Unbalanced Structure

Checking out the new Illinois State Library

Illinois Times

January 11, 1990

As a Springfield boy I was blessed to have near at hand four libraries, which is about three more than most Downstate cities its size. One of them, the Illinois State Library, was housed on the third floor of the then-Centennial Building. Like the Carnegie-funded building that housed Springfield's public library, the Lincoln Library, the state library space offered more columns and arches and vaulted ceilings than space for storing and using books.

 

When the old Lincoln Library was replaced, its architects, under orders, went much too far in the direction of practicality. The new state library building, reviewed here, struck a better balance between architectural identity and public purpose. Rereading my review today, I see I was over-critical. Anything the state erects in the Capitol Complex that isn't an abomination should have been celebrated.

 

Note: The new building was later named the Geraldine Brooks Building, after the fine Chicago poet, although the institution housed in it remains the Illinois State Library.

 

It is typical of the confusion of the times that the newest state government building being constructed in Springfield at the moment is also the oldest. The new state library at Second and Monroe is novel for its lack of novelty. Like its cousins elsewhere in the capitol complex, it is clad in limestone; the building's main facade features a row of twin Doric columns that stretch across an arcaded podium made of "rusticated" or rough-hewn stone with matched pavilions on each end. It has an atrium—is there so much as a tree house or garden shed being built anywhere these days that doesn't?—but it is discreetly recessed between the library's office and book storage sections.

 

In style the new library is stripped-down Neo-classicism, what we might.call post-Reagan Nostalgic. The state library was designed by the Chicago firm of Graham Anderson Probst & White, but the real architect was Jim Edgar. It is a bold leap into the past, a reversion to the imitation Greek and Roman temples that for so long supplied the models for public buildings in the U.S. Blending monumentality and pretension (and cost overruns) Neo-classicism gave us our ideas of how courthouses and city halls and libraries and banks (which are, after all, arms of the government in this country) ought to look like.

In a statement describing the project, the firm complains that the visual harmony of the statehouse complex has been "endangered by the inclusion of a few modem, contextually unbalanced structures." The new library thus aims to be un-modern and contextually balanced—meaning it won't stick out among the Capitol and its companion structures such as the Centennial and Supreme Court buildings (1918 and 1908 respectively) and the state armory (1936).

 

This is urbanism of a very low order. The Edgarian ideal apparently is a government complex in which everything "matches," like a bedroom suite. The building at Monroe and College that houses Play It Again Sam's bar is not intrusive because it is modern but because it is banal; the modernist Attorney General's building and Illinois Bar Center in turn are impeccably respectful of context, being consistent with their neighbors in material and scale and setback distances.

 

The architects do not identify which structures displease them, but anyone in Springfield can guess they mean the Stratton Building. But building a lesser Centennial Building is not the only alternative to building another Stratton Building; we could have tried to build a better Stratton Building. No one dare risk that (especially no one who wants to be elected governor) so soon after the fiasco of the State of Illinois Center in Chicago. In a way, a retreat to Neo-classicism for the library is at least historically apt. That style arose at a time when cultures had run out of ideas about how to depict their institutions architecturally, and so borrowed those of the Greeks and Romans; having exhausted Modernism, we find ourselves similarly strapped.

 

So it's full-speed ahead to the past. Graham Anderson et al praise the Centennial Building in particular as an "outstanding" Beaux Arts design. The main reading room of the old library, which is housed on the Centennial's third floor, is an admirable space. The new building will also have an airy reading room (now referred to inevitably as an information center) on its second floor and its north-south atrium found its inspiration in the monumental hall in the old building known as the Hall of Hags. The new building should be an improvement over the old one in that particular at least. The old hall is described as a vestibule but isn't really, and it has always been rather dark; the new atrium should be an improvement both functionally and aesthetically.

 

In certain of its external features the new library borrows as much from the Supreme Court Building as from the Centennial. Not enough, I'm afraid; details such as the carved stone balustrade atop the cornice and ornamental grills on the windows, and stonework on the window pediments are missing. Our leaders have not lost their pretensions but grandeur has become unaffordable.

 

There is a precedent for aping these monuments to cheap skilled labor. The Armory and Archives did it a half-century ago. But these projects, while limited to Neo-classic design elements, nevertheless subtly rearranged them in their own ways. They thus added to the architecture of the Capitol complex, if only modestly; the new library merely extends it.

A big building can be looked at in several ways. The public is usually concerned with how it looks. The library staff will judge it by how it works. Critics and historians will be interested in what it means. This last is not a frivolous question, although it often gets very frivolous answers. How we house our institutions reveals a lot about how we see them. A certain monumentality is expected in a library, and is appropriate in a repository of the culture. But while we may agree that a library ought not to look like an airport terminal or a parking garage, it is just as absurd for a new state library to look like an old state office building. In choosing a design that is utterly anonymous, one whose chief virtue is not only that it doesn't offend but doesn't risk offending, Edgar revealed his sense of the library as an archival institution rather than activist. A state's library, I can't help wishing, ought to demand a certain attention, and assert an identity beyond being just a pretty box to store books in.

 

Respect for the past can look a lot like uncertainty about the future. Chicago Tribune critic Paul Gapp asked about the design for that city's new main looks-like-a-library-ought-to-look library building, "Is it aesthetically valid for a 1988 building to look like an 1888 building?" His question is even more pertinent to the new state library, because Graham Anderson Probst & White's appropriation of historical forms is even more literal than that of Thomas Beeby, who designed the new Chicago main library building. Gapp complained that Beeby had "turned his back on too much," namely the whole of Modernist architecture. The Modernist era is our history, all the history most of us will ever know. The anti-historicism that is part of the Modernists' need is now revenging itself on the very movement they advanced. The ultimate modernist building in the 1990s will be the one that has no trace of the modem in it.

 

The state library thus may be enjoyed by the cognoscenti as an in-joke, a building so out of it that it's hip. Unlike Beeby's library, unfortunately, this one's embrace of the past lacks enthusiasm. Like Edgar, it is respectful of the past as much from lack of imagination as a sense of tradition. The problem is that banality rendered in limestone is no more inspiring than banality done in plate glass. It just lasts longer. ●

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