Old Capitol restoration, 1960s

Reconstruction progress: Workmen are in the process of reattaching the old stones to the Old Capitol’s new framework. (Sangamon Valley Collection)

Before the Old State Capitol was restored to the way it looked in the 1850s, the building housed Springfield’s public restrooms. You could tell by the odor.

Earl “Wally” Henderson (1931-2016), co-founder with Don Ferry of the Ferry & Henderson architectural firm, which designed the restoration in the 1960s, discussed the project in an oral history interview in 2010. The interviewer was Newlyn Hosea. This entry is based largely on that interview.

Henderson gave Illinois state historian Clyde Walton (1925-2000) credit for inspiring the reconstruction. But the hero of the project, Henderson said, was Otto Kerner Jr. (1908-76), Illinois governor from 1961 to 1968.

Hidden history

Built as the state capitol starting in 1837, the building later was transferred to Sangamon County, which used it as the county courthouse from 1876 until 1965. However, facing a space crunch, the county in 1899 raised the formerly two-plus-story structure by 11 feet and inserted a new first floor and basement.

Postcard view of Sangamon County Courthouse after 1899 reconstruction, undated (Sangamon Valley Collection)

Ferry & Henderson’s challenge in the 1960s was to remove the first floor, determine the building’s layout when it was the early Statehouse, and incorporate modern safety, climate and accessibility features in a building that appeared the way it did when Abraham Lincoln worked there.

The architects didn’t have a lot to work with, Henderson said in the interview.

In the case of the Old Capitol, the lower level … was, well, we’d call it the basement. (County officials in 1899) would call it their storage compartments. They used the word “apartment” for a room. But they had converted … to put the public toilets on that; there was a well that went around to get natural light into that lower level, and that’s where they put the public toilets. And you could smell the urine on a hot summer day clear over on the south side of Adams Street. I mean, it was revolting.

Despite decades of neglect, Springfield had long recognized the historic nature of the former Statehouse.  That fact kept the county from demolishing the building in the 1890s, but reconstruction ideas – including one in the 1930s that called for creating an artificial mound to hide the non-original first floor – went nowhere until Sangamon County moved into a brand-new building at Seventh and Monroe streets in 1965. (That building now is Springfield’s Municipal Center East.)

Earl “Wally” Henderson (findagrave)

Henderson himself grew up in Springfield, but he told Hosea he didn’t understand the impact of Abraham Lincoln until he was serving in the U.S. Army in Korea shortly after the end of the Korean War. A young Korean boy did odd jobs for soldiers at the air base where Henderson was stationed.

We got talking to this little boy and he’s talking about where he’s from. I think it was Su Wan or another village area. Like the typical American does, “Well, you ought to hear about my town.” I just happened to reach in my pocket, and there was a penny. I held up the penny to this little 11-year-old Korean boy, who did speak English. … and I said, “I’m from his hometown,” and showed him the image of Lincoln; his … eyes got very round, and he said, “You are from Abraham Lincoln’s home.” Like an amazement, like all of a sudden my stature just rose up like, you know, big sunlight.

He told me in the next hour more about Abraham Lincoln than I knew, and I was raised … within a dozen blocks of Abraham Lincoln’s home. … Amazing experience.

Back in Springfield following college and architectural training, Henderson’s Lincoln interest led him to the Civil War Roundtable, where, sometime in 1961 or ’62, he and one of the other attendees struck up a conversation. The other man asked Henderson what he knew about historic restoration. Henderson said in the interview he hadn’t been trained in restoration, but neither had architects in general – their bent was toward building new.

Now all of a sudden somebody comes over with preservation, what do you know about it? And I say, “As much as anybody.” And I wasn’t being facetious or trying to, you know, be a smart aleck, but I ended up saying to him in response, I guess, “Well, what do you do?” And he said, “I’m the state historian.”

Hosea: And who was that?

Henderson: Clyde Walton.

