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Thursday, July 12, 2012 07:40 am

Lawyers set to take over Great Western Depot

Renovations begin at depot where Lincoln said goodbye

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While the rest of Springfield celebrated America’s 236th birthday, Pinky Noll and her husband, Jon, took history into their home by moving exhibits from the Great Western Depot into a carriage house at their Washington Park mansion.

“I disassembled history on the Fourth of July,” Pinky Noll quips.

The Independence Day move marked the beginning of a new era for the depot where Abraham Lincoln bade farewell to Springfield in 1861 to become president and put the union back together again. He never returned alive.

If nothing else, the venerable depot is a survivor, having been rebuilt following fires in 1857 and 1968. The latter blaze came just three years after the then-dilapidated depot was restored and opened as a museum. At one point, it was home to a beer distributorship, complete with a Pabst sign hanging from an exterior wall fronting Monroe Street.

Now, it is destined to become a law office in addition to a shrine that had been the property of GateHouse Media, the parent company of the State Journal-Register that sold the property to the Nolls in May. And Pinky Noll is all smiles as she steps onto a four-step set of stairs that takes visitors from the building’s first floor to the mezzanine.

“Lincoln stepped on these stairs – along with many other people over the years,” she says.

With deep impressions worn into the wooden steps by countless feet over the decades, the stairs look every bit their age. The building, Pinky Noll says, is in excellent condition, and exterior renovations that began last week won’t be extensive, mainly a bit of tuck-pointing and a new roof. The interior of the first floor, which features separate men’s and women’s waiting areas, each with their own cast-iron stoves, also won’t change much, she said.

“I really like what the State Journal-Register did here,” Pinky Noll said. “We’ll probably just do a fresh coat of paint.”

The second story is another matter.

A scaled-down replica of a vintage rail car on the second floor will be torn out, as will a diorama of Lincoln delivering his farewell speech. While the Nolls will keep the first floor open to the public, the mezzanine and second floor, which is an addition to the original structure added after Lincoln’s death, will be transformed into working space for Pinky’s husband and the couple’s son, who are both lawyers. Besides offices and a conference room, there are plans for new bathrooms and perhaps a kitchenette.

If anyone is rooting for a plan to shift trains from the Third Street rail corridor to the Tenth Street corridor, it is the Nolls, whose new office is spitting distance from the Tenth Street tracks. While the move would increase the number of trains running past the historic depot, the consolidation plan calls for either an underpass on Monroe Street or improved crossing gates so that trains that now blast horns could run in relative silence. Pinky Noll says that she and her husband plan to replace the depot’s windows, which might help block noise from train horns, but no horns at all would be best. As it stands now, horns are loud enough to halt conversations.

“You cannot talk in this place for 15 or 20 seconds when a train passes,” Pinky Noll said. “The rattle and rumble doesn’t bother us. There should be some noise.”

The noise, Pinky Noll says, is worth it. While the depot itself has already been altered to the point of being unsuitable for formal landmark status, Pinky Noll said she hopes to get the site onto the National Register of Historic Places once renovations are complete, hopefully by year’s end. Putting preservation onus on taxpayers isn’t realistic, she added.

“One of the things Jon and I both feel strongly about is that buildings have to be adapted for modern use,” Pinky Noll said. “The government can’t take on all this stuff. People need to step up and find a use for these places. We have a community responsibility, not to mention a Lincoln responsibility, to do it right.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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