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Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011 09:21 am

Has Lincoln’s train left the station?

Future of historic Great Western Depot, owned by the State Journal-Register, in doubt

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The Great Western Depot, where Abraham Lincoln said farewell to Springfield, may be closed to the public indefinitely while the State Journal-Register, which owns the historic building, considers selling its nearby headquarters on South Ninth Street.
PHOTO BY BRUCE RUSHTON

“The Journal paper was always my friend; and of course its editors the same.”
      —Abraham Lincoln, 1864


What a difference 147 years makes.

The Lincoln Depot is scheduled to close to the public, with The State Journal-Register, which owns the building, taking no visible steps to make the landmark accessible to the disabled so that it can remain open.

Meanwhile, Walt  Lafferty, State Journal-Register publisher, has told the paper’s editorial staff that the newspaper’s headquarters building, constructed in 1980, might be sold.

Lafferty’s disclosure came during a recent newsroom meeting called to discuss the efforts of GateHouse Media, the newspaper’s owner, to turn around sagging financial fortunes. GateHouse stock, which sold for more than $20 a share during the initial public offering five years ago, is virtually worthless, selling for as little as four cents a share last week. The company has more than $1 billion in debt due in 2014.

Lafferty told the news staff that he will likely contact a broker about selling the building after Jan. 1, according to multiple sources who attended the meeting.

“He said ‘I need to make this a priority,’” said one source who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Lafferty would not elaborate.

“I’m not going to comment to you on something that was said in a staff meeting,” Lafferty said during a brief telephone conversation.

It’s not hard to see why the newspaper would be interested in selling the three-story building that takes up the better part of a block on South Ninth Street, a stone’s throw from city hall and the Sangamon County Courthouse.

The basement press was shut down last spring, with printing moved to Peoria and a loss of more than 50 jobs in Springfield. The newsroom staff has also shrunk, as has the advertising department. The reduction in employment is reflected in the empty spaces in the newspaper’s employee parking lot, which overflowed with vehicles prior to GateHouse buying the newspaper in 2007. Today, there is plenty of room to park on any given day.

Less clear is the fate of the historic Great Western Depot, adjacent to the State Journal-Register, where Lincoln departed Springfield for Washington D.C. to become president – and save the union – in 1861. His Farewell Address delivered at the depot has become immortal:

My friends, no one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place and the kindness of these people, I owe everything.

“There is no question this is a historically significant building,” says David Blanchette, spokesman for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. “It has great national significance, just because of its connection to Abraham Lincoln and the city of Springfield.”

While the newspaper has owned the depot for more than a quarter-century, it is staffed by the National Park Service, which supplies employees to greet visitors and answer questions during the tourist season, with the newspaper reimbursing the government’s costs. However, that won’t be possible any longer unless the depot is made accessible to the disabled, says Dale Phillips, superintendent of the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, which is run by the park service.

The building needs an elevator so that the disabled can reach the second floor, and steps leading to the main lobby are also an issue, Phillips said.  The newspaper is aware of the problem, Phillips said, but the park service has received no indication of what, if anything, the newspaper plans to do to address accessibility concerns. Getting a grant, perhaps from a foundation, may be a possibility, Phillips said, but any grant application must come from the building owner.

“They know there are other options out there, but the property owner has to initiate that request,” Phillips said. “They’re aware of the situation. It’s really their call. … At this point, I’ve been given no indication that there’s any interest in making the building accessible. I’m going on the assumption it’s a negative.”

Lafferty said that Edie Weaver, the newspaper’s audience development manager, handles issues regarding the depot. Asked via email whether the depot will remain open to the public, whether it will be made accessible to the disabled and whether the newspaper has taken steps to secure funding to make the building accessible, Weaver responded with a single sentence: “The Great Western Depot is currently closed for the season,” she wrote.

Open during the summer and closed during winters, the depot averages about 7,000 visitors a year, Phillips said, but last summer was the finale for the park service unless the building is made accessible to the disabled. He said his hands are tied by federal laws and regulations.

“It’s a very valuable visitor destination,” Phillips said. “It’s one of the few buildings we still have in town that’s from the Lincoln period and directly related to Mr. Lincoln.”

While grants to fund accessibility work for privately owned historic structures have dried up thanks to a sagging economy, tax credits remain available, Blanchette said. The staff at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency helped write accessibility codes for historic structures and often help owners of historic buildings find solutions, he said, but no one from the newspaper has requested assistance.

“We stand willing to assist in any way possible the owners of the Great Western Depot to help them with accessibility issues,” Blanchette said.

Concerns about accessibility date to the 1990s, when the newspaper was owned by San Diego-based Copley Press, according to Nancy Evans, former promotions manager for the State Journal-Register, who retired in 2004. The newspaper paid to fix the roof, rehabilitate the interior and tuck-point the exterior after acquiring the property, she said, but closed restrooms on the second floor during the 1990s rather than pay to make them accessible. The need for an elevator was identified more than a decade ago.

“What we tried to do was everything we possibly could to accommodate anybody with handicaps without spending tens of thousands of dollars,” Evans said.

The depot had been nearly forgotten when the newspaper bought it from Sangamon State University, now University of Illinois Springfield, Evans said. The late Helen Copley, whose family owned Copley Press, loved the depot and shipped salvage bricks to California, where they were used to build a patio outside the James S. Copley Library, which once housed historic documents but is now closed, she said.

“She was just very committed to keeping the depot and keeping it as a historic site,” Evans recalls. “It was a major commitment financially – the yearly maintenance was considerable. … It represented a commitment to the community.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com

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