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Thursday, April 1, 2010 04:41 am

Safe passage

Getting tourists off at the Dana-Thomas House

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Looking east down Lawrence you can see at left where a house was torn down to make additional parking space for Dana-Thomas House visitors.

In March a busy Springfield learned that the Dana-Thomas Foundation, the private nonprofit guardian of the state-owned and Wright-designed Dana-Thomas House at Fourth and Lawrence, had bought a two-story house a couple of doors west of the Amtrak tracks at 227 E. Lawrence Avenue and torn it down.

The house died so that tourists might live. Years ago a parking lot had been built near there to accommodate visitor parking. That lot has proven too small for all the big buses that haul day-trippers eager to gawk at the House That Susan Built. Unable to do so in the old lot, some drivers have unloaded their cargoes on the streets in front of the house. Because those streets carry traffic one way in the wrong direction, drivers cannot park with their exit doors against a curb, and some have asked their riders to exit their bus into a traffic lane. This is not good, for the Dana-Thomas house or the City of Springfield. Nothing discourages a tourist from making a return visit to a city like getting run over by a Clerk II on his drive back from a lunch run who is dozy while digesting a Beefy 5-Layer Burrito.

Unable to solve directly the problem it had – the unprofessional conduct of some motorcoach drivers – the foundation instead solved the problem it could, which is expanding their off-street parking space. In doing so it made worse the problem the rest of us have, which is the loss to heedless demolitions of viable structures in Springfield’s central area, a part of town that already has more petroleum in the ground than Venezuela.

While tearing down a house for more parking was the simplest solution, simplest solutions are seldom the best solutions. Keeping tourists alive until they get to the gift shop does not require that buses park in the same space in which they drop off and load their riders. Buses could drop off riders across the street from the house, on the east side of Fourth Street, where they could exit directly onto a sidewalk. After discharging their cargoes, drivers could leave and park elsewhere while their passengers ogle the goods inside the house, until they are summoned back to the home by tour directors using radios or cell phones. (That’s how they do it at the Wright home and studio in Oak Park.) As for where to park the buses while they wait, there is no end of options in that area, including several state-owned lots where a parked bus would be an aesthetic plus.

The problem with dropping off passengers across the street is that they then have to cross Fourth Street to get to the house. The director of the foundation explained to the press that many of the coach-riding visitors are either children, who presumably haven’t learned how to cross a street safely, or geezers, who have forgotten how to. Unable to improve tourists, the foundation could have sought ways to improve the curbside as a drop-off area.

On hearing of the foundation’s plans to bury more taxable property under asphalt, a city government eager to keep its tourism cash cows well-fed would have contrived to help the foundation provide a safe and comfortable drop-off zone on Fourth. Such a government might have helped purchase the southwest corner of the YMCA’s scruffy parking lot and expanded the parking lane into it to accommodate tour buses that have grown so large they would need zoning approval if they weren’t on wheels. It would have equipped the new space with proper shelters and landscaping. It might have repaved and re-signed the Fourth Street intersection to alert drivers to the presence of a pedestrian crosswalk, perhaps even rejigged the traffic lights to permit longer cross times.

Instead of investing in affordable enhancements that would have added to the city’s attractiveness as a tourist destination, the City of Springfield countenanced another demolition that detracts from it, thanks to a policy on the built environment that allows the proprietors of its important buildings to devour for parking all of its necessary ones. As for the foundation, it enjoys an exemption from taxation on our behalf, in return for which it promised to “preserve and protect the Dana-Thomas House and to promote citizen awareness of the architectural significance of Frank Lloyd Wright.” We are left to wonder if, toward that end, they are trying to make the Dana-Thomas house look more appealing by making its environs less so. I don’t think that’s the case, but I almost wish it were. At least then we could credit them with ambition on our behalf, however much this project calls into question their imagination.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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