Fixing the People’s House
A grand plan to give the Illinois Executive Mansion new life
The Illinois Executive Mansion has fallen into disrepair before. At least this time, no one is trying to demolish it.
The mansion has been the Springfield residence of Illinois governors stretching back to 1853, but it has been 44 years since the mansion was last renovated. A plan unveiled this month would change that.
Before its last renovation – much like today – the mansion overlooking Fourth and Jackson streets was dilapidated. Then-governor Otto Kerner is believed to have been the driving force behind a 1963 vote by the Illinois House of Representatives in favor of demolishing the Executive Mansion and building a new one somewhere else in Springfield.
In Kerner’s defense, the building was dilapidated to the point of being dangerous. According to a news account at the time, pieces of slate roofing fell to the ground without warning. The lead pipes leaked – and not just at the joints. The ceiling beams were so dry that they were like tinder waiting for the exposed wiring to set them alight. A fireman called the mansion a “firetrap,” and Helen VanDiver, the head housekeeper at the time, said the home was “just a shell.”
“It’s a real wonder no one has been killed or hurt in this place,” she said.
Kerner himself was worried about the safety of his wife and seven children.
“If a fire gets started here, I’m afraid we won’t get out,” Kerner said.
Preservationists like the late Floyd Barringer, president of the Sangamon County Historical Society at the time, rallied to save the mansion. Barringer and others sent letters to Kerner, pressed legislative allies into action and wrote editorials decrying the demolition plan. The Illinois Senate ultimately stopped the bill to demolish the mansion, but renovation didn’t begin until 1971 because of political and personality clashes.
Today, the mansion is again in need of repair. Although it’s on the National Register of Historic Places, the last major renovation of this 45,120-square-foot residence was completed 44 years ago in 1972, shortly before former governor Dan Walker took office. Today, there is damage from leaks and flooding, paint is peeling, the porches sag, exterior wood is rotting and buckling and problems have developed with the heating, ventilation and air conditioning.
On July 19, Illinois first lady Diana Rauner and the Illinois Executive Mansion Association announced a $15 million renovation plan which calls for updating the mansion inside and out using private donations instead of public dollars. As a result of the renovation, the historic building may better live up to its role as the People’s House.
Modernization and preservation
Philip Hamp, an architect and principal at Vinci Hamp Architects in Chicago, says the mansion has undergone numerous changes in its history, so the focus this time would be on emphasizing elements of the original design. Vinci Hamp is the lead architectural firm on the project.
“When it was renovated in the 1970s, a lot of the historic fabric of the mansion was removed,” Hamp said. “There just isn’t that much there of the original. … We’re architects, but we specialize in preservation. Our baseline is understanding the building as it was originally.”
Hamp says the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency provided detailed historical records and photos of the house, which served as a reference for the new plan. He says work on the mansion would accentuate the remaining details of the original design and make the 1970s additions to the house “sympathetic but simpler.”
Inside, the mansion would receive a new HVAC system, a significant security system upgrade and some light plumbing and electrical work. The elevator, used to bring guests with mobility issues from the ground floor to the main floor, doesn’t actually work, so it would be replaced with a more modern version.
Some exterior features of the original mansion were removed or covered up by past renovations, like the original cupola that crowned the mansion. The cupola won’t appear in the new renovation, but Hamp says smaller early details will be reinstated, like the original box gutter design built into the decorative cornices instead of the current modern gutters.
Probably the most significant change to the exterior would be reconfiguring the mansion’s main entrance which faces north. Currently, the front entrance is a two-level “porte cochere” which allows cars to drive up and unload on the ground floor, below the main-level pedestrian door. The stairs at the end of the port cochere lead east and west.
Under the renovation plan, the porte cochere would move to the west side of the mansion. That would allow the front entrance to be shortened and the stairs to be reoriented leading north, as in the original 1853 design of the mansion.
Gates and gardens
Besides renovating the mansion itself, the plan includes a redesign of the grounds, gates and gardens. It’s that aspect of the plan which could most improve how the public uses the mansion and tie in with efforts to redevelop Jackson Street and the YWCA block.
Kent Massie, a landscape architect with Massie Massie and Associates, says the mansion’s symbolic role as the People’s House played a significant role in the new design for the grounds. Massie’s firm, which he runs with his wife, Sue, is subcontracting to design new landscaping for the mansion grounds.
“We wanted the north yard to be very public, and to be able to see the mansion as you approach it,” he said. “The mansion is really a historic structure. Presidents have slept there. Lincoln was there, and so on. There needs to be interpretation of that by people coming to Springfield when the mansion may not be open, so you can at least walk by and see it.”