Otto Kerner

Courthouse demolition following removal of original stones (Sangamon Valley Collection)

Walton, of course, already had in mind a total restoration of the Old Capitol. Walton, Ralph Newman of Chicago’s Abraham Lincoln Book Shop, and the Springfield Clearinghouse, a coalition of local bankers who also favored reconstruction of the Old Capitol, had drawn Kerner into the project.

“The hero of this whole show is Otto Kerner,” Henderson said in the interview. “Now the governor had made a commitment to the clearinghouse, you know, ‘If I’m elected governor I will work with you if it’s a feasible thing to do.’ And his word was good.”

(Y)ou’ve got to understand Otto Kerner was a different kind of governor. … Since, they’ve all changed differently. But Otto Kerner, literally, you could meet him at a grocery store. I mean, … he walked from the mansion down to the (Old Capitol) job site and you’d see him at the fence watching the construction.

Kerner, Henderson said, also grasped the importance of tourism to Springfield’s economy and the importance of the Old Capitol to Springfield tourism.

Kerner spoke to a Chamber of Commerce luncheon very early in the Old Capitol planning process, Henderson remembered. Industries like Sangamo Electric and Allis-Chalmers (later Fiatallis) still operated in Springfield at the time. “And the governor says from the podium,” Henderson said, “‘Smokestacks is not your industry. It’s tourism.’” It was like, what the hell is he talking about? … Springfield had never thought about tourism. You know, we were a little naïve. We all went someplace occasionally and saw something because it was historic, but you didn’t think about how many people do and would come.”

Otto Kerner Jr., undated (Wikipedia)

When Kerner saw a very early depiction of the restored Old Capitol that showed up and down ramps leading to underground parking, he immediately asked, “Is that possible?”

“Well, it’s not something we’ve budgeted for,” Henderson answered.

And he said, “Isn’t this (the Old Capitol restoration) going to impact? Aren’t visitors going to be coming to the city and so forth in the downtown area? Is this going to impact the downtown area?” And I said, “Yes, Governor, it definitely is.” And he said, “Then don’t we need that underground parking?” And I said, “Yes, Governor, we do.” I’m about to jump out of my chair because, I mean, we need him, but really what you need is some way to pay for it. … And he said, “I’m willing to present this. …”

Kerner was named Copley First Citizen in 1966 because of his support for the Old Capitol project. In 1973, Kerner, by then a federal appeals court judge, was convicted of mail fraud in connection with a racetrack scandal and sentenced to federal prison. That didn’t change Henderson’s opinion of him.

Thank goodness for Otto Kerner, because he wasn’t a gambler, and he sure wasn’t guilty of anything that they ever addressed he was. He had judgment and he trusted people. In fact, if he had a shortcoming, it was he trusted somebody, coming to a group of 30-year-old people who haven’t quite built too many front porches yet, to take about the most important historic building east of the Mississippi.

Missing floor plan

The interior of the building had been completely changed during the 80 years it housed county offices, so it no longer resembled the building Lincoln knew. What’s more, Henderson said, the original construction plans (drawn up by architect John Rague) had vanished, perhaps destroyed when the Illinois State Arsenal burned down in 1934.

First floor of restored Old Capitol, with Ionic-style columns (SCHS)

Ferry and Henderson studied Rague’s other works (including the Iowa territorial capitol) and those of his mentor, Minard Lafever. With the help of  volunteers from the Junior League of Springfield, they pored through old newspapers. They found a treasure trove of records in the state auditor’s office. They put notices in newspapers throughout Illinois seeking information on the Old Capitol, “whether it was personal letters, or evidence of what was there, just send it to us,” Henderson said.

“We got a pile of stuff like that. I mean, it was just an amazing thing. It was like … these mystery stories, they show you how a piece of evidence leads here and there.”

When they got access to the old building, the architects were able to trace some of the changes over the decades from “shadows” on walls, floors and ceilings, such as nail holes or leftover beams that indicated where doorways and partitions once existed.

