Tuesday, July 18, 2006

and the heat came

It finally hit here, like the rest of the lower 48 states, this week. Partner and I went to Springfield, IL for the weekend to meet a friend from Chicago and to explore the new Lincoln Museum, other related Lincoln sites, and the Dana-Thomas House (an amazing Frank Lloyd Wright house restored by the State of Illinois). We saw a lot of Lincoln stuff. Franklin the dog went with us, staying in his crate in the cool hotel room during the day excursions.

It was hotter in Springfield than here, if only slightly, and the town which doesn't have a lot of trees in the downtown area (and a amazing number of paved over lots) didn't look so great during the heat. What would?

The U.S. Park Service took over the Lincoln House in the 1970s, and they have done a good job of restoring the blocks around the Lincoln House, giving it some kind of context. The house itself is restored to the year 1860, when Lincoln ran and was elected to the presidency.

Close-by, was the First Presbyterian Church, built after Lincoln's death. The family attended this church in an earlier building, and the family pew is located in the narthex. Inside are some wonderful Tiffany stained glasses. It was in the current church that Mary Todd Lincoln's funeral was held in the early 1880s.

Downtown a few blocks away is the old State Capitol, an early 19th century building where Lincoln served in the Legislature, and on that square is the Lincoln-Herndon law office. The Capitol inside is recreated to its legislative days. The new State Capitol, opened in 1876, is being slowly restored, a floor or two at a time, while in use. It is incredibly ornate, part of that public architecture of a rich and proud young country. The legislative chambers are closed for restoration, but the central hallways and the upper hallways are worth seeing.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum are a few blocks north of the old State Capitol. This new Lincoln museum is Disneyesque, but very good Disneyesque. It's a big hit and I imagine that it will stay that way for a while. Lincoln's bicentennial is coming in a few years, and Springfield was his town.

It opened last year, and it has two theatrical presentations, one using a live actor who lip-syncs his narrative -- a clever look at museums, their artifacts, and the stories they tell. The other is a multi-media re-telling of Lincoln and his image in America using sound effects, strobe lights, and various film and video.

The central pavilion area re-creates rooms in the White House with scenes out of Lincoln's presidency. It probably helps if you know more than what you see. There is a very nifty projected video map of the U.S. outlined in the two colors of the Civil War. In four minutes, the entire war is telescoped, with changing colors showing who was winning and losing, the number killed, and the major battles at each point. At the end is a chamber that recreates the last showing of his casket in the House chamber at the old State Capitol building.

Another major exhibition area shows the pre-presidential Lincoln, his growing up in Kentucky and Indiana, and then in Springfield. There is also a First Ladies traveling exhibition that includes several gowns and dresses of former First Ladies.

We also made the trek to the cemetery a few miles from downtown Springfield where Lincoln, his wife and three of his sons are buried. It's a beautiful old cemetery, and in the base of the giant monument, one wanders around halls of ornate, inlaid marble to arrive at a simple apse area where he is buried.

And then there was the Dana-Thomas house. Built in 1902 by Sarah Lawrence Dana, a local wealthy lady who supposedly was one of Wright's first blank-check clients. She commissioned him to remodel her late father's small Italianate Victorian villa, but that was a ruse, perhaps to get through some probate problems she had over his will. Unlike any other Wright house I've been in, there is one room that has Victorian furniture and supposedly it is a parlor from the original house with a fireplace that has a mantel, another Wright no-no.

What he designed was 12,000 sq ft. home with two barrel-shaped ceilings (he used the same kind of roof for a room in his Oak Park home in Chicago). There is an incredible amount of Wright glasswork, sculptures by Bock, and furniture designed by Wright. There is a Japanese motif to the exterior eaves, with a plaster frieze that is painted turquoise.

Mrs. Dana lived in the house long enough to outlive her fortune, and had to close it down in the 1930s. As she was dying in a local hospital in the 1940s, her personal items were auctioned off to pay for debts. According to the guide, nobody wanted Wright's furniture or glassworks, and they returned them to the house.

The fellow who bought the house, Charles Thomas, was a local medical publisher who understood what he bought. Although he ran his company from the house, he kept the furniture and eventually he and his wife sold the house to the state for about a $1 million. The state put another $6-7 million in restoration and in returning even more items, and the house has the distinction of having the largest amount of Wright furniture and artwork still in one of his houses.

We are all lucky to get to see it. The neighborhood has changed some from 1902. One of the big windows opens up to a brick wall apartment building next door, and another opens onto a paved parking lot with a tawdry and declining wooden fence.

But that's ok.

One can understand how such a house might have existed in the 1920s or later. But in 1902? Lots of Wright magic, using narrow, tight spaces that open into large airy spaces that are revealed again from other corners not apparent -- think of his Unity Temple in Oak Park. Claustrophobia and then paradise.

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