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Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016 12:21 am

Refined, delicate and urban

Marking the Centennial’s centennial

The Centennial Building, now known as the Howlett Building, will be 100 years old in 2018, the bicentennail of Illinois becoming a state.


Last week, in “Getting it right this time,” I proposed that the State of Illinois commemorate the bicentennial of its founding in 1818 not with celebration but with remediation, in the form of a communal attempt to fix what we did wrong in the 100 years since 1918. My remarks were addressed to the city of Springfield, but as Springfield is both a city and a capital, I presume to suggest what the Statehouse crowd might bring to the party.

The Rauner administration could – and probably will – do much worse than to restore the state’s own monument to the 1918 anniversary. I speak of course of the Howlett Building at Second and Jackson. The building’s original purpose was obscured by an ill-advised name change in 1992, when it ceased to be the Centennial Memorial Building, but by any name it is a gem. In his hard-to-find 1985 book Landmark Springfield, Christian K. Laine pronounced the Centennial Building – “refined, delicate and urban” – the most important architectural landmark in the city.

The name can, and ought to be fixed. The building itself will be 100 years old in 2018 (it didn’t actually open until 1923, but it was dedicated in 1918) and it ought to be fixed too. Start on the outside. Jutting from the retaining wall toward the east end of the esplanade that fronts the building is a gargoyle’s head. Originally water spouted from its mouth into a pool below, which has long since been converted into a flower bed. Without water spewing from its mouth it looks like Trump at full froth. Why not replumb it? An HVAC vent was recently and stupidly sited smack in front of it, but were that incorporated into a new plaza with shaded tables and with food trucks parked on the street next to it, the Capitol complex would have a nice spot for lunch in the warmer months.

The monumental purpose of the building is revealed by the frieze on the building’s original façade, on which were engraved the names of 18 Illinoisans deemed to have been important to the history of the commonwealth: Worthen, Peck, Coles, Bateman, Turner, Lovejoy, Ford, Marquette, Pope, LaSalle, Clark, Bond, Edwards, Yates, Douglas, Lincoln, Grant and Logan – all white and all male, inevitably. The expansion of the building by the addition of three wings means that yards and yards of new frieze awaits the engraver, but the state has yet to add to its official list of accomplished people. Time to update that list; a public campaign to choose the new names would itself be educational.

As for the interior, the building was of course not built as a memorial, but as quarters for the state library, state museum, state historical library and archives (including its Lincoln memorabilia) and war museum, all of which had been crammed into the Statehouse. Its public space consisted of three great halls, on the ground, third and fifth floors, all created by architects Schmidt & Garden (with state architect Edgar Martin).

The state library enjoyed the handsomest quarters, on the third floor. The main reading room and adjoining mezzanines featured some nice wrought-iron chandeliers, small stained glass panels set into the windows that constituted most of the north wall, ornate walnut bookcases and murals depicting scenes from Illinois history (the nice ones). The buildings materials and embellishment are spare compared to the Statehouse, but those spaces cannot be matched elsewhere in Springfield outside the Statehouse.

Monumental spaces are never exactly practical. One appreciates the symbolism of placing the state’s library in a space that so resembles a cathedral nave, but it must also be said that many thousands of cubic feet of space were thus lost to grandeur. Still, there are one or two uses that would fit that space. The mezzanine of the museum’s old fifth floor space was originally used as a gallery to display the Illinois State Museum’s art collection; why not redo it and the third floors as exhibition space?

The sole original ceremonial space to survive in its original form is the somber, indeed rather gloomy, Memorial Hall on the first floor. (The first floor of the Centennial Building is not the ground floor; built on a sloping lot, the ground floor on the east end is the basement on the west end.) What has been known in recent decades as the Hall of Flags was originally Memorial Hall, and it housed, briefly, what was described as the state’s War Museum. Phil Luciano of the Peoria Journal-Star has urged the creation of a Hall of Shame honoring the state’s colorful and crooked pols. The old Hall of Flags would be a perfect venue, but it’s hard to see our Solons approving that. Better perhaps to open a new War Museum, this one explaining the wars waged by governors and state militias against the Indians and against striking workers.

None of it will happen, of course, which might be the most fitting, if not the happiest, memorial of all.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.


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