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Wednesday, June 10, 2009 10:28 pm

History of Springfield’s signature building

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Rank hath its privileges. On Sept. 30, 1953, Gov. William G. Stratton (1953-1961) at far left posed outside the upper statehouse dome with associates including Secretary of State Charles F. Carpentier (1953-1964), second from right.

There was a time in this town when Second Street was today’s Koke Mill Road, at the western edge of the city. Back then the Industrial Age, nurtured for decades on the east coast, was sweeping west like wildfire, riding steel rails and embracing Illinois’ new capital city, the third town to hold the honor.

Springfield was the lucky benefactor not only of the age, but of the man who helped shape the city’s promising destiny: Abraham Lincoln. As part of a merry band of Illinois legislators known as the “Long Nine,” he successfully engineered the relocation of the capital from Vandalia to Springfield to the domed building on the square which was soon outgrown by bureaucracy in bloom. Its incapacity led to the 1868 groundbreaking for the awesome assemblage of stone and steel that serves today as the Illinois Statehouse.

Springfield authors Jim Donelan and Steve Dyer have teamed with Arcadia Publishing to produce an informative pictoral book about the building which took 20 years to complete. The timing of the book’s June 8 release, with a former state senator moved on to world prominence as chief resident of The White House, could not have been better.

It’s hard to imagine driving west on Capitol Avenue and looking through tall timber to gaze upon the Mather family mansion which once occupied what became the Capitol Complex. The March 1865 photo of the house presented on page 9 reveals a home equal in grandeur to the contemporary Maisenbacher home over on Seventh, but the Mather mansion was destined to be razed to make way for the Lincoln tomb following the Great Emancipator’s assassination. When the tomb was built at Oak Ridge cemetery north of the city at the insistence of the widowed Mary Todd Lincoln, the site was selected for the new Capitol Building.

The book’s eight chapters present chronological views of construction, the new building from the ground to the top of the dome, including many of the Governor’s Offices through the years, the exterior of the building and grounds and views from Capitol Avenue.

Through the early part of the 20th century, visitors could ascend into the upper dome for a scenic view of the city, probably the most elevated place (outside a tethered hot air balloon) to appreciate the vista below. Public access to these “heights” was

Construction photos reveal 19th century life rarely encountered in other publications. Railroad tracks were used to bring building materials to the site. The clutter of piled stone, mounds of earth and detritus of progress dominated the scene for years. Private homes remained on the grounds close-by during construction, and life went on.

Perhaps inspired by the stretches of steps leading to the main entrance of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., an expansive stone staircase originally led to an entrance to the Statehouse at the second floor. The arrangement did not last long. It was removed by the end of 1885.

During the early years the Statehouse was home to the Illinois State Museum and the Illinois Supreme Court. Included in the bounty of photos are glimpses of those enterprises and never-before-published images of the 1932 major dome restoration, Tents of the Illinois National Guard called in to deal with the infamous race riots of 1908 add a sobering perspective on the history of the city as well. Extensive restorations of the interior as recently as 2006 bring the story up to date.

The Illinois Statehouse brings to everyone the tightly focused history of a single significant building. Concisely written by authors who know the turf, it is the story of one finger on a hand. Given the evolution of the adjacent facilities, all coming to surround it like a boat built around an anchor, the book will likely inspire as many questions about the rest of the buildings in the capitol complex as it answers about the main ingredient. In the meantime, the book is a foundation, a touchstone sure to inspire more research and publications. It is well produced, well written and a delight to read.

Job Conger is a freelance writer/photographer and poet/songwriter. He is the author of three books of his poetry, a biography of Vachel Lindsay, self published, and Springfield Aviation from Arcadia Publishing.

Thanks to expansion of the state capitol complex in the 1920s, no trace of Charles Street exiting onto Second Street at the lower left exists today. To the left, off-camera, the cornerstone of the new Centennial Building (later re-named Michael J. Howlett
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