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Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013 02:54 pm

The people's art museum

Restoration makes the Statehouse too grand for politics

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Soon the plastic will come down to reveal the $50 million renovation. Krohe: "€œThe money was spent very well indeed."€
PHOTO BY DAVID HINE

Soon, the West Wing of the Illinois Capitol will emerge after two years inside a cocoon of plywood and tarps. The structure was closed off, paradoxically, to make that part of the building both newer – by upgrading the building’s mechanical systems and making access and safety improvements – and older, by restoring it to its 1888 appearance. Seldom do state official achieve the spectacular, and even less often do they do so within their budget, yet previews of the work suggest that Richard Alsop, the Architect of the Capitol, and the craftspeople and technicians on the job have pulled it off.

Some citizens are miffed because the project cost $50 million. True, that is 1/672nd of what the state spends in a year but the fixes are an investment that will return value for decades. Besides, the issue in Illinois is seldom how much money state government spends but how well it spends it, and in this case the money was spent very well indeed.

That couldn’t always be said about construction projects in the Statehouse. The building took 20 years to build, but it has taken even longer than that to rescue the building from stewards who treated this silk purse of a building as if it were a sow’s ear. (It was being rehabbed 34 years ago, when I first addressed this topic in this paper.)  Even now, just hearing words such as “beige” or “dropped ceilings” causes admirers of the building to break into tears.

As past restorations revealed, converting the Statehouse into an office building (actually a succession of office buildings as technologies and state government changed) made it the scene of all kinds of coverups. In 1888, Springfield painter George Schanbacher decorated the ceiling of the State Library with murals of owls. The owl is a symbol of wisdom, remember, and thus was thought to be a fitting choice to decorate a library. A symbol of wisdom was not considered apt for lawmakers when the library was converted into a legislative lounge in 1923, and they had Schanbacher come back and paint over his earlier work.

I understand perfectly well that the State of Illinois has turned an old ceremonial building into an office building because it can’t seem to build new ones. When I was poor I stored my LPs in a milk crate because I couldn’t afford a cabinet, but that didn’t make the milk crate a cabinet. The Illinois Statehouse is a cabinet, and what it ought to have stored in it is art.

Everything about the building – scale, style, materials – says “grand museum.” It is common in Europe for the palaces of deposed autocrats to be converted to public use as art museums. The Illinois Statehouse is no palace, but what Robert Fitzgerald described as “our castle and our cathedral.” Even so, most of its working interior spaces are surprisingly intimate, and would make decent picture galleries. As for the hallways, they were used to display statuary in the past, including some works that are now tucked away in alcoves. And wouldn’t the House or Senate chambers make a splendid hall for lectures and chamber concerts?

The majestic ground-floor halls that radiate from the rotunda at ground level would be an equally fine venue for monumental sculpture. Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais (you’ve seen it at the Art Institute) would sit very well here. The work commemorates the voluntary surrender of the town leaders of that city during the Hundred Years’ War so the English would spare their city – an example of heroic self-sacrifice in the civic good that might set an improving example.

Alas, Illinois has produced no Rodin, but the People’s Palace of the Arts probably ought to be limited to the work of artists born or based in Illinois anyway, and to works with Illinois subjects. The Illinois State Museum has a fine collection of painting by the state’s artists, and no space in its cramped quarters to permanently display them. If offered an imposing place to show them off I expect the museum would get more from collectors in gifts.

Murals, portraits, commemorative painting of all kinds already so abound in the Statehouse that, measured by the square footage of painted surface, the Illinois Capitol ranks as one of Illinois’ biggest art museums. Unfortunately for the art lover, its many decorative murals are only that. One on the ceiling of the east foyer depicts “Charity” distributing the bounty of a cornucopia, a painting that no doubt has inspired many a legislator and special interest lobbyist as they make their ways toward the rail. Her companion, “Hope,” is portrayed gazing out to sea – hardly the first person in the Statehouse caught daydreaming about splitting for the coast.

As for the paintings that are hanging on the wall rather than painted on them, their purpose is commemorative or celebratory or documentary. The problem is that too many, like the depiction of George Rogers Clark negotiating with Native Americans at Fort Kaskaskia in 1778, must be damned on both historical and aesthetic grounds.

Look, I know this will never happen. There’s no money, not enough good art and who cares about art anyway? But if the bumbling Mr. Quinn can dream of solving the state’s pension crisis without annoying his friends in the unions, I can dream of an Illinois in which the grandest building in the land is devoted to something grand enough to deserve it.

Note: Those who wish to learn more about the Statehouse should visit James R. Donelan and Steven W. Dyer’s exemplary website at http://www.ilstatehouse.com.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at krojr@comcast.net.

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