The downtown headquarters building of the Horace Mann Educators Corp. is getting its first major fix-up since it opened in 1972. Whatever its merits as a work of design, the building certainly was well built. In the years since it opened, Springfield’s city government has had to be remodeled after courts found it suffered from structural un-representativeness. And the old Levee district that Horace Mann replaced has yet to be restored to working condition.
In the 1960s and ’70s, the old Levee vice district around Eighth and Washington had been abandoned by all but those people and businesses that had nowhere else to go. Officially declared a slum, the area’s buildings were bought up and torn down to make way for the Downtown Commercial Urban Renewal Project.
The city thus had lots of open land and needed buildings to put on it. Horace Mann, which was then doing business out of several downtown offices, had lots of employees and needed a building to put them in. The resulting public-private partnership was cited by Look magazine as a reason Springfield deserved one of its eleven All-America City awards in 1969.
Once Horace Mann had its land, it needed a plan. For that the company turned to a young up-and-comer from Seattle named Minoru Yamasaki. At the time Horace Mann hired him to design their new corporate headquarters, the architect was in the middle of doing a couple of big corporate buildings on urban renewal land in another city – the World Trade Center, then a-building in lower Manhattan.
Yamasaki was a modernist in impulse if not in style. He was one of that generation of builders who viewed cities as nuisances, to be cleaned up if possible and ignored if necessary. That opinion was shared by most of his corporate clients of the time; for business reasons they valued the central-ness of central cities but shrank from their city-ness. Critic Paul Goldberger, in his book Up from Zero: Politics, Architecture, and the Rebuilding of New York, notes that the planning orthodoxy of the day held that “seeing away the old and providing a clean slate for the new” was the proper aim of urban planning. The result in Manhattan, as in dozens of other cities, was the “destruction of older neighborhoods for gigantic buildings that didn’t seem to belong there.”
Yamasaki applied the same formula to Springfield. He designed as if his Springfield client’s new building was not located on a city street but on a hill in a park. The new building was even given its own address – 1 Horace Mann Plaza – to further underline its separation from the streets around it.
The problem was that handing over the city’s showoff urban renewal site to an architect who was anti-urban was a very 1950s idea that by 1972 had already been shown to be a failure. The first section of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in St. Louis, designed by Yamasaki in 1956, had failed so spectacularly that it was dynamited by its owners in 1972, the same year the Horace Mann opened.
The most damning indictment of urban renewal was written by journalist Jane Jacobs – The Death and Life of Great American Cities, arguably the most important book on city planning published in the post-war era. In it, Jacobs explained why some urban neighborhoods work, and in doing so laid out a template for the rejuvenation of those that don’t. A lively street is a safe street where both people and money want to be. And liveliness is not generated by trophy buildings, but rather by small businesses operating out of low-rise-buildings built to the sidewalks with shops on the ground floor and people living above and equipped with people-friendly public spaces. The most popular parts of today’s downtown Springfield, I probably don’t need to point out, offer just that kind of environment.
While shabby, most of the old Levee’s mostly 19th century commercial buildings were more or less intact in the latter 1960s. That infrastructure was precisely the sort of asset that these days wins a neighborhood designation (and tax credits) as an historic district. However, the impulse of urban renewal was removal, not rebuilding. The informal name for the process – slum clearance – described it much more accurately.
All of which was known, or could have been, had local officials kept up with their reading; Jacobs’ book came out in 1961, a decade before the dirt was moved for the Horace Mann building. Why bring that up now? Because the city still faces the problem it faced in the early ’70s. Once a scene of too much life, the old Levee, 40 years after its ostensible renewal, has far too little.
Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.