Saturday, June 13, 2009

Happy Birthday Abraham Lincoln: Springfield, Illinois (mile 1240)

June 9-10

Because this year marks the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, there are commemorations and celebrations of Lincoln all across the country. We couldn't think of a better place than Springfield, Illinois to pay our respects to our 16th President. This is the only place where Lincoln owned a home, it is where he practiced law up until he was elected President, where he married and where he is buried.

We began with a visit to the Lincoln Home National Historic Site,
where a whole block of Lincoln's street is preserved and blocked from traffic. We got our free tickets to tour Lincoln's house, and wandered through the homes of a couple of his neighbors while we waited. We were a bit surprised to see how large his home was, and how elegantly appointed. He had come a long way from his log cabin life by the time he was in contention for the Presidency. Mary had decorated their home with lots of fancy big print wall paper from England, and they had elegant furniture and fine china for entertaining. But, then again, their home was quite modest, compared to homes of other Presidents we are familiar with—Jefferson's Monticello, Washington's Mt. Vernon. The Lincoln home wasn't the sort of place that you would name. It just had a simple plate on the front door that said "A. Lincoln."

We were lucky to arrive on a Tuesday, because at 7 p.m. every Tuesday evening, Union troop re-enactors have a big ceremony retiring the colors at Lincoln's tomb. The ceremony involves much playing of the bugle, marching, shouldering and unshouldering of rifles, and attaching and detaching of bayonets. The most impressive part is when they have to shoot their guns three times, which involves many steps of pulling a pouch of powder from a little box on their belt, biting off a bit of the paper of the pouch and spitting it on the ground, pouring the powder into the end of the rifle, tamping it down, cocking the rifle and shooting. It takes quite a while between shots. Watching the process, it is amazing that so many soldiers managed to kill each other in the Civil War. If you missed your shot the first time, there would be plenty of time for your intended victim to run away before you could try to pop him again. I guess they just didn't believe in running.

The next day we visited the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the largest and most highly visited of all our nation's Presidential libraries/museums. The Museum is a sensory overload multi-media presentation of Lincoln's life. There were fewer artifacts than we expected—lots of hand-written notes and papers, but not too many memorable iconic items—like the hat he wore to the theatre the night he died, which we saw at the Smithsonian. (Mary's blood-stained fan and Abe's blood-stained gloves from that night were at this Museum, though, come to think of it.

Probably the reason we don't remember the real stuff too well is because the fake stuff was so overwhelming. There was a presentation called "Ghosts in the Library" that featured a real actor on stage holding real items from the Presidential Library, while special effects ghosts came out of them. Another multi-media theatre presentation had strobe lights and seats that shook and smoke that came into the theatre during the war scenes. One room was a television studio with multiple monitors, inviting you to watch the taping of Tim Russert analyzing the four candidates running for President during Lincoln's first run for the office. One of the most memorable exhibits was a map of the US during the Civil War with the areas held by the Union in blue and the Confederacy in red. Then, the colors started wiggling around like amoebas as each second of time represented a week of the war. The war took 4 minutes. It was clear the Confederates didn't stand a chance three and a half minutes into it, when the blue was squeezing out the red from all directions. The tally of casualties at the bottom of the screen was spinning so fast you couldn't even read a number most of the time.

Springfield has one other treasure that is not to be missed,
and it has nothing to do with Abraham Lincoln. The Dana-Thomas House is, according to the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, "the best preserved and most complete of Frank Lloyd Wright's early Prairie houses." Susan Lawrence Dana, a socialite activist, commissioned Wright to build the house around a 30 year old Italianate brick house she inherited from her father. By the time Wright was done in 1904, the Italianate house could hardly be found beneath all the frosting. The house cost just $60,000 to build, according to the film we saw before our tour. This price is just incomprehensible to us—in addition to being huge, the house has 250 art glass windows, doors and light panels—there isn't a plain pane of glass in the whole place. There are over 100 pieces of furniture Wright designed for the house (fortunately, when they tried to sell the furniture at auction to settle the estate, for less than $1 a piece, hardly anyone bid on it, so they returned it to the house in the hope that selling it partly furnished would help the sale). It cost the state $1,000,000 to buy the house and $5,000,000 to renovate it in the 1980s.

We agreed that this house was designed by a show-off for a show-off. The living spaces alternate from dark enclosed areas to massive two story tall rooms with vaulted ceilings and lots of windows. The dining room and an adjacent living room have connected balconies for musicians. There is one window made just to allow a two story tall Christmas tree to be brought into a large reception area.
There is scarcely an unadorned surface inside or out.

As if the house wasn't interesting enough, Susan Dana had a fascinating story herself. She was an often disappointed and disillusioned equal rights crusader, and a spiritual seeker who dabbled in mystical faiths and had her own church in her house for a time.

We could have spent more time in Springfield—there were plenty of other sights to see, but we decided to be on our way down old Route 66 to see what other interesting adventures awaited us in smaller towns.

1 comment:

  1. I saw the "Ghosts in the library" last summer when I was in Springfield, and found it really moving. And I toured the Dana house too.

    I was only there a day, I guess it was in July, but even I heard complaints about the governor, now another infamous Illinois pol!

    Corn dogs too, well worth the visit!