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Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010 10:32 am

Monument to a dead building

Display the “lost” lintel from the old Lincoln Library

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The old Lincoln Library, which was on the site of the current public library, was demolished in 1974. Remnants of the building have been stored at the state fairgrounds.
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SANGAMON VALLEY COLLECTION IN THE LINCOLN LIBRARY

What, I wonder, is the overdue fine on a library lintel that was lost for 36 years? The carved stone lintel that stood atop the main entrance to the old library building had been salvaged when the building was demolished in 1974 and trucked to a storage yard at the state fairgrounds. There it sat forgotten until workers ran across it earlier this month.

Springfield’s public library was run for many years out of a succession of rented spaces downtown. It got a building of its own only after someone else paid for it, specifically Andrew Carnegie, who gave the city $75,000 for the purpose in 1904. The building that resulted stood at Seventh and Capitol until it was replaced. As designed by the St. Louis firm of Mauran, Russell and Garden, it was a temple to Culture. Entering it, one passed from the street under the recently rediscovered lintel, through a vestibule into an entry hall from which led a formal staircase that split left and right that took one to the high-ceilinged main floor illuminated by arched skylights and rooms whose entrances were framed by Ionic columns.

I loved that building – I have a drawing of it by longtime Illinois Times artist William Crook on a wall in my home – but sentiment does not change the fact was that it was a lousy place to run a library out of. The interior layout was almost laughably inefficient; I can’t think of an enclosure that had less usable space for its volume, unless it would be the inside of Roland Burris’s head.

In an interesting Web history of the Carnegie libraries, Leigh Kimmel reports that more than a few towns squandered the Carnegie money through poor planning and “ill-conceived grand architecture.” According to Kimmel, Springfield’s building “was a chaos of columns and wasted air space.” The structure so provoked its donor that the old capitalist mandated simplicity of design, specifically banning features that figured so grandly in the Springfield project. The requirements were meant to ensure that future donees got working libraries for his money and not architectural statements about Learning.

A lousy library facility it might have been, but the Carnegie building should have been saved, to house public gallaries and meeting rooms and the library’s local history collection. Churches display the bones of saints. The old library is hardly the first architectural work to come back to haunt the cities that discard it. Germania was a statue representing Germany that stood at one of the entrances to the German section of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Built to advertise the virtues of Portland cement, the work was discarded after the fair and used as fill in the construction of the nearby lakefront. Germania rose from the dead in 2002 when its broken remnants were found during construction work; this, the only surviving statue of the army of statues carved for the fair, was mounted in 2003 in a park shelter at 56th Street and South Shore Drive not far from the old fair site.

When the Art Institute’s main lobby was renovated in the 1980s, balconies overlooking the grand staircase were converted into display space. There were mounted decorative objects from the AI’s collection of architectural holy relics from that city’s dead buildings – elevator grilles from Louis Sullivan’s Stock Exchange building, leaded glass windows by Frank Lloyd Wright, ornamental friezes, finials and lighting fixtures, even a column capital. Outside, at the Columbus Avenue entrance, is the entrance arch from the Stock Exchange, which the American Institute of Architects Guide to Chicago appropriately calls “the Wailing Wall of Chicago’s preservation movement.”

The impulse to display the relics of sanctified public buildings led the the Roman Cultural Society to install six of the columns salvaged from the wreck in its new garden in Washington Park. It was a good idea then and a better idea now. The architects who designed the new library erred as egregiously on the side of practicality as their predecessors had erred on the side of grandiosity; as a library, the new building makes a fine suburban office building.

Rather than leave it to rot unseen at the fairgrounds, why not mount the lintel as an outdoor sculpture in a public place – preferably the grounds of the municipal government complex, within view of the council chambers. There aldermen would be reminded of the folly of poorly planned and ill-conceived public projects that remove from the community things that cannot be replaced. A war memorial of sorts, that says to passersby, Never again!

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


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