Well here we are, dear readers, at the end of the year and at the end of the decade. As I speculated in my previous post, I did in fact manage to squeeze in one more Crapitol trip before the dawn of the roaring 20’s. One last elbow surgery (to remove a surprising amount of hardware) resulted in another two weeks off of work, which I strategically scheduled to coincide with the birth of a new nephew, resulting in a trip back to Iowa, and an opportunity for crossing another Midwestern capitol off my list.
Several possible targets were within half a day’s drive – Topeka, Jefferson City – but I found myself pulled eastward, towards Springfield, Illinois. Although I have very close family and friends who reside in Chicago and who had previously expressed interest in accompanying me on a Crapitols trip to Springfield (sorry Dan and Simon), there was only one man who could serve as my co-pilot for this fun-ass journey: my little brother, Andy.
Now, the state of Illinois has gone all-in on its Abraham Lincoln ties, which is completely understandable. It’s where he spent most of his life, where he began his political career, and where his mortal remains lie in eternal rest, even though he wasn’t born there. But do you know who was born in Illinois? My brother, Andy. Yep, during a brief few years when we lived in Libertyville, IL, we had a baby brother and we named him Andy and then we moved back to Iowa. Andy had some extra vacation days to burn before the end of the year, so he took that Tuesday off and the two of us set off in Mom’s Honda to pay a visit to the land of his birth.
After four-and-a-half hours we arrived in downtown Springfield, with its unmistakably Midwest-ness. There’s something about the chilly, gray, fall weather, the trees barren of all leaves, and the hallmarks of decaying downtowns well past their early-to-mid-20th-century heydays that always feels familiar, whether I’m in Davenport or Detroit or Kansas City or Madison or St. Paul.
Springfield seemed particularly dingy, however, as the focal point of the downtown area, the Illinois State Capitol itself, is rather dull from the outside. It has a plain stone exterior, and its dome and cupolas are a lackluster silvery color, which is actually a zinc coating that’s very protective against the elements, but kinda… meh to look at. Not much curb appeal, but do you know what can fix that? Abraham Lincoln.
That’s right, Andrew O’Connor’s statue of Lincoln stands watch on the East entrance to the building. Overlooking that statue, however, is a statue of none other than Lincoln’s rival Stephen A. Douglas, presumably to keep old Abe on his toes.
We were very fortunate that day, as the two dreaded scourges of state capitol visits, renovations (completed in 2011) and school groups, were nowhere to be found. As I no longer have any surgical steel in my elbow I assumed I’d breeze right through security, but the foil wrappers of my Preparation H Totables were apparently enough to set off the metal detector. After confirming I was no security threat, the state troopers kindly directed us to the tour office. Oh, and we got to hold onto our coffees (see: Iowa).
Now here is where the Illinois State Capitol really stands out from the pack. Tours on demand! We were introduced to Edwin, our guide, and the three of us were on our way.
Edwin got right down to business – the tour, get this, is only 25 MINUTES! That's what I call efficiency. Now, I’m a big fan of tours and history and adorable elderly docents and all that, but hardly any tour needs to be 90 minutes, or even 60 minutes. Illinois clocks in at under half an hour. Impressive.
Edwin explained that the building is the sixth to serve as the capitol of Illinois, the first being in Kaskaskia on the Mississippi river, which is now actually located west of the Mississippi River (so not actually in Illinois anymore). The capital later moved to Vandalia, IL, where the second, third, and fourth buildings were located. Then in 1836 the capital was moved again, with the advocacy of many prominent Illinois citizens, including a certain young lawyer, to Springfield, where the fifth capitol was constructed. This was where that certain young lawyer (you guessed Lincoln, right) spent his early political career and delivered his famous “A House Divided” speech. The building is still preserved as a historical site just a few blocks away, which we regrettably didn’t have time to visit.
Thennnnnn, they began construction of the sixth capitol in 1868 with a price tag of $4.5 million. With a total height of 361 feet, it is the tallest non-skyscraper state capitol building, topped only by Nebraska and Louisiana. Edwin showed us the chambers of the House of Representatives and the Senate, where he pointed out the desk formerly occupied by President Barack Obama during his days in the Illinois legislature.
