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Thursday, July 15, 2004 07:41 pm

The Stratton Building’s midlife crisis

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Just west of the Capitol complex, new markers have sprouted from street signs, identifying the area as the Pasfield House Historic District. The city-sanctioned designation honors the memory of one of Springfield's great families and the site of their 40-acre "cosy rural retreat," as it was described in the 1881 History of Sangamon County.

The official designation is the result of efforts by Tony Leone, owner of the Pasfield House. It was Leone who saw in the faded beauty and grace of a decrepit multiunit apartment dwelling the possibility of a Homeric architectural comeback. Through Leone's vision, effort, and a great deal of time and money, George Pasfield's grand house (built in 1896) is once again an anchor of the neighborhood, an architectural showplace, and a viable business concern, used for parties and conferences and as a home away from home for visiting legislators.

The neighborhood has undergone radical changes in the last 50 years. Despite the honorary designation, the Pasfield House never did truly dominate the neighborhood landscape. It always existed in the shadow of St. Agnes Church (built in 1889), which was torn down in the early '80s and relocated to Amos Street to make way for the parking ramp that now stands where the church, school, and rectory once did. (The ramp which now occupies those lots does not obscure the memory of a childhood spent at St. Agnes.) For many people, the Pasfield House Historic District might just as aptly be called "Old St. Agnes."

Thousands of boys and girls were educated at St. Agnes School, erected in 1912 at the corner of Pasfield Street and Capitol Avenue. They received the sacraments at the church, which stood at the intersection of Capitol Avenue and College Street. The rectory stood between the school and church and the convent, which now belongs to the secretary of state, still stands at the corner of Pasfield and Monroe streets.

Since 1954, the neighborhood's 800 pound-gorilla has been the Stratton Building, the hulking and much-maligned (some would say misunderstood) Cold War-era behemoth that is the symbolic western border of downtown. For years before the building's construction (at a cost of $11.5 million), the state of Illinois had experienced an acute shortage of office space, and its completion allowed the government to domicile many of its scattered operations under a single roof.

In a dedicatory address, then-Gov. William Stratton (for whom the building later would be named) hailed the New State Office Building (as it was called) as "the finest building that any state has ever constructed for its employees to work in." Two city blocks of homes were demolished in 1953 to make room for its construction. Only St. John's Lutheran Church, now relocated to West Washington Street, was spared destruction. Now, like so much of downtown Springfield, a parking lot lies where the church once stood.

 

Recently a movement has been afoot among our legislators to raze the Stratton Building because they consider it unsafe and technologically obsolete. In May, a House committee voted unanimously to tear down the structure, and the House of Representatives agreed by a vote of 94-18. Speaker Michael Madigan and Rep. Karen Yarbrough, D-Maywood, were the main sponsors of House Resolution 577, which recommends that the structure be replaced because "health and technological factors make it unrealistic and not fiscally feasible to rehabilitate the building."

Yarbrough says that the building has long caused her to experience eye and throat irritation. She says that she ultimately realized the building's danger one day when two maintenance workers, fully outfitted in haz-mat suits, came to replace a fallen ceiling tile.

Yarbrough recalls, "I said, 'What is going on here?' If they have to wear these suits for routine carpet or ceiling maintenance, then what about the rest of us?

"I just want a safe work environment. Health and safety is my only concern. If there is a way to clean it up, to make it safe, in a way that isn't exorbitant, then I'm all for it, but there is probably not an abatement program that won't send us to the poorhouse."

The legislator says that she supports the construction of an environmentally safe and efficient, or "green," office building, and that "most of my colleagues are with me."

Ed Russo, former Springfield city historian and a member of the Historic Sites Commission, admits that the Stratton Building "is not an easy building to love," but he nevertheless considers it historically important and worth preserving.

"This happens routinely," he says. "Not enough thought is given to what buildings might be important to save.

"We are a culture that is afraid of the old. In other civilizations, you might see ruins as part of the landscape. Here, we say, 'Oh, it's for health and safety,' but I think it's just a fear of anything old. They don't always have to be grand buildings, of course. But this [Stratton] is, by all definitions, a grand postwar building. It is a big, bold, and high-profile design. It's not truly an International Style but rather the same old Beaux Arts formal classicism with the veneer of International Style."

Russo cites the Stratton's 1950s-era "modern" architectural style as one major reason it is so unloved. He feels that its placement next to the 1870s-era Capitol presents the average person with too great a visual incongruity. In other words, it clashes with its surroundings.

