In the late 1800s, Springfield’s Palace Hotel had a great location at Fourth and Washington streets, a half-block from the Chicago & Alton railroad station (today’s Amtrak station). For a while, the Palace was one of the city’s premier hostelries.
But the place deteriorated considerably by the time its owner, Col. David Block, decided to sell out in 1899. Here’s how Illinois State Journal columnist A.L. Bowen described his first memories of the Palace in 1945.
It was flourishing when I came to Springfield under the direction of David Block, his wife, son Dave Jr. and daughter Sally, as fine publicity as any house could have, since all of them were jovial and well fed. Will, another son, was prominent in New York theatricals.
The Palace was purely ironical. It was dreary to look at and sad and dark inside, built of wood and tinder. How much its guests owe to the sheltering hand of Providence, I doubt that any of them ever stopped to consider, but a fire once started would have exceeded in speed Springfield’s pony express squirt gun fire department of that day.
The Palace was famous for its rodents, some as large as cats and as ferocious as hyenas. Guests used to tell of their sleepless nights as these travelers raced about through the hollow walls and floors raising a tremendous racket, like a flour mill in full action.
Bowen remembered the Palace because of a chat he had had with a state official on that corner the night Bowen arrived in Springfield in 1899. He learned that the official, a clerk with the auditor’s office, had added up all the appropriations legislators had approved that session, and they called for Illinois to spend a total of $14 million over the next two years.
“That was a day when a million dollars was dough and fourteen millions were an oven full,” Bowen wrote in the column. “The next evening I printed the Williams story, scooped the morning papers, made myself a warm place with my employer and established a foothold as a political and state house reporter. That was forty-six years ago.”
The Palace was sold a couple of times after Block unloaded the property. Most of the furniture and fixtures were disposed of in a series of auctions in 1901. Finally, in 1904, new owners built another hotel, the Illinois, on the site at the northeast corner of Fourth and Washington streets. That building, somewhat remodeled, was empty and for sale in early 2020.
A.L. Bowen (1869-1945) traded careers between newspapering and social service administration for more than 40 years in Springfield.
As a newspaperman, he rose from reporter to editor of the Illinois State Journal, a post he held from 1927 until 1931. In government, he was superintendent of state charities and, at the height of the Great Depression, director of the Illinois Department of Public Welfare. He even served briefly as temporary warden of the Joliet State Prison.
In civic life as well as public, Bowen was an advocate of helping those who couldn’t help themselves. He was a member of the committee that oversaw the Springfield Survey of 1914, and, according to his obituary, he was “for many years” president of the advisory board of the Salvation Army.
In an editorial following his death, the Journal described Bowen’s personal approach to work and life.
No man to tolerate sham and pretense, Mr. Bowen during his administration as head of the state department of public welfare, kept no ornate private office. With 10,000 employees under his jurisdiction, Mr. Bowen performed his tasks and interviews at a desk in a large room where other office employees worked. No person who sought advice or information from Mr. Bowen was halted at the doors of an “inner sanctum.” Callers were welcome, and conversations were informal at his office.
While public welfare director, Mr. Bowen made numerous trips to institutions. He not only conferred with institution officials, but with inmates themselves. He knew personally many notorious gangsters, confidence men, murderers, arsonists, as well as other criminals lower in the crime brackets who had been or were wards of the state. …
A tireless worker, and his interest in human behavior never lagging, Mr. Bowen, until a short time before his death, conducted a column on the editorial pages of the Illinois State Journal, in which he discussed a wide range of subjects, from politics to government wartime regulations and motion pictures.
A student of history, both state and national, Mr. Bowen was well acquainted with shrines in Illinois and knew the state’s history well. … One of his last public endeavors was to take a leading part in the plan to make the Sangamon county courthouse (today’s Old Capitol State Historic Site – ed.) a state memorial.
A.L. Bowen is buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery.
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