Currently, the mansion is shrouded in trees, making it difficult to see from the street. The renovation plan calls for removing some of the trees in the north “front” yard to make the mansion more visible. Massie says some of the trees need to be removed anyway, due to old age and disease.
The entrance gates for the mansion grounds are currently on the east and west, but the redesign places a new gate on the north side of the block. The east and west gates would remain, along with the semicircular driveway connecting the gates to the mansion. The north gate would be for pedestrian visitors.
Although Hamp says there hasn’t been a north gate in the past, the lawn used to be much more open, so a new north gate would help make the mansion more inviting to visitors. He likens the mansion to Springfield’s version of the White House, saying the Executive Mansion’s visibility affects how much of a draw it is for tourism.
Massie says the north gate also allows for better compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. That federal law sets requirements for the slope of a ramp, which the mansion’s current east and west driveways don’t meet. Adding a north gate allows more space for a gentler slope that meets the ADA specifications, Massie said.
The brick wall which lines the south side of the mansion block will remain in place, as will the iron fence lining the north side and most of the east and west sides.
The mansion’s ornate gardens in the front yard would be mostly removed, creating a more English-style open lawn. Rather than direct pedestrians straight from the north gate to the mansion’s front entrance, an oval walkway would frame the yard, with a large open lawn in the middle.
The mansion’s west yard, which is used for utilitarian purposes like parking, would remain mostly hidden from the view of visitors. Meanwhile, the gardens in the mansion’s east yard would be pared down and simplified. The existing French-style parterre garden would remain – albeit in a smaller footprint. That allows a small open lawn in the east yard to be expanded, creating more room for events like tent parties. It also creates an opportunity to grade the east yard so that the ground slopes away from the mansion to alleviate flooding.
Massie says the plants which would be removed from the front yard and east yard were collected over past decades, so they would be moved to other sites whenever possible.
“We’re aware that taking out stuff may bother people,” he said. “We don’t want to have just a backhoe come in and rip stuff out. Part of our goal is to strategically relocate this material. Hopefully, people will recognize that we’re being conservative. … We don’t want to be bad stewards.”
Creating synergy with history
If the mansion renovation comes to fruition, it would reinforce two projects proposed nearby.
Jackson Street, which runs east to west and fronts the mansion block on the north, is one of Springfield’s oldest streets. In 2014, Massie’s firm created a Jackson Street redevelopment plan for the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce and the Historic Preservation Fund within the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln. The plan would give Jackson Street a new identity as a bike and foot trail connecting Abraham Lincoln’s home to the Executive Mansion and the Illinois Statehouse.
Just north of the mansion, between Jackson Street and Capitol Avenue, sits the North Mansion Block, popularly known as the “Y block,” which the City of Springfield purchased from the state in 2014. It currently holds the empty YWCA building and a gravel parking lot. The city is mulling three proposals to redevelop the Y block. One idea, submitted by Flaherty & Collins Properties, would include street-level retail space facing Capitol Avenue, with 200 apartments on upper levels, a hidden parking ramp and a small park on the southwest corner of the block. Under that plan, the YWCA building would be preserved and renovated.
Another idea, submitted by Seth Molen Construction, would include eight apartments in the east half of the YWCA building, with the west half being demolished. That plan would claim a small portion of the land around the YWCA for parking and landscaping, leaving the remainder of the block for other projects.
Massie Massie and Associates submitted the third idea under consideration, which calls for turning the entire block into an urban park. The plan suggests adding sculpture or nods to the city’s history. Hamp says making the Y block into a park would offer a natural quiet space in the downtown.
“That would be terrific,” he said. “It would balance the mansion on the other side.”
Combining the Executive Mansion renovation, the Jackson Trail concept and redevelopment of the Y block could add significantly to Springfield’s tourism appeal. There is currently little activity on Jackson Street, but making that strip attractive and pleasant for pedestrians could draw foot traffic further south in the downtown and create a more natural visual connection between the existing attractions.
Massie notes that the bicentennial celebration of Illinois becoming a state in 1818 is approaching in 2018. The Illinois Executive Mansion Association hopes to finish its renovation project by then, enabling a grand reopening of the mansion for the state’s 200th birthday.
“We all hope something happens (with the Y block) instead of just a gravel parking lot,” Massie said. “For someone who’s been looking at it for 30 years, the idea is that the stars are aligning now to really make this something.”
Contact Patrick Yeagle at email@example.com.