Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
Cheese on a Plate
A bigger, not better, capitol complex
September 15, 1983
When the State of Illinois decided to build a new Department of Revenue headquarters, I endorsed the idea of building it downtown. I was wrong. Because if its size—a pre-digital tax processing facility operated more like a factory than an office buildings—it had to be built several blocks from the statehouse. It promised to enliven downtown, but it is too far for workers to walk from the site to downtown on a 30-minute lunch break; instead, Springfield got lots of fast-food franchisers located five minutes from the building. Dozens of buildings around it were razed for parking lots and the building itself turned out to the badly built. Better if it had been built on the edge of town, near an interstate, in a complex that offered space for cafes and restaurants and cleaners and day care within walking distance of the desks.
No one who drives along Jefferson Street just west of downtown Springfield is likely to overlook it anyway. The State of Illinois' new Revenue Center, all ten acres of it, is moving toward its scheduled completion in mid-1984. It is neither the most ornate nor the costliest nor, the ugliest building the state has ever built. But it's for sure one of the biggest. Imagine a White Oaks Mall without the Orange Julius stand and you get the idea.
Actually, the bulk of the building is buried below ground, a practice which, if more widely followed, would no doubt improve our opinion of modern architects. The model of the structure was unveiled in the spring of 1980. It showed a slab-like base of precast concrete covering virtually the entire four-block site; rising from this extended horizontal plane like cheese on a plate were twin office blocks connected by an atrium. The design seemed uncluttered, restrained, and perfectly anonymous.
Well, as architecture critic Paul Goldberger remarked a few weeks ago in the New York Times, "Almost everything looks good in model form." We awaited the actual building with trepidation. The design was the work of the Springfield firm of Ferry & Henderson, which has had more to say about the way Springfield looks in the '80s than any other firm; in the process, F&H reveals the risks one runs in catering too obligingly to clients who spend their weekends dressed in golf outfits.
The real building is certainly different from its model. But, Goldberger to the contrary, it looks much better. (There have been the usual changes made in the initial design, chiefly in the office block. Instead of concrete panels interrupted by ribbons of horizontal windows, the entire blocks have been sheathed in the same tinted glass used to roof the atrium. The change detracts from the stated original intention to making the atrium the dramatic focus of the design, but not fatally.) [Note: The glassed-in central tower became a heat sink.]
But it is not any difference from the model that makes the building so much more interesting but differences between the way we look at models and the way we look at buildings. Goldberger points out that while one usually views models from above, no one really sees buildings from above except helicopter pilots—and, around here, the governors who ride with them. From above, the sheer expanse of the building is vividly plain. The office blocks shrivel in significance in the midst of all that square footage. Seen from street level, however, that expanse is hidden by the concrete walls which ring the building and loom nine feet and more above the sidewalk. Undistracted by the intervening distance, one's eye fastens instead on the office blocks, which from the street regain their place as a focal point of the structure. The overlapping horizontal planes, punctured by vertical outcrops, seemed insignificant in model form but give it a surprisingly mobile image to the viewer passing by.
Further, the building's sheer breadth has the effect of creating its own setting, creating its own horizon almost. (Only the state's electrical generating plant mars the otherwise uninterrupted vista.) It is not inspired design but intelligent. Its charms are in its shapes rather than its details. If it shows an indifferent face to the pedestrian it's because it was designed for access by automobile. (There is a nice irony here. The most interesting view of the building may be looking east up Jefferson Street. The site slopes considerably toward the west as Jefferson descends into an old creek valley, and the building sort of reveals itself plane by plane as one moves uphill. Few people will see it this way, however; Jefferson Street is a one-way street that leaves cars heading in the opposite direction.)
One is often tempted to overpraise new buildings which manage to not be actually ugly; we no longer expect art, but are grateful to get anything better than insult. We don't know how well the building will actually work, of course, and one of those office blocks does tend to put one in mind of the Wizard of Oz's Rubik's Cube. Still, one need only glance a block to the south at the Bicentennial Building, a private office building which looks like it was built out of Lego blocks by a twelve-year-old nursing a grudge, to be reminded of what the revenue center could have become.
Alas, there is no doubt about the revenue center's effect on its neighbors. The building—which will house as many as 3,000 lunching workers who will arrive each morning aboard as many as 2,000 cars—landed like a bomb on the edge of a modest residential district. It is still throwing up debris from the impact, in the form of gravel and asphalt parking lots. The Department of Revenue has allowed for parking for only 600 or so cars on the site itself. Department officials reportedly are still talking about incentives to reduce the influx of cars (including charging for those spots, and offering discounts to car poolers). But since private rental parking is already available nearby as cheaply as $15 a month (a weekday spot in Chicago's Loop, of course, is more like $75) such a policy is hardly likely to help.
This is precisely the sort of thing that makes us long-time Springfield residents regard the state as an occupying army. Like any occupied people, we have our share of collaborators. Already ten houses have been razed for rental parking. The fact that many such lots (including backyard lots) are in contravention of the city's zoning laws seems not to bother the city any more than it does their owners. Back in July the city council spoke of the need for a licensing procedure to insure that such lots are at least properly screened—this while they approved construction of two more new ones. The city continues to act as if the problem is not having enough parking spaces in its increasingly congested central core, when in fact the problem is that there are too many cars.
Indeed, the Capitol Complex (an area now effectively extended at least a dozen square blocks by construction of the revenue center) is approaching the design ideal to which two generations of architects and urban planners have devoted themselves. The entire complex of public and private buildings extending for several blocks north of the Statehouse is rapidly coming to resemble an archipelago. Isolated office blocks like the Alzina Building (wherein the State Board of Education cowers) and 222 S. College rise like islands out of a sea of cars. Soon the views between these buildings, along with Jefferson West, 325 W. Adams, and the state's new computer center will be separated by nothing larger than a Country Squire. Thus the hoped-for efficiency of concentrating state agencies in one place will be achieved at last: Employees won't need to use telephones to transact interagency business, they can use semaphor flags.
This failure to consider buildings in their urban context is not a fault unique to Springfield or state government, obviously. The state, by building such a massive complex without serious attention to where its employees will eat and park as well as work is merely passing off the public cost of expansion to the private citizen, in the form of traffic congestion, dirtier air, undesirable land uses, and ugliness. The state has both the money and the legal power to acquire and develop not just individual sites but the whole Capitol Complex—not just the "official" complex but the actual complex. What the state lacks is imagination and any sense of commitment to the task extending farther into the future than the next election. That and conscience.
And the city? Well, it is helpless against the state's pre-eminent legal authority. But until the state takes responsibility for adjacent land, the city could at least put new muscle into land use controls (including lawsuits where needed). Failing that, the city council might at least protest; it might not save many houses or trees but it might salvage something of its honor.
In the meantime, I suggest that you drive around the revenue center twice. Look at the building in its different aspects the first time around. On the second trip, look at everything surrounding the building. That way, if anyone asks you at a party how not to plan a city, you'll be able to tell them. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
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 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.
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.
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."
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 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” 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.
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
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
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.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Politics & government
Arts & culture