Rague followed conventional Greek Revival architectural forms. As a result, Henderson said, the reconstruction  architects knew columns used in the building would be more ornamental as they went higher. At one point, he said:

So I walk into the Junior (League) readers and I said, when you’re reading, you’re going to find four columns, or whatever it was at the time, and they’re going to be Ionic column capitals, and I’m expecting them to write about this particular thing. And doggone, if within the week, I didn’t get a call from the readers (who) said, “we have your columns.” … (W)hen we did that, I get the same feeling right now, you know, your hair stands up on your back, it’s like “wow.” I mean, we called that one just like you shot a gun a hundred years backwards.

And so we got to where we were really confident (that)  we had the key to that building.


Second floor, Corinthian-style columns (SCHS)

Reconstruction lasted from 1966 to 1969. In the end, although the indoor surfaces were as identical as possible to those of Lincoln’s era, they were all new material; nothing remained of the 1850s Statehouse.

Almost all of the exterior, however, is the original dolomite stone dug out of a quarry whose location today is under Lake Springfield. Of the 3,300 stones that make up the exterior, only 26 were cracked and unusable,  according to an article Henderson wrote for the July 1988 edition of The Construction Specifier. (A Minnesota quarry provided the 26 replacements.)

Skeptics doubted Ferry & Henderson’s plan to take down the original exterior, stone by stone, rebuild the Old Capitol, and replace all 3,300 stones in exactly the same arrangement as in 1837. In a letter to Kerner, legislators and the news media in 1965, former probate judge Benjamin DeBoice claimed “the very poor quality native stone” would crumble as it was pulled apart. “You’ll wind up with a pile of rubble,” he said. Ferry & Henderson, armed with core samples that showed the stone was stable, went ahead with their plans.

Before the stones were removed, the architects had the building carefully photographed to identify where each stone belonged. Then, as it was removed, workmen used paint and a waterproof “ticket” to label  each stone with a code that identified exactly where it belonged in the structure. Master prints of the codes were stored in four separate locations – if the code had been lost to a fire or other disaster, there would have been no way to put the building back together. The stones themselves were stored at the Illinois State Fairgrounds until they were reinstalled.

Once the stones were removed, the old courthouse was demolished and the site excavated for a two-level underground parking garage and as quarters for the Illinois State Historical Library, which later was relocated again to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. (Other than the old stones, the original building materials were dumped in deep coal mines, Henderson wrote, “to prevent an endless supply of authentic or simulated souvenirs.”)

For reinstallation, a large crane swung the old stones – 900 to 1,200 pounds each – over the excavation and into place. The stones fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, according to Waymond Mason, a masonry contractor who was quoted in a 1968 Illinois State Journal story. “We had problems, but they were all solved without too much trouble and without much delay.”

The heart of the reconstructed Old Capitol is a load-bearing steel frame that supports the old stones and the old-looking, but modern, fireproof and climate-controlled interior.

Restored Old Capitol, southeast view, 2020 (SCHS)

In history

The Old Capitol restoration became the climax to Illinois’ yearlong sesquicentennial celebration in 1968. About 3,000 people attended dedication ceremonies for the Old Capitol State Historic Site on Dec. 3, 1968, the 150th anniversary of the day President James Monroe signed the bill making Illinois a state.

Kerner spoke briefly at the event; the keynote speaker was his successor, Gov. Samuel Shapiro. Following the dedication, people in the crowd got a peek at the building, even though construction wasn’t quite finished.

“The crowd was out there just ready to go,” Henderson said in his interview. “When they opened the doors initially, I’m standing there and watching it and afraid that the (stairway) balusters would be pushed. I mean, the kids ran up that thing about 10 abreast; if 10 abreast wouldn’t do it, they’d put two more in. But the whole thing was just aching to stay together.”

Hat tip: To William Cellini Jr. for drawing SangamonLink’s attention to the 1968 sesquicentennial and the history of the Old Capitol reconstruction project.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society. Learn how to support the Society. 


This entry was posted in Architecture, Buildings, First Citizens, Historic Sites, Illinois capital, Local government, Museums, National Register, Prominent figures, Sangamon County, State government. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *