rotunda in 1988. King was not the first African American to be honored in the capitol but he was the first non-Illinois resident to be honored with a statue. Then-Secretary of State Jim Edgar said King "merits this special recognition for his contributions to Illinoisans of all colors and creeds." That rationale  could of course apply equally to dozens of other notables, with the result that the statehouse would eventually become as crowded with statues as with lobbyists on opening day of the General Assembly session. Tacit admission of that made when officials in 1993 moved the work to a spot (dubbed "Freedom Corner") at Second and Capitol streets facing the Lincoln statue. 


To be persuasive as rhetoric, populist art needs to be persuasive as art. The newer statues are crude, even cartoonish, being clumsy in execution, stilted in composition, and sentimental in conception. (The trend began in 1976, with Carl Tolpo's Everett Dirksen.) The loss is not that these new statues are not great art. The loss is that, being bad art, they can't do justice to their subjects. They lack the power to move, to excite, to involve the way the best of the older capitol art can. Over the years Andrew O'Connor's Lincoln on the east lawn has been draped with the banners of a dozen causes during rallies, and never once was its dignity impaired by such shenanigans. There's the ultimate test of public art in the capitol complex—whether it can stand in those surroundings and not be reduced to ridiculousness.           

The town within the town


The statehouse is merely the biggest of nine major public buildings that populate the four-square-block capitol complex, the ceremonial as well as the functional center of state government in Illinois. Sadly, any of the state’s better office parks and college campuses offer more beguiling vistas, more efficient communication, and more stimulating modern architecture than does the statehouse complex.


Plans for the orderly development of the campus are periodically drawn up, then changed, then remade, then abandoned. The site has been made more tourist-friendly by the addition of bus parks, picnic tables, and other amenities, but in a style that give it the feel of a Rocky Mountain state park. Worse, the demand for parking by thousands of state workers has led the state to convert vast tracts of nearby land into surface parking lots, which leads some visitors to ask, "When were the riots?"


Most of the capitol’s companion buildings are neoclassical in style. Architects struggled for generations with the question of which architectural style best conveys the power and the permanence of government. In Illinois as elsewhere, the usual answer has been some form of neoclassicism. Since the construction of the first state bank in Old Shawneetown, a temple of finance in the Greek Revival style built in 1840, that preference has been affirmed again and again.


The Beaux-Arts style was another, later expression of the neo-classical impulse. One could argue that the Beaux-Arts was an Illinois style. The “White City” that so dazzled visitors to the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago was done mostly in Beaux-Arts style. This heavily ornamented version of the classical style as taught by the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris became influential in the U.S. in the late 19th century. It was a bit retrograde even when it was new—Illinois’s greatest architects, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, railed against it, the latter dismissing the buildings in that style as “Frenchite pastry.”

While all are neoclassical in their general design, the major buildings of the statehouse complex differ in detail according to the date of their design. In the 1930s, for example, designers of the new Armory incorporated Moderne into the Beaux Arts mold. Such borrowings had been typical of neoclassicism for a century. The two capitols in Springfield, for example, are typical in combining a Roman-inspired dome with a Greek Doric portico.


Illinois State Library


As an institution, the Illinois State Library dates to 1839, when the young Secretary of State, Stephen A. Douglas, reserved space next to his new office in what is now the Old State Capitol for a small collection of books. Like all major state operations, the library was later moved into the 1878 statehouse, where it occupied majestic quarters on the third floor. Later the library, like the Illinois State Museum, was moved to the new Centennial Building, into specially designed space that included a handsome reading room decorated with scenes from Illinois history. The library quickly outgrew its Centennial Building quarters too—by the 1940s, staff were cataloging books in a hallway—but it was not until the late 1980s that work began on a building exclusively devoted to the library, on a half-block site across Second Street from the main public entrance of the statehouse.


The new state library building is a stately neo-Classical building that is indistinguishable in form from its companions built a generation or more previously. It was designed by the Chicago architectural firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, which was ordered by the then-governor, Jim Edgar, to make its neoclassical façade of Indiana limestone harmonize with the other buildings in Springfield's Capitol Complex.