"I think it is unbelievably important, stylistically. International Style is at its low point of appreciation. It's the same place Art Deco was 30 years or more ago. It's not fully understood yet, and it's just old enough to be out of date. It reflects the historically important cultural change we made when we thought we'd do away with the 'old-fashioned' buildings -- a change from individualism in architecture to a sort of corporate architecture. It is a big, dramatic building, built to portray the power and stability of government, and it sets a certain image. Where the state Capitol is very much the modern Victorian view -- lavish, flamboyant and dramatic -- the Stratton is the era of the man in the gray flannel suit: anonymous yet very powerful. The exterior has all the charm of an IBM card, but I think the interior lobby is quite stunning, actually. It's all cold, hard surfaces -- an amalgam of Art Moderne, Art Deco, and IBM modern."

 

Unless you were born in the first half of the last century, you can't remember a time when the Stratton Building hadn't transformed the neighborhood. For most of us, it has just always been there. Mike Ward, a government-services coordinator with the Illinois Department of Historic Preservation, grew up literally in the shadow of the Stratton Building in a house at the corner of College and Jackson streets, which is now a surface-parking lot. The state claimed the lot and home from his parents, who were unwilling sellers, after long and acrimonious negotiations.

"In the early '80s, the state began making overtures about the visitors' center. We didn't know about it until we read it in the papers. My parents weren't happy about it, but they went through the process. It wasn't pretty, it wasn't fun, and it went on a long time. Eventually they got it worked out. I think it was '87."

For Ward, the Stratton Building was both workplace and playground.

"I used to deliver newspapers there, and of course my brothers and I used to play in the tunnels. The post office in the basement was our neighborhood post office. My 4-H club used to decorate the first-floor windows every year. It was just a neighborhood place, our next-door neighbor. I can remember, when we first moved there from Chicago in 1960, I'd just sit on the porch and watch all the people."

Ward also recalls such extinct local businesses as Stein's Market (later Link's and the Pixie Pantry) and Gottschalk's market (now Boone's Saloon, but does anyone remember the Dairy Rose?) They were but a few of the businesses in the area of the intersection of College and Edwards streets also recalled by Jan Irwin, whose father, Paul Overaker, operated a drugstore and soda fountain next to Stein's for more than 30 years.

"I recall Noah Chambers' meat market and Stu McCutcheon's meat market, so right at that corner you've got two groceries and two meat markets. Across College was the Kopatz filling station. My father's was a real old-fashioned neighborhood place where people would come and say, 'I've got a cough,' or a cold or an ache or a pain. They wouldn't go to the doctor -- they'd come to my father. And I remember him grinding powders with a mortar and pestle and making salves. He made his own cough syrup, which was perfectly awful."

Irwin says that Overaker's was also a social center of the neighborhood, a place where groups of people would come of an evening to enjoy Cokes or ice-cream sodas or milkshakes.

Ward and Irwin say that they don't really have strong feelings one way or the other about the future of the Stratton Building, but Ward says that he would like to see it rehabbed if at all possible.

 

The sort of deterioration that is now taking place in the neighborhood, Russo says, is a natural function of the removal of such binding institutions as churches and schools.

"As the community sprawls out without actually becoming larger, population-wise, it becomes a vacant community, and that's why we have parking lots. It's an imbalance. Right now we're way out of balance. We have lost an incredible inventory of pleasing and important architecture and with it the sense of who we are as a community."

"The difference between buildings today and 100 years ago is that they become obsolete mechanically. Then, they didn't have the systems that we have today. But they become perceptually obsolete, not structurally obsolete. It's our preference, our choice, and aesthetic judgments do change from generation to generation, so you get one person saying it's obsolete because of asbestos, thermal inefficiency, or whatever -- that all has to do with maintenance. So to them it's perceptually obsolete. But is the building structurally sound? Of course it is. Can it still function as an office building? Of course it can. But anything you do to it is going to be immensely expensive."

Russo sees the Stratton Building as one of an important group of 1950s-era architectural landmarks that also includes the YMCA, the Town House, the State House Inn, and Springfield's Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport, none of which is probably yet fully appreciated by the public, in his estimation.

"Just look at the Dana-Thomas House," he says. There was a time when that was thought a ridiculous design: Failed Modern."

He also likens the Stratton Building to Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis (opened in 1966), which has a date with the wrecking ball after the 2005 season for purely economic reasons. Both edifices, he asserts, though still structurally sound, "are like problem teenagers. They haven't come into their own yet."

 

Cheryl Pence, Mary Michals, and Jim Helm of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library assist Bob Cavanagh in researching this column. Contact Cavanagh at

bcavanagh@illinoistimes.com.

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