Lavish Legacy

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NEARLY HALF A CENTURY AGO Illinois schoolchildren donated pennies—$45,000 worth in all—to help purchase a handwritten copy of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address for the state’s official history collection in Springfield. At last Lincoln’s towering call for “a new birth of freedom” would be on view in his old hometown.

 

NEARLY HALF A CENTURY AGO Illinois schoolchildren donated pennies—$45,000 worth in all—to help purchase a handwritten copy of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address for the state’s official history collection in Springfield. At last Lincoln’s towering call for “a new birth of freedom” would be on view in his old hometown.

But the now-priceless relic—along with thousands of other important artifacts, manuscripts, prints, and sculptures —has never enjoyed a permanent home. Now another “pennies for Lincoln” campaign, this one generating $54,000 from today’s Illinois students, will be applied to the $115 million public-private budget for a vast new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield’s downtown. The library will open to the public on November 18; the museum, in 2004.

In Springfield the Lincoln home, which sits in a beautifully restored 14-house district and is managed by the National Park Service, welcomes 400,000 visitors annually. At the same time, the state of Illinois owns a giant collection of materials: 1,500 original Lincoln manuscripts, including poll books in his own hand, the Lincoln marriage license, the deed to his house, photographs and oil portraits from life, Mary Lincoln’s wedding skirt, the diamond-studded watch key Lincoln carried, his traveling shaving mirror, and his personal lap robe.

The state’s historical library contains 12,000 books and pamphlets, along with relics and documents from every local, state, and national political campaign in which Lincoln participated. The collection has long needed a visitors’ center capacious enough to accommodate growing hordes of tourists, as well as a library worthy of its heavy traffic in scholars. The planned 198,000-square-foot Presidential Library and Museum is designed to provide both.

Yet the project is not without its critics. Some Springfieldians have assailed a $20 million plan to demolish a block of downtown buildings, including three historic structures, to make way for a park that would provide the proper “vista” for the library and museum. But the most intense debate of all has swirled around the state’s plan to devote much of the new museum space to a series of dioramas featuring life-sized latex figures. Entitled “The Journey,” this “immersive visit” through the sixteenth President’s career will show, among other scenes, young Abe reading by firelight in his log cabin, the kind of slave auction he might have witnessed on his first trip to New Orleans, a reproduction of his New Salem store, and presidential events ranging from a typical cabinet meeting to his assassination and funeral. As a result, only a small section of the huge new center will be devoted to the display of the museum’s bulging collection of original relics.

Advocates hail the new plan as a model for attracting museum-weary children and families to the new complex. But critics—notably the respected Civil War scholar John Y. Simon—regard it as inauthentic and a colossal waste of space: “Abraham Lincoln doesn’t have to be sold the same way as the Pillsbury Doughboy.”

Susan Morgerman, director of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which is overseeing construction, insists that the reproduction Lincolns, to be crafted by a company called BRC Imagination Arts of California, will be tasteful, “engaging and entertaining, and I don’t think that’s bad.” But Simon replies that even Lincoln himself regarded “wax figgers,” as he once referred to them, “as a kind of vulgar sideshow.”

What should surprise no one is that Lincoln still ignites controversy in his hometown. He always did. He won the city by only 69 votes in the election that made him President, and four years later, when he carried the nation in a nearlandslide, he squeaked by here with a plurality of only 10. While serving in the White House, Lincoln even declined an invitation to return home for a proUnion rally, instead sending a scolding message questioning his neighbors’ willingness to fight for Emancipation.

The house remains divided. But well before the 2009 bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, regardless of what displays ultimately find their way inside its newest, grandest tourist attraction, Springfield will become home to one of the most ambitious—and hotly debated—history centers in the nation.

Harold Holzer