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Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2008 12:20 pm

Architecture and democracy on the public square

Our circumstances shape our buildings, then the buildings shape us

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The tour begins on the Old State Capitol Plaza, by the law office where Lincoln walked to work. He must have stopped right here to talk, about the future of the country and the storms clouds gathering over it. "The courthouse square was the heart of the community," says our guide, Anthony Rubano, the Pied Piper of downtown architectural tours, offered six times through the summer and fall. This was the last tour of the season conducted by the visionary designer for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. "The square was the center for religion, entertainment, commerce and government."

When Midwestern towns were laid out in the early 19th century, they were laid out on a grid, "imposing a grid of understanding on the landscape." On the courthouse square, the government building was at the center, but then private enterprise formed the "walls" of the outdoor "room" around it we call the square. Here Wall Street meets Main Street comfortably, without the dichotomy between the worlds of money and the masses referred to in recent days. The buildings are on 25-foot lots because that was the optimum length of trees for trusses. Buildings for all types of businesses went up shoulder to shoulder on four sides.

The downtown plaza was the location of speeches, rallies, protests. It was a true public space, as opposed to the fake public space of a mall. It is a place that has welcomed presidents and candidates — from Lincoln, to William McKinley, to Adlai Stevenson — for a century and a half. (Until now it has done so without charge, because it's an honor to have them here. Sending Barack Obama a bill for $50,000 is a good way to ask him not to come back.) Here's the ideal to remember: "Community and interdependence are evoked by the public square," Rubano says.

First stop on the east side of the square is the 1928 art deco Illinois Building, which, with its several setbacks as it rises, brought the "romance of the skyscraper" to this prairie town. Early evening sun "lights up the material" of the green tiles on the building, which Rubano considers a piece of art. It is a "triumphal announcement" that even Springfield can participate in the international conversation of progressive architecture.

Next is JP Morgan Chase Bank, formerly Marine Bank. Like the other two major banks on the square, it was redone in the 1970s. Here an opaque glass curtain wall was added between spare columns, because the bank president at the time liked the columns on the Bank of Ireland. On the north side of the square is the National City Bank, formerly the Illinois National Bank, completed in 1974. It was designed by the powerhouse architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill with a pink granite surface, handsome but severe. A passerby can't see in. It represents "corporate modernism" in a way that speaks of the power of the corporation, rather than being about the people who benefit from corporations. "It is sterile, aloof, not very accessible," says our guide. The U.S. Bank building, formerly First National, was "reclad in a modernist language" in 1976. Like the other banks, it is imposing and inaccessible.

Our introduction to the brick-and-glass sentries standing around the Old State Capitol continues with the Myers Brothers department store, built in the 1920s. Department stores evoke happy memories. They were landmarks of commerce, where customer service was king. They changed the way people shop. So did "dime stores," represented by the 1930s Kresge building at Fifth and Adams. Between 1934 and 1938 Kresge and Woolworth built hundreds of stores like this, introducing Depression-hungry Americans to "everyday low prices" made possible by a retail giant's volume purchasing.

What will today's politics and economics bring to Springfield's architecture? Will buildings become more transparent, like business and finance need to be? Will the politics of hope be memorialized in the hardscape? Will arts and entertainment continue to supplant commerce downtown? If our buildings shape our future, as well as reflecting our circumstances, what kind of buildings will we put up?

For now it is sufficient to admire the collage of structures that is the charm of downtown. A huge amount of architecture is packed into a relatively small space, and it works. Competing styles, like competing businesses, not only coexist but thrive because of each other. The vibrancy of diversity, represented in buildings and reflected in the townspeople, forms the living center of democracy, the public square.

Contact Fletcher Farrar at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com.

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