The new library building was handsomely decorated. "Portrait of Illinois"—a collection of 33 paintings, drawings, prints, and photographs—was assembled through a state-wide open competition. The state’s Art-In-Architecture Program paid painters Harold Gregor, James Winn, and James D. Butler—each a major interpreter of the prairie landscape—to create major works for the library. Considered especially fine are Illinois Spring Morning and Illinois Autumn Evening, two enormous landscapes (96 and 126 square feet) by Bloomington’s Gregor.


Ex-Gov. Jim Thompson had been among those who suggested that the new building be in a modern style. But Thompson had championed Helmut Jahn’s controversial new State of Illinois Building in the Loop, which soured a generation of Illinoisans on cutting-edge architecture and left people muttering that as a judge of architecture, Mr. Thompson was a fine governor.


Jahn's State of Illinois Building was appropriate for the Loop, a showcase of architectural styles that was desperately trying to regain its stature as a setting for new design, but such a building was judged not appropriate for staid Springfield. Making the state’s new library look just like one of its old office buildings, as Edgar did, reveals not so much a respect of the past as a lack of faith in the present. Since the state adds a major new building to the capitol complex only about once every generation, many lovers of modern building design saw the new library as a failed opportunity to bring State of Illinois government into the 21st century in at least one respect.

Executive Mansion


Three blocks from the statehouse complex stands the Executive Mansion. The Executive Mansion is Illinois’s White House. It has served as the official residence of Illinois's governors and their families since 1855. The first tenant was Governor Joel Matteson and his family. The Mattesons were rich and loved to entertain, and found the house then provided for its governors to be wholly inadequate to their needs. At Matteson’s urging, the General Assembly spent $52,000 on a new house built to a design by John Murray Van Osdel of Chicago, who made a name for himself there designing important homes, hotels, and commercial buildings. The house still stands on a square-block grounds on Edwards between Fourth and Jackson streets on a small rise that overlooks what used to be a creek valley. 


Matteson liked the neighborhood. When he was out of office he decided to make Springfield his permanent home—very unusually for Illinois governors, who usually cannot wait to leave. He built himself a mansion with fourteen bedrooms across the street from the governor's place. Matteson's mansion was for years the city’s finest residence, indeed one that rather showed up the one that the state had built until Matteson's mansion burned in 1876.


Each official occupant has had to adapt the state's mansion to their own needs. The house has proved too large for First Families of modest means, and not nearly grand enough for the several governors of wealth who lived in it. The Richard Oglesbys, for instance, were used to living in a real mansion, as Mrs. Oglesby was the daughter of Logan County cattle king John Gillett. Henry Horner thought the official beds too soft and had his own bed shipped down from Chicago; he also converted one room into a library of Lincolniana; Adlai Stevenson II liked that library so much he used it as an office in preference to his official space in the statehouse. The Dan Walkers, who had kids of ten and thirteen, set up a pool and rope swing and a vegetable patch. Redecorating the mansion is a chore that has been taken up, with varying enthusiasm, by a succession of first ladies. An exception was Jim Thompson, whose appetite for antiques—and antiques shopping—found an outlet in the upgrading of the decor during his long tenure.


The building has received presidents, foreign dignitaries, mayors, legislators, and other public figures at official dinners and receptions and at private dinners. Some First Families take to the role of host and hostess, some do not; the William Strattons reportedly entertained some 25,000 people a year during their years in residence. Less formal entertaining is more frequent; governors inviting legislators and reporters to the mansion for dinner or drinks for a little schmoozing is a familiar Springfield ritual.


In addition to its ceremonial and residential roles, the house is also by now an historic site. Some 30,000 people traipse through it each year on tour. The not-for-profit Illinois Executive Mansion Association was set up in 1972 to promote and preserve the historical integrity of the Executive Mansion, which in plainer English means raising money for its upkeep and furnishings that the state provides only fitfully.


