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VVA’s 13th National Convention

TEXT AND PHOTOS By Michael Keating

In the year 3000 Anno Domini, archeologists descended on the city of Springfield, Illinois, to study its religious and cultural traditions. Initial studies had indicated that although religious traditions were in line with Christian teachings common to the post-Industrial American Midwest, there had also evolved the worship of a demigod, revered universally, whose image was seen everywhere.

It was rare for residents of the metropolis to perform social functions outside the presence of the demigod’s gaze. Nearly every park was graced with depictions of the saint; every restaurant, every bar, every commercial and government office, every school and church and brothel either included his image or was named for him.

This Springfield icon was Abraham Lincoln. He exemplified the virtues of compassion, intellectual clarity, righteousness, and the flowering of backwoods virility. Researchers wondered whether the citizenry had made these virtues their own.

Today, in 2007, the newest, largest, and most handsome structure in downtown Springfield is the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. Cognizant that attention spans have dwindled since Lincoln denounced slavery in a three-hour speech before the Illinois legislature that ignited debate among the local citizenry, the curators decided against a static display of Lincoln memorabilia. These displays are interactive: Two films bring the period alive, and—through the miracle of holograms—Lincoln himself makes an appearance larger than almost-life.

The museum and its sister institution, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, possess a vast wealth of Illinois historical records and information about Lincoln and his times. The collections are so large that visitors may need hours to wend their way through. The museum opens every morning at 9:00. It closes at 5:00, except on Wednesdays, when it stays open until 8:30. The $7.50 fee also covers admission to the temporary exhibit on view during the VVA Convention, “First Lady of Controversy: Mary Todd Lincoln.” To get there, walk one block west from the Convention hotels to Sixth Street, turn right, and walk an additional two blocks.

Downtown Springfield is eminently walkable. It’s flat and uncrowded. The sidewalks are wide; the attractions nearby. In fact, on your way to the museum, you may want to linger on Adams before taking that right turn and visit the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office. It’s a handsome three-story building where Lincoln practiced and where he wrote his first Inaugural Address. It’s open daily from 9-5. Donations accepted.

Of course, it’s possible that you may not even cover that one block of Adams Street, but will be distracted midblock by Springfield Furniture. Inside this misnomered shop are some collectibles and rejectables, but most intriguingly, a huge collection of new and used CDs at affordable prices. There’s rack after rack of recordings you haven’t seen for years and a healthy collection of movies on DVD.

If that wasn’t distraction enough, one block further west is Prairie Archives, Antiquarian Booksellers. With 100,000 volumes available to the public in its sprawling store (and an additional 400,000 volumes stacked up elsewhere), Prairie Archives offers a vast selection of used books. While its strongest collections are in the areas of Lincoln and Illinois history, there are separate rooms for many subject areas, including language and history, cookbooks, art, general fiction, and the classics. They also sell engravings, antique greeting cards, and other paper goods. On the down side, the Vietnam War collection is thin, and the prices suggest the proprietors love books so much they are loathe to give them up.

However, if your reading pleasure is more mass market, stroll down Adams one more block to Elf Shelf. In the front is a huge collection of old LPs. But the back is stacked with used pulp fiction: mysteries, romances, and Tom Clancy thrillers. All are available for loose change.

Next door is Shoetopia. But for a sampling of downtown shopping, turn left on Sixth Street. Down from Lincoln’s law office is Tinsley Dry Goods, specializing in (would you have guessed?) Lincoln memorabilia and assorted Americana; Studio on 6th, home decorating items, including painted flower pots and a wreath of wine corks; Serendipity, pricier home decor items; and Springfield Novelties & Gifts, a small dime-store throwback featuring bows with suction-cupped arrows, Etch-a-Sketchs, and the mandatory Lincoln busts.

The most formidable structure in this area is the Old State Capitol, directly across from Prairie Archives. In between is a kiosk through which those in wheelchairs gain access to the Capitol Building.

The building is furnished in period antiques. The lower floor housed various functions of government: the court, the law library, and the treasurer (a photocopy of Lincoln’s last pay check is generously distributed). Upstairs were the two chambers of the legislature. There’s also a small office that was occupied by Ulysses S. Grant during a professional hiatus. Lincoln lay in state here May 3 and 4, 1865. Eleven years later, the legislature moved to a newer and grander State Capitol Building.

A restoration anomaly, the Old Capitol was dismantled in 1961. Each block of sandstone was numbered, mapped, and shipped off to the State Fair Grounds. The massive spiral staircase had collapsed; the interior was judged a disaster and demolished. The earth was scooped out, and a two-story parking garage and a floor of office space was built underground; then the Old Capitol Building was reconstructed over the site.

Want a quiet stroll, some history, and park benches? Both the Abraham Lincoln and the Hilton Hotels share the east side of Seventh Street. If you head south (turn left), you will pass the First Presbyterian Church on the corner of the second block on the right. You’re welcome to step inside and see the Lincoln family pew. There are two churches on opposing corners, but the Lincoln one has grand red doors; the beautiful line of those arched doors continues along the handrail and to the ground.

Cross Capitol Street. Look to the right, and you’ll see the State Capitol Building. At its base—de rigeur—is a statue of Abraham Lincoln. A disarmingly casual depiction of Martin Luther King, Jr., is nearby. But half a block further down Seventh Street brings you to the entrance to Mr. Lincoln’s Neighborhood, run by the National Park Service. The site consists of four city blocks now closed to vehicular traffic and with only one house left to be restored. A Lincolnian Williamsburg, the centerpiece is the Lincoln Home, which sits at the intersection. This handsome and prosperous house was the only real estate Lincoln ever owned. The many benches are good places to relax, soak up history, or read the morning paper. A block further south on Seventh Street is the crypt-like Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Museum.

