The drive from St. Louis took us straight north through endless, flat farms. The scenery hardly varied, but the clouds dotting the enormous blue sky were nothing short of spectacular on that chilly March morning. As we came into town, the clouds turned dark and covered the sun, giving the impression that it was about to rain.
We went to Café Moxo for lunch. It was a locally owned sandwich place that seemed to be quite popular. After waiting for a short while in the line, we ordered our sandwiches and sat at a small table. When our lunch came, everything was tasty and prepared well, but the portion size seemed a little bit small, and we both left the restaurant still feeling hungry. Several weeks later, when I wrote as much in a review of the Café on Yelp, the owner replied that, “I would recommend the bag lunch option (full sandwich/chips/cookie/drink for $9.75 or the half sandwich/chips/cookie/drink for $7.50),” and I couldn’t help but think that I shouldn’t need chips and a cookie to fill me up after buying a full sandwich. Oh, well.
After our bite to eat, we went to the Capitol and managed to find parking extremely close to the magnificent looming edifice. The architect, Alfred H. Piquenard, also designed the Iowa Capitol, which is another one of my favorites. Illinois’ 6th Capitol was completed in 1888 with final costs totaling $4.3 million. It is primarily constructed of limestone, granite, and both domestic and imported marbles. The building underwent a major restoration (as almost every state Capitol has, at some point) in 2011; the major focuses were ADA accessibility, utilities, and returning the structure to its 1880s appearance.
As we walked up to the courtyard, the first statue was of Abraham Lincoln. His towering figure and the wall behind it obscured anything behind it, so as we approached all we could see was Lincoln and the Capitol. The grey clouds and leafless trees magnified his somber face, that of a man who was exhausted, haunted, and weary. Deeper in the courtyard, closer to the Capitol steps stood another man worth mentioning. Dwarfed in comparison to Lincoln’s stony form, the stocky statue of the “Little Giant,” Stephen A. Douglas glowered up at the stormy sky. Douglas ran against Lincoln for Illinois State Senator in the 1858 election. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were held in 7 different towns, and became iconic after Lincoln edited the texts and had them published in a book, which led to his nomination in the 1860 presidential election. The debates revealed each of their senses of humor, marked with spontaneous jabs, like when Douglas accused Lincoln of being two-faced. Lincoln calmly responded, “I leave it to my audience: If I had two faces, would I be wearing this one?” In their ideology, they both believed slavery should be abolished, but Douglas felt strongly that the states needed to decide the situation independently.
Douglas’s statue had a pensive face with a furrowed brow, watchful and yet preoccupied. Even through their frozen expressions, the differences in his and Lincoln’s demeanors were apparent. Though Douglas was a great man and an important figure in Illinois and US politics and was given a place of honor in front of the Capitol, I think it is fitting that when one is standing on the sidewalk Lincoln’s statue fills your vision. Lincoln truly earned his unique place of honor in our history and our state Capitol courtyards. It seems only right that at first approach, all you can see is Lincoln and the Capitol.
We continued inside, checked in at the tour desk, and were informed that the next tour began in about 15 minutes. While we waited, we decided to wander around the breath-taking first floor. Springfield was only my 37th Capitol, but I knew as soon as I walked into that rotunda that it was definitely my favorite. It was indescribably beautiful. The soaring columns, stained glass windows, and carved bronze relief murals that stretch around the entire circumference surpassed any other state Capitol.
In the center of the main floor of the rotunda, which is the other prominent place of honor in almost every Capitol, was a statue of a woman in classical, Romanesque garb standing with her arms outstretched. Julia Bracken created Illinois Welcoming the World for the 1893 Chicago World Fair. The tall figure stood with her back to the grand staircase, facing Lincoln’s statue in the courtyard in front of the building. The statue nods to the metropolitan might and cultural importance of Chicago, particularly during the end of the 19th century when the Midwestern cities were expanding rapidly. Between 1850 and 1900, Chicago’s population exploded from 29,963 to 1,698,575. Newly built railroads and canals expedited transportation and allowed for a truly nationalized economy, which led to massive immigration and population growth. Chicago has always been known for its diversity, and it was this period in the late 1800s that earned the city that reputation. These late 19th century arrivals mostly consisted of the Irish, Germans, Italians, Russian Jews, and Slavs. Because of the diversity resulting from this period of rapid immigration, it was especially fitting that Illinois Welcoming the World was created for the 1893 Chicago World Fair, and that the statue was in the center of the rotunda.