Not many governors have seemed to like the place, but the reasons have little to do with its accommodations. Stevenson in 1952, told a crowd in Springfield that the place he had regarded as “a prison or a salt mine” in his early years as governor now seemed to him, “That beautiful, revered old house.” (It should be noted that he said that as he was about to leave it.) Certainly few governors have loved it, and most recent ones have maintained residences elsewhere during their terms in office; Gov. Rod Blagojevich opted to continue to live in his native Chicago officially, and use the mansion as a pied à terre.


The mansion’s exterior offers a case study in the vagaries of architectural fashion. Van Osdel’s original plan was vaguely Classical—a low roof, low pediment, and a twenty-eight-foot-tall glazed cupola that gave light into a central circular stair. In about 1889 that decorous house was altered to conform to early Victorian style. The roof was raised and rimmed by a new balustrade, the cupola was removed, and the original red brick was painted white. That was the first of several exterior remodelings, the most recent done in 1971–72 when the house was expanded to include, among other changes, a seven-room private apartment for the governor and his family; that project saw the return of the original paintless exterior brick.


The Executive Mansion today overlooks a square-block state parking lot, an insult that mansion groundskeepers have decorously shielded by trees, which spares governors the view, although the general public must still endure it.


Centennial Building (Michael J. Howlett Building)

This was the first office building constructed to handle an expanding state government after state government began outgrowing the 1876 statehouse. Its construction coincided with the centennial of the state’s organization, in 1918. (It took five years to build, so the party was a little late.) It is still known among Springfield old-timers as the Centennial Building, but it was renamed in 1992 after a popular but otherwise undistinguished secretary of state.


Designed in the Beaux Arts style that was then as standard in government buildings as cost overruns, the building’s north façade was adorned with a frieze on which were engraved the names of 18 Illinoisans deemed to have been important to the history of the commonwealth in its first one hundred years—Worthen, Peck, Coles, Bateman, Turner, Lovejoy, Ford, Marquette, Pope, LaSalle, Clark, Bond, Edwards, Yates, Douglas, Lincoln,  Grant, and Logan. The roster is heavy with politicians, explorers, and military officers—all white and all male, inevitably. The building has been expanded over the years to the same design, with the result that yards and yards of new frieze awaits the engraver, but the state has not added to its list of accomplished people. The stone has stayed blank not because there has not been enough Illinoisans of distinction since 1918 but too many, so that narrowing the list would pose politically delicate dilemmas.


The Centennial Building once housed the Illinois State Museum, the State Historical Library, and the Illinois State Library (which then included the State Archives). Indeed, the Centennial Building was built mainly for those institutions, but the building was quickly appropriated for offices by other agencies and departments, as were the large additions made to it beginning in 1930. The sole original ceremonial and public space to survive in its original form is the somber, indeed rather gloomy Memorial Hall on the ground floor, which is used as a site for luncheons, receptions, and other public events, even the occasional concert.


Memorial Hall may be the official name, but the space is almost universally known as the Hall of Flags. At the end of the Civil War, most of the flags of Illinois’s infantry, cavalry, and artillery regiments were displayed in rooms at the statehouse, along with a collection of national flags, standards, and guidons (regimental pennants) and some Confederate flags captured by Illinois soldiers. Nearly 400 of these national and regimental banners were re-installed in the Memorial Hall in the 1930s.


Most of the flags—some already damaged by war and weather—were made from silk, which has decayed with the years. The hall’s interior was not humidity- or temperature-controlled, and flags mounted against the south wall were exposed to sunlight as well, which is as fatal to a flag over time as cannon shot. Various conservation steps slowed the deterioration but did not stop it. In recent years many flags were removed to a climate-controlled warehouse at nearby Camp Lincoln, the state headquarters of the Illinois National Guard, and put under the care of the Illinois Military Museum there. There, with more room for display, the old flags  could be  removed from their staffs in order that their designs can be seen, which was never possible in the Centennial Building.