If you yearn for something more contemporary, the Hoogland Center for the Arts at 420 Sixth Street (just above Jackson) houses local visual and performing arts organizations. The H.D. Smith Gallery is run by the Prairie Arts Alliance, which supports recognized and emerging artists and craftsmen of Central Illinois. In July, the acrylics and pastels of Sheri Ramsey and E. Vern Taylor will be exhibited. Their works will be complemented by that of local potters and painters.

Springfield’s most famous work of art is located several blocks southwest. Only within walking distance for the hardy, the Dana-Thomas House is located on Lawrence Street between Fourth and the railroad track. Commissioned to renovate a 19th century Springfield mansion, Frank Lloyd Wright totally rethought post-Victorian ideas of interior and exterior space. When he was done, little remained of the old Lawrence mansion except a mantle and a couple divans.

What Wright constructed is a puzzle piece of a house. One room fits into another; rooms with low ceilings open into rooms with barrel vaults; other rooms become balconies. While the rooms are always beautiful in their own right, their significance also derives from how they open onto or redefine other rooms. There are fifteen rooms and 250 art-glass windows. Almost all the furnishings are original. The Dana-Thomas House is open from 9-4, Wednesday to Sunday. The tours last about an hour. You must check your camera. Arrive early.

One of the best things about downtown Springfield is the abundance of restaurants and bars close to the VVA Convention site. And because the legislature is not in session, the pols won’t be grabbing all the best seats. Early birds will be thankful for Starbuck’s, located in the Hilton, and Trout Lily Cafe on Sixth Street, which offers a variety of teas and coffees and a short menu that includes bagels, rolls, and quiches. Watch, too, for the Farmers Market, just west of the hotel. It’s open during the Convention on Wednesday and Saturday from about 7 till noon.

Although eating downtown is almost always enjoyable, it’s nearly all good American food. There are almost no ethnic restaurants downtown.

A lot of the bars serve food. I was told that Brewhaus on Washington Street serves a good breakfast. And go to Sammy’s Sports Bar on Fifth Street if you want cheap drinks, decent food, and don’t care to talk to the people you’re with.

If, however, you want a sit-down meal with good food, good service, and some ambiance, probably your best choices are Saputo’s and Maldaner’s. Saputo’s may not look auspicious from the outside (just around the corner from the hotel, at the intersection of Eighth and Monroe). Its menu, you may sigh, looks disappointingly tried and true. But the food is delicious. Since 1948, the Saputo family has served such Italian standards as linguini with clam sauce, manicotti, chicken alfredo, and eggplant parmigiana with verve and intense flavors. Entrees range from $12 for spaghetti to $28 for filet mignon. Reservations are a necessity. Call 522-0105. You’ll see lots of locals.

Maldaner’s, at 222 Sixth Street, has an even longer pedigree, dating back to 1884. It’s an old-fashioned place with old-fashioned tastes. And that’s just fine. Their menu offers beef Wellington, pork loin, lamb sirloin, quail stuffed with sausage, and pistachio-crusted salmon. Entrees range from $15-25. The phone number is 522-4313. You’ll need it to beat out the locals.

A third restaurant, the Chesapeake Seafood House, is Illinois State Council President Butch Huber’s favorite. And for good reason. There’s a huge variety of delicious seafood. Lots of good steaks, too. Unfortunately, it’s completely out of walking distance. It’s located at 3045 Clear Lake Avenue; the phone is 522-5220.

On Friday, the free afternoon, if you want to try something entirely different, drive north on Sixth Street to the Illinois Fair Grounds for the National High School Finals Rodeo, which runs from July 19-29. More than fifteen hundred young men and women will compete for titles and scholarships in such events as bareback riding, breakaway calf roping, barrel racing, team roping, steer wrestling, and bull riding. There is an admission fee.

Also outside the pedestrian’s range, but not to be missed, is Oak Ridge Cemetery; only Arlington receives more visitors. Clustered at the J.D. Jones Parkway entrance with the Illinois Korean War Memorial and the World War II Illinois Veterans Memorial is the dramatic Illinois Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Four wings of white marble commemorating the four service branches emanate from the central eternal flame. The wings’ lines are continued in black marble. Engraved in those dark triangular slabs are the names in alphabetical order of the nearly three thousand Illinois men who died or remain missing in Vietnam.

On Monday evening, July 16, at 7 o’clock, the first formal event of VVA’s National Convention will take place as all four national officers join with an Illinois VVA color guard to lay a wreath at the Illinois Vietnam Veterans Memorial. All are invited to attend the ceremony. Afterwards, the privately owned Museum of Funeral Customs will host a reception for VVA officers, VVA members, and the local press.

Located at the Monument Avenue entrance to the cemetery, this institution of oddities includes a 1920s embalming room, an 1890s funeral parlor, and a replica of Lincoln’s coffin. During the Convention, there will be a special exhibit, “The Final Salute: The American Military Funeral.” VVA members are invited to tour the exhibits during the reception space. At other times, the admission is $4.

The cemetery is old and beautiful in its own right, with massive trees and rolling hills. But it is best known as the site of the Lincoln Tomb. On Tuesday, July 17, at 7 p.m., the 114th Illinois Volunteer Infantry-Reactivated will recreate a Civil War flag retreat ceremony on the lawn in front of the Tomb. The Tomb itself is handsome and dignified, topped with an obelisk and dramatic military statuary. Inside are various bronze depictions of Lincoln. There is a massive bust of the assassinated president outside at the Tomb’s entrance.

While the rest of Lincoln’s head is dark and somber, the nose is brilliantly polished. The custom originated with apprehensive local conscripts who, on the verge of being shipped out, would spend some contemplative moments at the Tomb, then rub old Abe’s nose for luck.

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