The guide informed us that the tour was about to start. He was a dignified, stern man of few words who could not have had a more different demeanor than his jolly, grandfatherly counterpart at the Iowa Capitol, and he took very seriously any comparison I made between “his” building and Iowa’s Capitol. That being said, he was a wonderful guide and gave an informative tour of a gorgeous building.
We visited each of the Chambers as well as the Governor’s office and the Hall of Governors. The Chambers were breathtaking, particularly the moldings, carvings, and paintings that adorned every inch of the ceiling. The House Chamber was larger and had a stunning stained glass window in the center of the ceiling.
The second floor of the rotunda revealed some of the other works of art that are scattered throughout the building. An enormous mural that stood at the top of the Grand Staircase depicts George Rogers Clark negotiating with Native Americans at Fort Kaskaskia in 1778. Statues of other important Illinoisans dotted the circumference of the rotunda, including two other statues of Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, which seemed to be eyeing each other daringly. The other statues were of Illinois Governor John Wood; Speaker of the House David E. Shanahan; 48-year state Senator Richard J. Barr; the first woman elected to the House, Lottie Holman O’Neill; Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley; and the first African American to be elected to the state Senate, Adelbert H. Roberts.
The tour ended in the Hall of Governors, which had the portraits of all of the Illinois’ Governors, except Rod Blagojevich, who was convicted in 2011 and found guilty of 17 federal charges, including extortion, and is currently serving a 14-year sentence in federal prison. He was impeached by the Illinois General Assembly in 2009, so the state decided that if Blagojevich would like a portrait of himself in the Hall of Governors, then he must pay for it himself.
After the tour, we drove a half-mile to the Lincoln Home. It sits amid a historic neighborhood that has now been designated as a National Park. We went to the visitor’s center first and purchased tickets for the tour of the Lincoln Home. As is typical in the Midwest, everyone we encountered was incredibly friendly, and enjoyable company. After taking a look around the gift shop, we exited the visitor’s center and walked back down the block to the benches where the tours began.
Over the next several minutes, a group began to assemble, and the guide got everybody’s attention. After he described the additions and renovations that the Lincolns did on the structure, we all walked inside the house and into the formal sitting room. As was traditional in those days, the children were not allowed in the formal sitting room. Some of the furniture in the room that day was originally the Lincolns’, but not all of it. After they went to Washington, the home was used as a rental property for a while, and much of the furniture ended up elsewhere. Still, it was impressive to think that some of the furniture was there when Lincoln received the news that he had won the Presidency. The formal sitting room was also used to entertain Abraham’s guests and business associates.
Next we filed through the dining area to the family room where the children could play with their toys in the evening. Our guide pointed out some of the toys in the room, and informed us that the Lincoln children had some of the most sought after toys of the time. After taking a look, we ventured upstairs to see the bedrooms.
Abraham and Mary had separate bedrooms. Mary suffered from severe headaches and would have to retreat to her room to recover if she had one. The writing desk and the armoire in Abraham’s room were original to the house, and the wallpaper was – how should I say? vivid. There were also two other bedrooms for the children and a small room at the back of the house for the hired girl, who was usually a young woman in her middle to late teens working for modest pay as well as room and board, typically until she got married. At the end of the tour, the entire group squeezed into the tiny kitchen to admire the then-state of the art appliances that the Lincolns had. On the way out, I thanked the guide earnestly. I enjoyed the tour immensely, and if you find yourself in Springfield with time on your hands, I strongly recommend a visit to both the Lincoln Home and the Capitol.
Abraham Lincoln was one of our most important Presidents because he faced the hardest challenges of all. During a time when the country was the most divided than it ever has been, he managed to maintain the union. Chicago’s diversity and love of cultural celebration, as well as the kind, hospitable Midwestern mentality, are a few things that come to mind when thinking of Illinois’ culture, and because of that it makes sense that a man like Abraham Lincoln had his roots in Illinois.