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Thursday, July 28, 2016 12:17 am

Revising a revision

Are the Rauners giving Illinois a mansion it really wants?

The Illinois Executive Mansion as depicted on a postcard from the 1920s.


You know how it is. You repaint the living room, and suddenly the furniture looks shabby. So you replace that, which makes the carpet look worn. Over on Jackson Street, they finally fixed the leaky roof on the Executive Mansion, so now they’re going to redo the kitchen, and the yard, and . . . .

“They” is the Illinois Executive Mansion Association, the private nonprofit that just unveiled its plan for $15 million worth of exterior and interior renovations and upgrades to the house’s mechanical and security systems. Diana Rauner, who chairs the IEMA, promises that the work “will help us ensure that the Illinois Executive Mansion is around for Illinoisans to enjoy well into the next century.”

Me, I’m hoping the State of Illinois is around for Illinoisans to enjoy well into the next century. Neither, on the evidence, has much chance. If this version of the house lasts a century it will outdo previous rehabilitations and restorations and rescues. The IEMA calls this one a “renovation;” Diana Rauner herself calls it a “revisioning.” Take your pick; they all mean “short-lived.” The first one opened in 1871 but had to be substantially upgraded only 18 years later, and the outside was remodeled again eight years after that. By 1918 it was such a mess that the new tenants, Gov. and Mrs. Frank Lowden, were willing to fork over half of the $50,000 (about $800,000 in today’s money) it cost to repair it. (The little missus was a Pullman, and accustomed to real mansions, not pretend ones.) And sure enough, 43 years later, the house was so dilapidated that it was called a horror (low-bid state work, I assume) although repairs were not authorized for another 10 years. And 45 years after that fixup, the roof was leaking and plaster was falling from the ceiling.

What do governors get up to in that house?

The planned work will include “updates to landscape and grounds.” This is like describing Bruce Rauner’s turnaround proposals as “amendments to state laws and regulations.” The present plantings were intended to provide a private space for First Families, but whatever their value as greenery they were never in character with a Victorian house. The Rauners want much more open turf for outdoor gatherings and fewer trees. Additions will include new formal gardens in the Victorian style, featuring a parterre on the east side, and a new gate on the Jackson Street side intended to entice the public in to stroll.  

I have a sentimental attachment to the area; I lived around the corner from the mansion for more than 11 years in the 1970s and 80s, and any attempt to bring beauty into this out-of-the way corner of the capital city is to be welcomed. And I applaud the Rauners’ commitment to making the mansion, as the governor has been quoted saying, “a place of pride” because “this belongs to the people of the state, and it should be taken care of.”

But if it belongs to the people, the people’s money ought to be used to pay for it. The same can, and must, be said about our public universities, our scientific surveys, our museum, our road and rail infrastructure, our historic sites. Would any informed ranking of spending priorities put the mansion ahead of, say, Lincoln’s law offices? The governor cut a personal check for a million to start the fund-raising ball rolling at the mansion, while the building in which Lincoln worked every day for 17 years remains shuttered because the state didn’t come across with the money to finish a $1.1 million renovation already underway.

And even if Rauner’s generosity extended to public history, is it wise to make funding of such things dependent on the fancies of the rich or the vagaries of the business cycle? Oh, yes – who decides which of the many worthy projects ought to receive the modest sums available from private gifts? Influentials on the boards like the IEMA, that’s who – connected insiders of the sort that the governor, in other contexts, professes to loathe as anti-democratic. This is change, but it is not progress.

Fifteen million is a lot of money on a house that is a sort-of historic site, a sort-of  museum and a sort-of venue for functions but not really any one of those things. If the Rauners are going to prevail upon their friends to make a gift to the people of Illinois, we ought to have a chance to say what we want. Instead of a house no one seems to want to live in, why not use it to house something else? Diana Rauner said she hopes to host regular exhibits of fine-art collections owned by or on loan to the state. Good idea. Why not revision the whole property as a public art museum? The people would get something it doesn’t have, the house would get a purpose, the Illinois State Museum collection would get a home. I call that a deal.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at


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