State Archives (Margaret Cross Norton Building)

The Illinois state archives—the official repository of state documents of permanent value—are housed in the what has been known since 1995 as the Margaret Cross Norton Building. Norton was the woman who, in 35 years as superintendent of the Illinois State Archives, earned a national reputation in the field. Naming such buildings is usually done to make a political point or repay a political debt, but the new building really was the Margaret Cross Norton building, since it was built during her tenure to her specifications.


The Norton Building was finished in 1938, which for some records was too late. Valuable military records had long been kept in the State Arsenal, but when that building burned down in 1934 the fire took many records with it. The fire made clear the sensibleness of such a special-purpose structure to even the General Assembly. The result was an overdue commitment to build a repository that would protect against not only fire but paper’s other enemies, such as humidity, excessive heat, vermin, theft, and exposure.


The archives were dismissed for years as state government’s musty attic, the province of equally musty scholars and librarians. But new information technologies have made more of their vast holdings accessible to the general public, and new public enthusiasm for local history and genealogy have made them desirable. The state archives also provides Illinois teachers with facsimiles of historic government documents and explanatory texts for use as teaching aids; archives staff also advises in the transfer of local government records to seven regional repositories in university libraries around the state. In addition to reference librarians—the archives provides reference services to more than eight million public information queries a year—the staff includes restoration technicians who treat some 50,000 documents that have deteriorated from age, use, or mistreatment.


Illinois State Museum 

The Illinois State Museum began as a cabinet of geological specimens (including fossils) that had been amassed by the State Geological Survey since its founding in 1851. The attitude of the still-young state government toward the sciences can be inferred from the treatment it gave these precious specimens. They were crammed in whatever odd corner the state had at the moment—in the offices of the Supreme Court and Senate in the old capitol in Springfield, the old Arsenal on 5th Street, then in the local Masonic Hall, and the basement of the local post office. Beginning in 1877, a modest State Museum of Natural History was housed on the third floor of the west wing of the present Illinois statehouse—the sixth site for the collections.


Other agencies resented the space given to the museum in the new capitol, and it was forced to move within the building several times until 1887, when the then-secretary of state ordered the exhibits dismantled. Most of them were dumped into the building’s basement—an insult to both the exhibits and to science. The exhibits had been the work of geologist Amos Worthen, an able and dedicated public servant and a fine scientist whose name appears on the Howlett Building frieze; their mistreatment so traumatized the aging Worthen—the man who could be described as the Lincoln of Illinois science—that he died within a year.


Having outgrown its space at the capitol, the collection was moved in 1903 to the newly completed State Arsenal across the street. It was while there that the Illinois State Museum (its name was changed in 1917) ceased to be just a curio cabinet and grew into a proper scientific organization. Initially its mission was to collect items of natural history and to use these for public education; departments specializing in anthropology and art were added in the 1920s. All its collections grew, thanks mainly to donations by private collectors.


In 1923 the state museum moved from the Arsenal into new quarters at the Centennial Building. The new building had been designed in part with the museum’s needs in mind. It offered the footloose institution a cavernous exhibit hall on the fifth floor—at the Arsenal it was display cases had been relegated to a balcony—and workshops and storage space in the basement. A vast improvement over its predecessors in square footage, the Centennial Building space retained  that advantage for only a few years. It failed in other ways too. The state had provided a fine exhibit space for a 19th century museum; by the time it moved into the Centennial Building such institutions were ceasing to merely display things and began to teach about them, and for that job the Centennial facility was deemed too dowdy and dark.


At least one official plan for an expanded statehouse complex (in 1946) called for a new purpose-built museum building. But science was no more a priority of legislators in the 1940s than it had been in the 1880s, so it took more than 20 years to get it built. The present Illinois State Museum building—a different kind of building on a different site from the one proposed in 1946—opened in 1962 at Spring and Edwards streets. Two floors were devoted to exhibits, the first floor to geology and natural history and the second to anthropology and art. [In 2015 the building was named the Alan J. Dixon Building after a popular hack politician who had nothing to do with the museum, science, or art.]


