Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017 12:11 am
Mansion progress report
$15 million governor’s mansion restoration anchors nearby projects
The fountain is gone. You can tell because a wide treeless dirt path, accented by a large mound of gravel, offers an unimpeded view of the empty space where it once stood.
The north entrance is a stark vision of exposed steel beams, plywood construction doors, broken concrete and huge recycling bins brimming with discarded metal. Dusty demolition debris thunders down chutes while replacement materials are delivered to upper floors by ever-present and long-reaching boom machines.
The circular staircases are virtually the only recognizable interior features and they vie for attention with old and new exposed joists, crated and bagged chandeliers, stripped floors, partially opened walls and a mechanical garden of wire and pipe.
Welcome to the active major construction site known as the Illinois Executive Mansion, the epicenter of work in the neighborhood that is either underway or soon will be.
Nearly $2 million worth of work has been completed so far on the privately funded $15 million renovation project at the nation’s largest and one of the oldest official gubernatorial residences. The activity is addressing 45 years’ worth of major structural and life safety issues, plus it will transform the mansion into a more accommodating tourist destination and make it look more like it did around 1900 rather than 1972, the last time it experienced this type of construction activity.
“There’s some original brick from 1855,” said John Goetz, owner of R.D. Lawrence Construction Company of Springfield, the general contractor for the project. Goetz pointed out several interior and exterior areas where removal of 1972 bricks and wall coverings had exposed the original bricks, most of which will be covered by new material and preserved in place.
“We’ll be bringing it back to its turn of the 20th century appearance while bringing it up to modern building, energy efficiency and accessibility codes,” Goetz said. “It’s going to be beautiful.”
People will be able to see that restored beauty more readily.
“One of the goals is to reveal the house, and historically the landscape was not as overgrown as it was a year ago,” said project architect Philip Hamp of Vinci-Hamp Architects Inc. from Chicago. “The mansion had a lot of trees that had grown up and the landscaping kind of obscured the home.”
The once foliage-festooned yard has been cleared of vegetation between the mansion’s north entrance and Jackson Street. A new public entrance will be located at mid-block on Jackson. Once on the grounds visitors will gather at a small plaza before proceeding up one of two flanking, accessible walkways that circle either the east or west part of the grounds and lead directly to the main mansion entrance.
“Although there was never an entrance off Jackson Street, we decided to put one there and open up the yard so the building has a better connection with the city,” Hamp said. “If you walk down Fifth Street southbound and you look up at the mansion, you can see it better now.”
What you see now is also a lot of emptiness and dirt, but that will change starting in the spring of 2018.
“There will be quite a few plantings, all new sod, an irrigation system, a lot of brickwork as far as patios and driveways,” said Kevin Massie of IFP in Beardstown, the firm that will perform the landscape work. He said the end result will be pleasing and welcoming, in keeping with the recent tradition of impeccably kept grounds at the mansion.
“Those in charge of the landscaping at the mansion in the recent past did a nice job of maintaining the facility,” Massie said. “It was their passion to keep the grounds looking nice.”
The construction activity that can be seen today began as a July 2016 announcement by Illinois first lady Diana Rauner and the Illinois Executive Mansion Association, a plan to use only private donations for the $15 million renovation. A major part of that plan is to make the mansion a more accommodating tourist destination before the state’s 200th birthday festivities that begin in August 2018.
“We are creating a new educational visitors center and reimagined the public spaces to showcase the best of Illinois’ fine and decorative arts,” Rauner said. “We are thrilled to be underway with these major renovations and cannot wait to reopen this spectacular building to the public in time for the 2018 Illinois Bicentennial.”
“The Executive Mansion is a symbol of pride for Illinois, where tens of thousands of guests come through its doors each year,” Rauner said. “We want people to fully experience the building’s storied history.”
The mansion’s public areas will be operated as a state historic site, similar to the state-operated Old State Capitol or the adjacent Vachel Lindsay Home. Justin Blandford, who is with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and for years had overseen operations at several historic sites for the former Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, has been working with the Executive Mansion Foundation and the general contractor on visitor accommodations and interpretive themes.