Edwin showed us the Hall of Governors, where, “Governors portraits are hung after their terms are over,” to which I quickly replied, “You mean their terms in office or their terms in prison?” which is a fantastic joke if you know anything about Illinois politics. Illinois is unique among the 50 states, in that over the course of less than four decades, FOUR of its Governors were convicted of corruption charges, most notably Rod Blagojevich, who was impeached in 2009. At one point, Blagojevich and his immediate predecessor George Ryan were BOTH in federal prison at the same time. The voters of Illinois sure know how to pick ‘em. Anyway, it was a really good joke that probably would have gotten a lot of laughs in a U. Chicago political science seminar.
The last tour stop was the grand staircase, over which looms a towering 1888 painting by Gustav A. Fuchs. It depicts George Rogers Clark, big brother of William Clark (see: North Dakota), at Fort Kaskaskia in 1778 negotiating a treaty with indigenous people there, and presumably scoring a heavily lopsided deal at their expense.
Edwin then lead us to the foot of the staircase to share a final fun fact, which I correctly guessed would be about the lamps. If you’ll recall, we previously learned that in 1874 the Iowans scored a pair of scantily-clad lady lamps that the prudish Illinoisans were looking to unload at a discount. According to Edwin, after a few decades the people of Illinois had changed their tune and wanted givesies-backsies. After unsuccessfully attempting to buy the statues back from Iowa, they had replicas produced, which now flaunt their figures for all to see on the second floor of the Illinois capitol.
Edwin concluded the tour gave us a few tips on other interesting sites to see in Springfield (definitely check out the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Dana-Thomas House), and we gratefully parted ways. Then it was time to hit the Gents room, and make it official: Illinois now makes it 18 Crapitols complete.
We departed the capitol in haste, as the autumn daylight was rapidly fading, and we had some Lincoln sites to visit before hitting the road. Not far from the capitol in downtown Springfield is Abraham Lincoln’s home, so we popped in to inquire about the tour. A kindly elderly docent named Harvey informed us that the tour was 30 minutes long (again, Springfield with the super short tours), but the next one wouldn’t begin until 3:30. Lincoln’s tomb would be closing at 5:00, and I definitely wanted to see that. We made the call to skip the house and see the tomb, and Harvey gave us a nod as if to say, “You made the right choice.” We snapped a few quick pics outside the house before heading to Oak Ridge Cemetery.
With the gray sky, the setting sun, and the crunchy leaves everywhere, Oak Ridge Cemetery was looking splendid that afternoon. A short drive past the gates leads to the Lincoln Tomb - a stone building topped by an obelisk that sits at the far end of long lawn. Just like at the capitol, we had the place largely to ourselves. We first went around the back, where at the bottom of the hill beneath the monument sits the receiving fault, where the President’s casket was first placed upon arriving in Springfield in May of 1865.
In front of the monument stands a large cast of Gutzon Borglum’s bust of Lincoln, which I gave a rub on the nose, as its golden shine indicated must bring good luck to all those who touch it.
The monument wasn’t completed until 1874, and has undergone several changes over the years, including the complete disassembly and reassembly of the structure from 1899-1901 to repair its foundation.
The interior of the tomb was redone in splendid Art Deco fashion in the 1930s. The tomb holds the remains of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, three of the four Lincoln children, and ten feet beneath a red marble cenotaph, the 16th President of the United States. On the wall above the marker is inscribed Edwin Stanton’s prophetic utterance upon the President’s passing, “Now he belongs to the ages.”
Having paid our respects we began the journey home. We stopped for supper in the Quad Cities (Davenport, IA if you want to be a stickler) at the legendary Machine Shed Restaurant on our way home, a place I hadn’t been in at least a quarter century. Meatloaf for me, all-you-care-to-eat fried chicken for Andy.
This Crapitols trip was the capstone on a wonderful visit with my family. The sprinkles on top of the icing on the cake. After a wacky year of broken bones, surgeries, and missed work, it was nice to get the opportunity to take it easy with my loved ones in Iowa for a solid week. I got to meet my new baby nephew Oscar, played dinosaurs with Frank, watched Jeopardy! with Grandma, saw my favorite band Wilco with Tom G, witnessed the Hawkeyes beat the Gophers with my pops, reunited with a dear old friend and bandmate, got a private piano and flute Christmas concert from the multi-talented Lucy G, chased my mom’s cute doggie around the house, and spent nine hours in the car in great conversation with the person I shared a room with and stayed up too late talking to every night for 15 years of childhood.
I have much to give thanks for, and I thank you for tagging along with me on this Crapitols quest. I currently have no set plans for Crapitols trips in 2020 just yet, so we shall see where our journey takes us next.
Until then, have a wonderful holiday season.