Monday, April 13, 2015 Road Junkies 0 Comments

SPRINGFIELD, Illinois -- With the state legislature on spring break, we had no difficulty finding a parking space along the curb on the street running along the side of the Illinois State Capitol about 250 feet from the building.  After feeding the meter a very reasonable $1.00 in quarters for two hours, we entered the building around 10 a.m.  Security screening was competently conducted by two friendly Illinois state troopers, who directed us into a walk-through metal detector after we deposited our bags and pocket contents into plastic trays for x-ray screening.

“What’s up with all the tools?” the x-ray operator asked me.  After my befuddled response, he realized that the machine had repeated the image of the previous visitor’s bag before showing mine.

Then he related a story about a grandmother from Minnesota who came in with her young grandson.  Screeners noticed what looked like a brass knuckle in her bag.  That turned out to be a Caribou Coffee carabiner shaped like a moose, but that was only the beginning of their discoveries.  The lad was carrying a small stick and asked if he could take it in.  No.  Ultimately, the troopers found that sweet granny was carrying a switchblade knife and a long pipe wrench in her coat.  Both, of course, were confiscated, and in the pair walked, leaving security to wonder what contingencies the Minnesotans had been preparing themselves for.

Front of the capitol building, facing east
The nine-acre tract where the capitol sits had been donated to the state of Illinois in 1865 to serve as the final resting place of Abraham Lincoln, but Mrs. Lincoln preferred the quieter atmosphere at Oak Ridge Cemetery for her husband’s tomb.  Still in state hands, the site was deemed ideal for the new seat of government.

Begun in 1868, the Illinois State Capitol was designed by a Chicago architectural firm in a style variously described as Second Empire or French Renaissance.  By the time of its completion, twenty years later, costs had accumulated to $4.5 million dollars, well over the original budget.

In 2011-13, the west wing of the Illinois capitol underwent a major renovation and restoration, updating infrastructure systems, moving utilities underground, and bringing the building into compliance with ADA requirements.  At the same time, that wing was restored to the original Victorian splendor envisioned by the building architect and subsequently covered over in the interest of changing tastes in décor.  Completed during a period when the state was suffering serious pension fund shortfalls, the much-maligned $50 million project has won awards for its authenticity and attention to detail.

Restored former Supreme Court room, now used for meetings
Now the state has only three more wings to go.  And the north and south wings are twice the size of the west.  One particular sore point in the west wing project centered around three sets of double entrance doors on the west side of the building.  Built of wood, the exterior of the doors was clad in copper—for authenticity and longevity, the architect said.  For $670,000, said the maker of the custom doors.

Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in front of  Illinois statehouse
In front of the Illinois capitol are statues of arguably its two most noted statesmen—Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom began their political careers in Springfield.  Originally the two likenesses were to be placed in twin towers on the front of the building, but a shortage of funding brought the two rivals back down to earth.  Though Lincoln’s image is featured more prominently, Douglas stands much closer to the statehouse, a metaphor for their political careers.  Second statues of each are in the rotunda, along with those of other notable Illinois political figures.

The Grand Staircase
At the base of the grand staircase are two classically-draped bronze maidens holding light fixtures aloft.  These figures were designed by the capitol’s original architect for this location.  However, nineteenth century decision makers found what they considered scantily-clad maidens a bit too risqué for Illinois sensibilities.  Neighboring Iowa was building their own new statehouse by then, with the same architect in charge and designed as a three-quarter size duplicate of the Illinois building.  When the statues were rejected in Springfield, Iowa grabbed up the ornamentation at a bargain rate.  Fast forward 140 years, and the Illinois restoration team approached Iowa about buying back the maidens.  When Des Moines flatly refused, a St. Louis firm was hired to conduct elaborate 3-D laser scans and duplicate the fixtures for the Illinois statehouse—at a cost of $79,000 each, considerably more than the originals, to be sure.
Clark in Kaskaskia
Above the grand staircase is a 40 ft x 20 ft mural depicting George Rogers Clark negotiating with Native Americans at Kaskaskia in 1778.  Painted directly on the plaster wall by a German immigrant from Chicago for the paltry sum of $2,000, the painting has been the target of critics because the dress and lifestyle of the Indians portrayed reflects Native Americans in the 1800s Great Plains, a culture that was never found in Illinois.
Governors' portraits line this 2nd floor corridor.
The typical Hall of Governors with portraits of former state executives is on the second floor.  It is noteworthy that the gallery does not include a likeness of disgraced former Governor Rod Blagojevich, a current resident of the federal prison system.  After his impeachment and conviction, the Illinois legislature passed a measure forbidding the expenditure of public funds for his portrait.  To date, no private offer has been made to pay for the painting.  For the record, the gallery does include portraits of the other three recent Illinois governors who have gone to prison after leaving office—George Ryan, Dan Walker, and Otto Kerner.  Perhaps the state could find a remote basement alcove and transfer these portraits to a special “Hall of Shame.”

Our young visitor guide, Brad, who led us on a 25-minute tour, was inclined to stick closely to his script, probably because he is very new to the job and hasn’t yet had the opportunity to develop much of a store of knowledge about his subject.  He did make much about Iowa copying the Illinois capitol.  In fact, he showed us a document on exhibit where the architect had simply crossed through Illinois and handwritten Iowa before submitting a copy of the Springfield plans to the design competition in Des Moines.

With all that good-natured needling of their next-door neighbor, we decided we should detour a bit and drive to Des Moines tomorrow to check out the similarities for ourselves.  Even with only one wing restored and renovated, we found the Illinois State Capitol to be an impressive and monumental building—a model of Gilded Age splendor from its vivid color palette to the ornately stenciled walls highlighted with silver and gold leaf.  The bar for Iowa is set pretty high. 

Illinois Capitol Stats
  • Construction period:  1868-1888
  • Capitol grounds:  9 acres
  • Dome surface:  zinc (painted silver)
  • Building height (to tip of dome):  361 ft. (tallest non-skyscraper statehouse)
  • Original cost:  $4.5 million ($1.5 million over budget)
  • 2013 renovation cost:  $50 million ($6.7 million over budget)
  • Capitol wings still needing restoration:  3

One of the three infamous sets of $670,000 doors  

House of Representatives Chamber

Senate Chamber
Senate detail
Rotunda with statuary of famous Illinoisans