Jet-set architecture? In Springfield?
Much in the way that human corpses become food for the worms, dead eras become food for TV producers. Few of us who lived through the 1950s and early ’60s actually lived jet-age lives but it was fun watching others do it in commercials and movies, and now the young can do the same thanks to costume dramas like AMC’s “Mad Men” or, to cite a much inferior version, ABC’s “Pan Am.”
Their infatuation with the world of our fictional Don Drapers is understandable. Jet-age style owed to affluence, youth, optimism and of course new travel technologies. Its exuberance was informed by a cosmopolitanism appropriate in the first globe-trotting generation. The style was most vividly expressed, I think, in interior design, specifically the sleek woods and metals and glass, epitomized in “Scandinavian modern” furniture and rugs. Rooms done up in this way were scene sets for a lifestyle whose other appurtenances included modern jazz as peddled by Hefner’s Playboy. This was the world that the set designers for “Mad Men” recreated with such curatorial thoroughness. All of it fit well into the International Style buildings of the period, in part because so much in those interiors was designed by architects too.
Springfield, of course, is one of those places that the jet set was happy to fly over rather than to, and you would think that jet-age style would have passed the city by too. Happily, it did not. Springfield boasts roughly half a dozen major buildings in the International Style that are among the best-designed buildings in town.
Business adopted the International Style immediately. When the new home of the Security Federal Savings and Loan opened at 510 E. Monroe in mid-1960, the company boasted of it as “daring and inventive.” And indeed it was daring for Springfield, being all polished granite and plate glass with a lobby fountain and a curving metal staircase that seems to float in the air. To those walking past it on late winter afternoons, with the lobby aglow, Springfield was a different kind of town. More recent remodeling has not done the building too much harm, although the facade misses the wonderful sign that soared above the roof but was removed when the institution changed names.
Not to be outdone, American Savings and Loan in 1964 opened a new building up the street at 411 E. Monroe. It ws designed by the Springfield architects Hadley & Worthington, purveyors of modernism for every purpose. It bears a family resemblance to the Security Federal building, from the plate glass front and the slim steel stairway to the conference room outfitted with Boling chairs, now honored as classics of Danish modern style. Walking into a downtown bank in those days was like crawling into a cave; walking into either of these buildings was like walking into a sunlit glade.
Not many houses in the International Style were ever done in Springfield, but the style was well suited to residences of other types. The Chicago firm of Shaw, Metz and Dolio, which specialized in this sort of thing, designed the 13-story Town House apartments on Seventh Street. The mid-rise tower, which opened in 1959, was developed by the nearby Franklin Life Insurance Co. for its own executives. The Town House is dressed conservatively in limestone, like its corporate parent a block away, but it was still “ultra-modern,” as the company called it. Franklin boasted that the building” set “a new style trend in construction in Springfield,” but of course it didn’t. The Town House pretty much sopped up the whole local market for that sort of dwelling, which probably never amounted to many more than a hundred people then or now. But the Town House remains an elegant building, and partly for that reason was approved for listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.
The State House Inn at First and Adams opened about the same time as the Town House, and was showing its age when it was reincarnated in 2003 as a boutique hotel. (What was old by then seemed new to the young, it being unknown to them.) Designed by Henry L. Newhouse II, the building is listed by the Springfield Historic Sites Commission because it was the city’s first true motor lodge, but it deserves protection because of the quality of its design. In its present incarnation it is the most stylish hotel in Springfield – it’s easy to imagine Don Draper strolling through that lobby – and I hope that the owner, the Choice Hotels chain, reinvests in its interior so that check-in timep stays 1960 for a long time.
Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.