Illinois State Arsenal (1903)

arsenalPresident Theodore Roosevelt dedicated the new Illinois State Arsenal  at Second and Monroe streets on June 4, 1903. The structure, designed by Bullard & Bullard architects and built at a cost of $150,000 by the Culver Stone and Marble Co., resembled a medieval fort, complete with turrets and battlements, and was popularly known as The Castle.  The building replaced the state’s Civil War-era arsenal on North Fifth Street.

In addition to its military functions, the new building housed the collections of the Illinois Natural History Museum, which for years had been haphazardly kept in the Statehouse. However, the museum space on the building’s second floor was too small, and what would become the Illinois State Museum languished until it moved into the new Centennial Building in 1923.

The climax of the arsenal’s dedication day was a grand ball for which two bands provided dance music in the brilliantly lit space. According to the May 20, 1903, Springfield News, “It is an occasion when every lover and worker for the city, no matter whether a merchant or clerk, may enter on the same plane and do his part to make the celebration a success.”

In August of 1908, after mobs of whites rampaged through central Springfield committing murderous assaults, looting, and arson against its African-American residents, Gov. Charles Deneen designated the arsenal as a temporary refuge for riot victims.

The Illinois State Register described the scene at the arsenal:

Innocent old men, who have lived here for years, tottering old women in white hair.., children in their teens and babies are mixed up in this sorry spectacle, their faces withered in anxiety…. When bedtime came all the older people placed chairs together and on comforts (quilts) rescued from their homes during the day, made the children and the babies comfortable. The old women were sleeping on their chairs. The men were making out on the hard floor.

On Saturday, Aug. 15, crowds that had been dispersed by state troops earlier in the day regrouped and marched to the arsenal with the intention of attacking the black refugees inside. Militia on duty there charged them with bayonets fixed, and the mob scattered.

Six months later, on Feb.  12, 1909, the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth was held at the state arsenal, which had been decorated with flags, potted ferns, and, across one end of the cavernous hall, a massive portrait of the slain president draped in red, white, and blue bunting. Nearly 760 guests in formal attire were watched by 1,200 spectators as they dined and listened to addresses by William Jennings Bryan and the British ambassador to the U.S.

The prestigious Lincoln Centennial Association, which organized the banquet, had refused to allow African-Americans to attend. The city’s black citizens held their own observance in honor of the man who had “made freedom a reality in their lives” at St. Paul’s A.M.E. Church in eastern Springfield.

Among celebrities who performed or attended functions at the arsenal over the years were Will Rogers, King Albert of Belgium, John Philip Sousa and his band, Arturo Toscanini and the La Scala Orchestra, and presidents Calvin Coolidge, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Its size made the arsenal a popular venue for exhibitions, concerts, and balls. Car shows drew large crowds every year. On May 29, 1929, band leader Paul Whiteman and his orchestra drew a crowd of 5,000 to a noon-hour concert featuring the young Bing Crosby and the Rhythm Boys.

arsenalfireOn Sunday, Feb. 18, 1934, fire broke out in the arsenal. The spectacular blaze ignited some of the ammunition stored there, and spectators reported that the rifle rounds going off sounded like popcorn popping; happily, firefighters prevented 150 pounds of dynamite stored in the basement from exploding.

While there were no serious injuries, the fire destroyed the building and its contents. After a three-month investigation, the state fire marshal announced that the fire had been started by a 10-year-old boy from a troubled family who liked to watch things burn. The boy, Cecil Kiper, had set fire to a paper bag weighted with lead solder and threw it onto the Arsenal stage, setting the curtains on fire.

The young arsonist was identified using accounts of an arsenal janitor who had seen a  young boy who had reported a fire in a restroom wastebasket. Kiper was taken into custody at Douglas School, where he was in the fourth grade.

Plans to replace the building were begun immediately, and its successor, the Illinois State Armory, opened in 1937.

The fire also contributed to construction of another new state building, the Illinois State Archives. Irreplaceable records of the state military department had been destroyed in the arsenal fire, which  prompted the American Legion to support construction of the new, fireproof Archives building, despite the start of the Great Depression. (The Archives building now is named after the long-time director of the archives, Margaret Cross Norton.)

Contributor: James Krohe Jr.


125 Years of Illinois Land, Life, People, and Art,” The Living Museum, Vol. 64, Nos. 2-3, Illinois State Museum, Springfield, 2002

Interview with Margaret Cross Norton, University of Illinois at Springfield Oral History Collection, 1972

Landmark Springfield: Architecture and Urbanism in the Capital City of Illinois by Christian K. Laine. Introduction by Edward J. Russo. Metropolitan Press Publications, 1985bridge

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This entry was posted in African Americans, Amusements, Buildings, Celebrations, Disasters, Lincoln, Abraham, Military, Museums, Race riot of 1908, Sports and recreation, State government. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Illinois State Arsenal (1903)

  1. frank weitzel says:

    my great grand fathers uncle john (johann) bretz was a contractor for building the armory . he had previously built the capital hotel , in frankfort kentucky plus the first catholic church , there , plus the kentucky state armory . he also built the origial cathedral ( st marys ) in springfield.

  2. steven weaver says:

    My name is Steven Weaver and I have recently come across oblong paper weight that has a photo of the State Arsenal and Armory. It is about 3 1/2 by width and 2 1/2 on the ends. I looked up the year and it seems to the one that was lost in the fire.
    I am hoping that someone may be able to shine some light on this historic building and this wonderful paper weight.
    I am in Portland, Oregon and my daughter Jacquie Weaver has lived in Springfield for years. I do like that town of yours.—steven 503-915-9615-c 503-245-1493 -h
    10019 SW Quail Post Road, Portland, Oregon 97219

    • Roger Willcut says:

      Mr Weaver, can you PDF me a photo of the item? I think my brother, who once lived in Illinois might have lost it.

  3. editor says:

    Mr. Weaver: Thanks for reading SangamonLink. I hope our entry helped you fill in details about the Arsenal. Finding out more about the paperweight probably will be tough, but perhaps a reader can help. Good luck.

  4. Dave Kane says:

    I think they also played basketball at the arsenal.

  5. Adriana Schroeder says:

    Hello. I am the command historian for the Illinois National Guard. What folks may not realize is that Mr. Culver retired from the Illinois National Guard (as a Colonel I believe). Limestone from his construction company was also used to build the Illinois State Military Museum on Camp Lincoln. We are free and open to the public if anyone cares to see our, “castle.” It was built in the same style as the old arsenal and is on the National Register of Historic Places. His limestone can also be found on the home right around the corner from post on a old house on North Grand AND was used to build the Illinois monument in Vicksburg National Battlefield Park.

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