Today the Illinois State Museum has grown to be one of the major state museums in the country, with extensive collections in the natural sciences, anthropology, and art. Its zoology collections contain over 140,000 specimens, including vertebrate skeletons and fresh water mollusks collections that are among the most extensive of their type in the U.S.; this animal library is widely used to identify animal remains from archaeological digs, fossil hunts, and contemporary crime scenes. More than 200,000 specimens are curated in the geology collections, among them Carboniferous fossils from the scientifically and nationally significant Mazon Creek and Rock Island areas of Illinois. The vertebrate paleontology collection (more than 50,000 specimens) is one of the best Late Quaternary mammal fossil collections in North America; it is especially rich in Pleistocene-aged fossils from the American Midwest.


The Illinois State Museum also is home to the state’s own art collection, the only public collection in Illinois of fine and decorative arts of all periods by Illinois-related artists. A State Art Gal­lery was organized in 1925, and has since grown into a significant collection of 20th-century paintings relating to Illinois (including the Illinois WPA collection of paintings, prints, and sculpture) and decorative arts. The museum holds more than 14,000 objects of aesthetic and historical significance to life in Illinois—tools and equipment used to harvest and prepare and store foods, household accessories of a hundred kinds, bedding, lighting devices, phonographs and recordings, clocks, toys and games (the museum’s doll collection is highly regarded), clothing, jewelry. Especially important collections include Illinois ceramics (manufactured when Illinois was the second largest clay-producing state) and waterfowl decoys (which is one of the best, representing the work of carvers along the Mississippi Flyway). The museum’s 19th century heritage as a curio cabinet survives too, in the form of (mostly donated) collections of armaments, farm and woodworking tools, and paperweights.


The 1962 building was an improvement, but it was too small even when it opened, the result of the state choosing to build on a rather pinched lot to avoid complicated condemnation proceedings required to acquire a larger site. In 1988 the Illinois State Museum acquired a 97,000 square-foot former factory a mile and a quarter from the museum building that had been used for years as a tax processing facility and began renovating it for use as a Research and Collections Center—a back office, so to speak, that freed up space in the main museum facility for exhibitions and educational programs. As for the main building, conceptual plans have been drawn up and planning money allocated for an expansion at its present site but the only space to expand into is now used for parking, which is defended more stoutly around the statehouse than the constitution or a balanced budget, so it might be some time before a bigger building becomes real.

State Office Building (William G. Stratton Building) 

The state’s bureaucracy burgeoned with the expansion and centralization of state government programs that began during the Depression and hasn’t stopped. Flush with taxes generated by the postwar boom, the William G. Stratton administration in 1955 dared build the first large new office building since 1918. Sited immediately west of the statehouse and comprising almost one-half million square feet on nine floors, it was dubbed with the usual poetry the State Office Building. (In 1975 it was renamed for the retired Stratton.) The building housed various departments over the years, but of late it has become back office space for the General Assembly.


No building in the state complex rouses such feeling as the Stratton building. A Peoria journalist suggested in print that the state could solve two problems at once by turning it into a prison: “Wouldn't that be a perfect use for its gulag design?” Workers assigned to offices there insist that it is the best place in the capitol complex to have an office, because there one can’t see it when gazing out the window. Gov. Jim Edgar, who did have to look at it from his statehouse offices across the street, once explored the possibility of cladding it in stone to convert it into a conventional neo-classical building, as one might put a brick front on a mobile home to class it up.


Most observers have joined Edgar to decrying the Stratton Building as too modern, but in fact it was not modern enough. It was designed by Peoria architects J. Fletcher Lankton and John N. Ziegele, who opted for a vaguely International Style then standard for new office buildings but gave the building Beaux-Arts proportions fitting to its role as government building. The result was a building that lacks any clear-cut architectural personality. Oddly, there are no complaints about the Illinois State Museum, which dates from the same era and is an avowedly modern building—perhaps because it is hidden from view of the statehouse by the archives building, and state officials never visit it.


