Standing in the center of downtown Springfield is a building that once heard the voices of Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, Richard Yates and many others.
Sangamon County acquired the Old State Capitol building to serve as its county courthouse after the state moved out in 1876. Over the years, the county made significant changes to the building’s interior. In 1899, the county began construction of a new first floor. This would significantly alter the building’s appearance.
Fueled by interest in the approaching Civil War centennial, the historic preservation movement gained momentum in the 1950s. In Illinois, no site was deemed to be more important than the Old State Capitol.
In the face of Illinois fiscal crisis in 1961, Gov. Otto Kerner initially was hesitant to ask the legislature to purchase the Old State Capitol building. “But the county was talking about either selling the building and buidling a new county courthouse, or tearing it down and building in the same place,” Kerner later recalled. “I realized if we didn’t act we might lose the second most historical building west of the Alleghenies.”
Thus at Kerner’s insistence, the state reacquired the Old State Capitol in 1961 and for the next several years plans were carefully drawn to restore the building. In March of 1966, workmen began the task of dismantling the building stone by stone. Each stone was marked and then taken to the Illinois State Fairgrounds for storage.
Once the exterior of the original building had been removed, crews removed the interior as well as the first floor that had been added at the dawn of the 20th century. The site then was excavated. This was followed by the construction of a two-level underground parking area as well as space for the offices, vaults and stacks of the Illinois Historical Library. The stones then were returned to the downtown site and meticulously reassembled.
However, the biggest challenge was restoring the interior so it would appear as it did when Lincoln walked its halls. To achieve this goal, architects Donald Ferry and Wallace Henderson poured through every document that referenced the Old State Capitol.
Henderson was quoted: “It was very much like solving a jigsaw puzzle. Each fragment was insignificant by itself but, related to other fragments, could help us piece together the whole fabric of (building architect) John F. Rague’s design.”
Inside and out, including the grounds and encircling wrought iron fence, the Old State Capitol today looks as it did when it served the people of Illinois as the seat of government.
It is important to keep in mind that the Old State Capitol was not simply restored for the sake of preservation or tourism. The goal was to teach visitors – and the Old State Capitol does provide a wonderful education to all who enter. Old State Capitol visitors are invited to take a 30-minute tour led by a trained historic interpreter. Visitors also may watch a 15-minute building orientation video.
Those who walk through the building will visit the House and Senate chambers, the governor’s office, the Illinois State Supreme Court chamber and the offices of other state officials. And, as many visitors insist, they may feel Lincoln’s spirit.