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Thursday, June 14, 2018 12:23 am

Don’t touch that building!

State blasts YMCA plans


Beautiful, historic and functional: That’s what the state says about the YMCA building at the intersection at Fourth and Cook streets.
Photo By Bruce Rushton


The downtown YMCA building shouldn’t be demolished, says the state Department of Natural Resources, because it’s beautiful, useful and historic – after all, Barack Obama played basketball there while a state legislator.

“Although outside the purview of our regulatory review, this office suggests that the City of Springfield considers (sic) the potential for future tourism related to President Barack Obama, just as it capitalizes upon its association with President Abraham Lincoln,” Rachel Leibowitz, DNR deputy state historic preservation officer, wrote in an April letter to a project contractor.

Leibowitz recommended that city strive to ensure that Obama’s legacy “is understood to have beginnings in Springfield and is not limited to the Chicago area.”

“When he served in the state legislature here, then-Senator Obama played basketball at that YMCA building and was a part of the community that gathered regularly in that space,” Leibowitz wrote.

Unsolicited advice aside, Leibowitz declared the existing YMCA building to be a lovely structure, eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. To tear it down, she wrote, would be an “adverse act” under the Illinois State Agency Historic Resources Preservation Act, and so demolition can’t proceed unless the city consults with the state: “(T)he existing YMCA must not be demolished prior to the resolution of the disposition of this historic property.”

Where some see a dated concrete rectangle, Leibowitz sees “an excellent example of the tenets and principles of midcentury modernism applied to a civic building used daily by a broad popular audience.”

“It features horizontal bands of windows as its major decorative expression on the concrete volume that stands on a raised concrete plinth, with round columns encrusted with a mosaic of one-inch blue tiles,” the regulator writes.

According to correspondence between a local engineering firm and the Department of Natural Resources, the existing YMCA building would be demolished as a condition for the city providing tax increment financing funds to be used to help create a new gym at the edge of the Enos Park neighborhood.

The plan to use TIF money to replace the building gives the state a say in whether the existing structure stays or goes, Leibowitz writes, as well as how a replacement gym at the intersection of Fourth and Carpenter streets will be built. The site proposed for a new gym likely contains “significant prehistoric/historic archaeological resources,” Leibowitz writes, and so an archaeological survey must be completed before construction can begin.

The existing building at the intersection of Fourth and Cook streets, Leibowitz writes, is in fine condition.

“The building is in no way obsolete or structurally unsound, and there is no reason for the city to require the demolition of this building,” Leibowitz wrote. “This building easily could be repurposed and rehabilitated to continue to serve the community for many years to come.”

Buy it then, says at least one member of the YMCA board of trustees.

“I’ll make you a hell of a deal,” says Guerry Suggs, a YMCA board member. He says he hadn’t heard about the state’s concerns until I called.

“I realize you’re not making this up,” Suggs says. “It’s amazing to me. What are you going to do with it? We can’t keep pouring money down the rat hole. I’m sorry, but the building is tired, and it’s done.”

Perhaps, YMCA board member Phil Gonet suggested, Obama’s erstwhile basketball court could be preserved and sent to a planned presidential library in Chicago. Gonet says that he once suggested the state buy the YMCA building and have the aging gym moved to the since-demolished YWCA building next to the governor’s mansion. Former Mayor Mike Houston, Gonet recalls, was opposed because he wanted the YWCA site to generate tax revenue, and the Y doesn’t pay taxes.

Mayor Jim Langfelder chuckles at the state’s suggestion that the building could be easily repurposed. “It all comes down to money,” says Langfelder, who was familiar with Leibowitz’s letter. “Look at the armory. If the state wants to pay to save something, re-do the armory. We can’t save them all.”

Noting that parts of the iconic parquet floor from the original Boston Garden have been sold – you can buy a four-inch-square piece for as little as $125 on eBay – Langfelder suggested that the Y’s basketball court could be similarly cut up and sold to Obama fans. Alternatively, Langfelder says, the floor could be preserved and installed in the new gym planned by the YMCA and Memorial Medical Center. The tiled columns praised by the state, the mayor says, could also be incorporated into the new building.

Langfelder says he doesn’t take offense at the state’s criticisms.

“That’s what they’re hired to do, point these things out,” the mayor said.

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