The Stratton’s interior has been remodeled extensively but the exterior has not been maintained as meticulously as it might, which contributes to its shabby appearance. It also is said to block the view of the capitol’s west façade, but one must ask, so what?, as the west side has always been the back door of the statehouse.


In 2002, a commando team of urban planners and architects descended on Springfield and spent four days intensively studying downtown; one of their recommendations was that the now-drab and dreary Stratton Building be razed and replaced by something that could better blend in with the capitol campus. In 2002 state lawmakers began the process of funding a replacement; a new building might be built someday, but, 20 years later, the prospect still seems distant. 

State Armory 

The original (1855) State Arsenal sat at the northwest corner of Second and Monroe, across the street from the statehouse. That structure was replaced in 1903 by a crenellated castle-like version that was dedicated in 1903 during ceremonies officiated by President Theodore Roosevelt. Happily, this building was seldom used for its intended purposes save for a few days in 1908, when it housed refugees from the anti-black riots that broke out in the capital city.


The Arsenal housed Springfield's largest indoor space, and any kind of event drawing a crowd was staged there. Several presidents spoke there, from Coolidge to FDR; other personages of note who appeared in the building include John Philip Sousa and his band, Charles Lindbergh, William Jennings Bryan, Will Rogers, and members of the Chicago Grand Opera, among many others. Perhaps the most celebrated event in the history of the Arsenal was the banquet celebrating the centennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln on February 12, 1909, attended by numerous dignitaries. The grandest show ever staged there, however, took place in 1934 when a ten-year-old boy tossed a flaming paper sack onto the Arsenal’s stage and started a fire that destroyed the building.


The Arsenal's replacement, the current Illinois State Armory, opened in 1936. It housed local  Illinois National Guard units, but its spacious drill floor, ringed with a balcony and faced by a fully-equipped stage, made it a perfect venue for large public gatherings as well. For nearly 50 years it was Springfield’s meeting place, a proto-convention center that hosted car shows, church functions, mass Boy Scout meetings, high school graduations, basketball tournaments, concerts, even the Shrine circus.


The militia long ago moved its offices to Camp Lincoln on Springfield’s north side, and the building was given over to another quasi-military outfit, the Illinois State Police. The latter’s tenancy was supposed to be temporary until the state built a new State Police HQ next door called for in the then-current capitol complex development plan. That plan, adopted nearly 20 years ago, also would have completely rehabilitated and expanded the useful space in the Armory. Both projects fell victim to the state’s congenital attention-deficit disorder.


The State Police have long since moved out, into an empty corporate headquarters building elsewhere in Springfield and the Armory, starved of maintenance for twenty years, is today on life support, past dignity and, apparently, hope. The central drill hall would be perfect for tai chi exercises each morning by massed bureaucrats, but the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union would probably have something to say about that idea.  


Illinois Supreme Court Building 

The Illinois Supreme Court first sat in what is now the Old State Capitol and, after that, in the present capitol. That lasted until 1908, when the justices moved into their own building across the street from the statehouse at Second and Capitol. In addition to a library and courtrooms and space for marshals and clerks, the new building includes small apartments for the use of justices during court sessions.


The Supreme Court building has been decorated in ways that befit its status as the head of an independent branch of government. The court rooms of both the Supreme and the Appellate Court for example are graced by eleven murals on allegorical themes by the American Post-Impressionist Albert Henry Krehbiel, a commission that took four years to complete. Few of the people who paid for them see these embellishments, as the Supreme Court building is one of the less visited buildings in the statehouse complex. [See also Temple of the Law.] 

Waterways/Appellate Court Building 

A fraternal society known as the Court of Honor in 1922 built a neo-classical head­quarters on Monroe Street near Spring Street, opposite the statehouse. The organization thrived for a time, but the Depression laid it low, and the state took it over as offices for the old Illinois Waterways Department. The building has recently been renovated for use by the Appellate Court for the Fourth Judicial District. ●




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.


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.)




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.

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