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Thursday, Jan. 20, 2005 07:24 pm

Back to the future

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Cover illustration courtesy of Robert Johnson

Downtown Springfield is about to resurrect a piece of its history as Union Station, the former rail depot that spans an entire block of Madison Street, undergoes a nearly $10 million makeover.

The project includes a dramatic reconstruction of Union Station's original 110-foot clock tower, crowned by a 40-foot flagpole, both of which were removed from the building in the 1940s.

"Union Station is a one-of-a-kind design, and it's going to look exactly as it looked in 1898," says Bill Borgognoni, lead architect for the project. His Carbondale-based firm also restored the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices.

Once abandoned and threatened with demolition, Union Station has since been ensured a long future as the welcome center for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum complex.

Although its medieval-looking tower will be closed to the public -- open only to maintenance crews -- supporters say it will serve as a beacon leading people to the new presidential museum.

But now, at the project's 11th hour, just as bids go out for a general contractor charged with overseeing the project, the local millionaire who once owned Union Station has come forward with an alternative vision for the clock tower.

Michael Scully, 78-year-old heir to one of central Illinois' largest family fortunes, has commissioned his own architectural-design plan to re-create the ancient legend of the Holy Grail in downtown Springfield.

Scully, who is well known for his eccentricities, has gone to some expense to publish his own admittedly unconventional idea, which he believes could make Springfield a draw for thousands of people each year who would ascend the tower seeking spiritual enlightenment.

"I have only one interest in Springfield," says Scully, "and that's Union Station.

"My interest is in what lies behind the tower -- the symbolic significance of the tower and what it could be."

"Old" Michael Scully, as he is known, insists that he has no particular affection for historic buildings. This is strange, given that the Scully clan is responsible for having restored many prominent structures throughout Springfield.

Scully's son, known as "Young" Michael, and his daughter-in-law, Nanchen, rehabilitated the Weber House on South Seventh Street, as well as the Hickox House downtown, which is home to Norb Andy's.

The family's involvement in Union Station began in 1984, more than a decade after the station had ceased operations as a train depot.

Abandoned for several years, the crumbling building had been threatened with demolition when Young Michael and Nanchen stepped in to buy it.

"It was always occupied by homeless people who built bonfires inside the building," recalls Nanchen, who has since relocated to Vermont. "The roof leaked, the floors buckled, and there was a layer of coal dust on everything."

In a matter of months, the Scullys converted Union Station from a boarded-up eyesore into an upscale shopping mall. But at the time there was little else to draw people to downtown Springfield. The venture died as quickly as it began, at a loss of some $5 million.

As the debts piled up, the senior Scully was forced to take control of the operation. "It pretty much fell into my lap," he says.

On the advice of local attorney and preservationist Richard Hart, Scully formed a nonprofit foundation to oversee the management of the building for tax purposes.

For several years after, Scully leased Union Station to the state, which used the building as office space for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and eventually bought it in 1999 for a mere $270,000.

Scully recently commissioned former city historian Ed Russo to chronicle his family's involvement with Union Station.

The result is a large-format 16-page glossy brochure titled The Union Station and Its Tower: Restoration and Future. Scully spent about $10,000 to produce the monograph, which will be exhibited later this year at the Lincoln Public Library, 30 miles north of Springfield.

The brochure includes a conceptual design sketch for the clock tower's interior by Springfield architect Bruce Ferry, whose firm won national awards for its reconstruction of the Old State Capitol building.

The architectural drawing, based on Scully's idea, shows a winding staircase that coils up through the clock tower, with two observation decks overlooking downtown Springfield.

At the top of the tower is a meditation room with a representative "Grail" cup. Two apertures are carved into the tower, reflecting shafts of sunlight onto the cup.

"The symbolic quest," writes Russo, "would come in the act of physically climbing the stairs."

Scully says he is quietly seeking political backing for his idea. Just 100 copies of the brochure were printed, half of which were mailed out last month as Christmas gifts to Scully's friends and family members.

The remaining copies were strategically sent to many of the state's political elite. Gov. Rod Blagojevich, U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Barack Obama, and Springfield's three legislators each were mailed a copy.

But Scully has so far received no responses.

Scully is widely known for his eccentricities. He collects crystals, believes in karma and reincarnation, and is a devout follower of esoteric spiritualist Rudolph Steiner.

Friends like to say that Scully was New Age before there was New Age.

"No eccentric ever thinks he's eccentric," Scully says with a wink. "We all have our quirks."

He's also well versed in the legends surrounding the Holy Grail, the mythical object associated, depending on the legend, with the Last Supper or Christ's crucifixion.

Tall and thin, with thick tufts of snow-white hair, Scully cuts an almost regal figure. He has a relaxed, gentle demeanor and speaks in a hushed English accent. Born in London, raised in France, and schooled at Harvard, Scully spent most of his adult life here in Sangamon County -- not counting the months-long European vacations and the annual weeks-long fishing trips in South America, where he is right now.

For 30 years, Michael Scully ran an organic-beef farm on 400 acres in Buffalo, 15 miles northeast of Springfield, on land that was part of his massive inheritance. "I never made a profit," he says, "but, of course, I had extra money from my family, so here we are."

Scully hails from a colorful and controversial family. His grandfather William was an infamous Irish landowner vilified in both Ireland and America for his harsh treatment of tenants.

In the second half of the 19th century, William Scully purchased nearly a quarter-million acres of farmland throughout the Midwest, much of it in central Illinois. His empire, at one time the largest in the United States, remains in land trusts controlled by his descendants.

Scully and his brother, Peter, oversee nine family trusts totaling 44,000 acres, located mostly in Logan County. Their combined holdings are said to be valued at more than $120 million.

Twenty years ago, Scully retired from the farm and moved, with his wife, Jean, into a century-old mansion on Wiggins Avenue, near Washington Park. It was the same year that his son and daughter-in-law had taken over Union Station, leading Scully to embark on what he calls "the last major quest of my life."

With the rehabilitation of Union Station set to begin as soon as next month, it's unlikely that Scully's idea for the clock tower will ever be realized, says a spokesman for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which has authority over the project.

Ed Russo, the retired city historian, says that that's a shame: "A peaceful meditation space seems appropriate for the presidential library."

But the Holy Grail? In Springfield?

"The Grail is a universal theme," says Russo. "It's more symbolic than it is historic."

Bruce Ferry, the local architect, calls the proposal "pretty progressive" but warns against "possible structural problems."

Bill Borgognoni, who is leading the restoration, declines comment on Scully's proposal because he has not seen the plan but does warn of high costs and possible safety hazards.

Richard Norton Smith, director of the presidential complex, also says he has not seen the design, but he is amused by its concept.

"We try to embark on only one crusade at a time here," Smith laughs.

Still, many local observers say that the city of Springfield is indebted to the Scullys.

"Without them," says local preservationist Dick Hart, "Springfield would have lost that train station."

Scully says he considers Union Station a significant footnote in his own rich family history.

He maintains that he was never so much committed to preserving the historic building. But after it became his, he wanted to preserve his idea to open the tower and promote its inherent symbolism.

"If people think it's a good idea, that's fine. If not, that's fine, too," he says.

"But the ideas behind it, I think, are valuable."

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