TBT: From a Capitol building to a Capitol Complex

Arial view of the Capitol complex in 1966. Photo from the
Mercury Studio Collection, Illinois Digital Archives – A
service of IL State Library & Office of the Secretary of State
When ground was broken on the sixth Illinois state capitol building in 1868, it was atop a small hill on the edge of downtown Springfield. The building was designed to be the hub of state government, and to house virtually all of its offices. But as the state grew and expanded, space became tight, and it wasn’t long before work began on new buildings adjacent to the capitol. This was the beginning of what we now know as the State Capitol Complex.

The state capitol building was designed right after the Civil War. Illinois’ population according to the 1860 census was 1,711,951. By the turn of the 20th century, the population had nearly tripled to 4,821,550. It had taken 20 years to build the new capitol building, but
within 20 years of its completion, the state was already outgrowing its capitol. Today the capitol is home to the legislature, some statewide officials and a few support agencies. But in the late 19th century, a visitor could also find the Supreme Court, the state archives, libraries, museums and the headquarters of the state’s military forces.

Exiting the east doors of the capitol, passing the Lincoln statue and crossing Second Street brings you to the first of the buildings added to the capitol complex. The Illinois Supreme Court had met for years on the second floor of the Capitol building, but by the early 20th century it needed a building of its own. The Supreme Court building opened in 1908 after being built at a cost of $450,500. Within its halls you can also find the state law library and the Court’s research department as well as the Court’s marshal and clerks.

As Illinois’ 100th anniversary of statehood approached in 1918, the need for more space was becoming acute. At the same time, state leaders were looking for a project to mark the festive occasion. Need and opportunity came together in the form of the Centennial Building, a $3 million structure just to the south of the capitol. The Centennial Building took five years to construct. Its first tenants were the State Library, State Museum and State Historical Library. Today, the building is home to the offices of the Secretary of State.

The Centennial Building was also temporarily the home of the Hall of Flags, a long hallway with towering columns that once displayed the flags of Illinois regiments from previous wars, as well as flags which Illinois soldiers captured in battle. The nearly 400 flags were initially placed in the old state arsenal in Springfield, but were moved to the capitol in 1878. They were moved to a grand display hall in the Centennial Building shortly after its completion in 1923. However, decades of display took their toll on the flags, and they had to be removed to a storage facility at Camp Lincoln in order to be better preserved.

In 1992, the Centennial Building was renamed for Michael J. Howlett, who served as Secretary of State during the 1970s. Just as the post-Civil War capitol building features an abundance of images of Lincoln and other Civil War figures, the Howlett Building has a World War I memorial on its first floor.

The need for more new construction was brought home by a disastrous 1934 fire in the state arsenal which destroyed the building and the thousands of records it held. Clearly, the state would need a new arsenal building, but it was also apparent that Illinois needed to better protect its remaining records and archives. A growing state and a progression of years generated more and more records, which stretched the state archives.

So in 1936 the state broke ground on a new building to house and protect the archives. The new archives building, south of the capitol, opened in 1938 at a cost of $820,000, part of which came through the Public Works Administration program of the New Deal. The building, which has no windows on its upper floors, is named for Margaret Cross Norton, who was superintendent of the state archives. A new state armory opened just across Monroe Street to the north of the capitol in 1937.

Just to the west of the capitol is the Stratton Building. Named for Governor William Stratton, who was in office when ground was broken, the eight-story office building holds offices of most members of the House, committee hearing rooms and the offices of some state agencies. The building was constructed in 1954-55 at a cost of $11.5 million.

Around the time the Stratton Building was nearing completion, the Illinois State Museum was in search of a new home. When the capitol opened in 1877, the Museum had been located there. It moved into the Centennial Building in the early 1920s, but the familiar issue of space became more and more of a problem. In 1961, the state broke ground on its new $2.2 million Illinois State Museum building next to the State Archives at the southern end of the capitol complex. Two years later, the Museum building was dedicated.

The move to 502 S. Spring Street might have come as a relief to those who were familiar with the Museum’s history. In the 1880s, while the curator was away, the Secretary of State ordered the Museum’s collection moved into the capitol basement, but it was done in a terribly disorganized manner. Over time, the Museum’s collection was put back in order, only to be moved again, this time to the ill-fated State Arsenal. Luckily, the move to the Centennial Building happened a decade before the demise of the state arsenal, so the Museum’s collection was spared. But the need for a permanent home for the State Museum was clear, and so in 1963 the Illinois State Museum moved into its 96,000 square foot building in the capitol complex.

On the east side of Second Street, just down from the Supreme Court, is the Illinois Attorney General’s building, which opened in 1972. The $2.8 million, three-story building took four years to build and features an internal courtyard. Two blocks north on Second Street is the Illinois State Library, which moved into its new home in 1990 after nearly seventy years in the Centennial Building. The State Library is a $36 million, 164,000-square foot structure which is decorated around the top with the names of famous Illinois authors. The building was re-named in 2003 in honor of Illinois’ Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks.

Rounding out the capitol complex is its westernmost building: the State Capitol Visitors Center. Located on the west side of College Street, the Visitors Center opened during the 100th anniversary of the completion of the capitol in 1988 at a cost of $3.7 million. It is an important stop for tourists and other visitors to the capitol, as well as a popular picnic lunch spot for visiting tour groups.