Nancy Bunn of Springfield has been an Executive Mansion Association trustee since 2014 and is the executive board secretary.
“What is important is what it will bring to our downtown, to the people who live in central Illinois and to the tourists that come into the city,” Bunn said. “My interest in this project is, selfishly, all about Springfield. It adds an important piece to downtown going forward.”
Bunn said the private fundraising is going well, with approximately $13 million of the needed $15 million already raised. Regular project updates are posted on the Executive Mansion Association’s Facebook page, she added.
“I think we could be the envy of many nonprofits who would love to have some of the support we have had from every part of the state,” Bunn said. “People have rallied behind this project and supported it.”
Construction crews are also active just to the west of the Executive Mansion, where the old Mansion View Restaurant is undergoing a $1 million transformation into Loukinens’ on 4th, a casual, upscale American fare restaurant slated to open in October.
“It will accommodate everyone, whether it’s visiting families who are touring Springfield or local politicians,” said Laurie Loukinen, who is developing the restaurant with her husband, Keith. Loukinens’ on 4th will also feature a lower level for receptions or meetings, an outdoor dining patio, and a special feature inspired by their next-door neighbor.
“We have a specific area in our main dining room with a private table that can seat any group up to eight people, and we are calling that the Governor’s Table,” Loukinen said. “It doesn’t mean it’s reserved for him, but if he should come in, that table could certainly be his first pick.”
“We started our project around the same time that they started the mansion project,” Loukinen said. “It was just sheer happenstance timing.”
Happenstance did not play into the city of Springfield’s plan to develop the block north of the Executive Mansion. The city purchased the property in 2014, tore down the old YWCA building, and now has three development proposals for the land under active consideration. The goal is to give Jackson Street a new identity as a bike and foot trail connecting the Lincoln Home, Executive Mansion and the Illinois Statehouse.
“The Executive Mansion was the catalyst to create that additional interest. It really gives others the energy and inspiration to invest in that area,” said Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder.
“The bottom line is we want that to be a place that draws people, local residents and tourists.”
The city of Springfield plans to use TIF money to alleviate flooding on Jackson Street, another step toward the revitalization of the area.
“The Jackson Street corridor is really going to change the face of downtown because we are having that cohesive approach for the entire corridor,” Langfelder said.
Illinois REALTORS®, the mansion’s neighbors to the east, have already publicized their plans for a new $2.6 million Bicentennial Plaza that will link Fifth and Sixth streets with a multiuse pedestrian mall, extending the Jackson Street corridor to the Lincoln Home area. The first visible sign of work on the plaza should come in the next month or so with the removal of an old bank branch building on Sixth Street. The plaza should be open in time to be part of Illinois Bicentennial activities in August 2018.
“The plaza will feature interpretive panels that will outline area history, particularly some of the contributions that African-Americans have made,” said Illinois REALTORS® spokesman Jon Broadbooks. “This of course is fairly close to where the Springfield Race Riots took place, so this is an opportunity to tell that story.”
“The Executive Mansion really did provide an opportunity for us to sit down and discuss what we could do to enhance the area,” Broadbooks said. “I think you have all of the component building blocks to have a nice feature for the downtown area.”
The Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau (SCVB) is eagerly anticipating the perfect storm of construction project completions in the Jackson Street corridor.
“Any time you improve facilities, adding to the product we have, it’s obviously a bonus for tourism,” said SCVB Executive Director Gina Gemberling. “The more opportunities and options there are for our visitors, the longer they will stay locally, and therefore leave more tourism dollars in the community.”
Springfield Ward 2 Alderman Herman Senor, in whose ward all of this new development is located, couldn’t agree more.
“It’s a good time whenever we have movement in Springfield when people are coming in and developing and building things,” Senor said. “Hopefully it will be a domino effect and we can get many, many people in to look at that North Mansion Block and to visit the Executive Mansion.”
David Blanchette is a freelance writer and photographer from Jacksonville. He was part of the group that planned and opened the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and served as a media spokesman for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, Capital Development Board and the Governor’s Office. Prior to his state service, David had a career as an award-winning broadcaster. He is also the co-owner of Studio 131 Photography in Springfield.