“Didn’t this used to be…”

Every January the Capitol building at 2nd and Monroe in Springfield sees an influx of people: legislators, staff, lobbyists, press and everyday Illinoisans who come to the grand old building to observe the workings of the Illinois General Assembly.

The building has stood since the late 19th-century, and has undergone a series of overhauls and rearrangements in its 150 years. All of this movement and renovation might inspire an old-timer (in some cases a really old-timer) to look at a certain spot in the Capitol and ask a question that begins with the words, “didn’t this used to be….”

When state government moved into its present home in 1877, it moved in its entirety. Every state agency, department and constitutional officer had a presence in the new Capitol building. State government, like the state itself, was much smaller then: Illinois’ population in the 1870 Census was only 2.5 million, less than one-fifth of today’s size.

As the state grew, its government grew along with it, and over the decades that followed, state agencies and departments moved out of the Capitol to find locations with more space. The areas they left behind in the Capitol building didn’t stay vacant for long, as walls were knocked down or put up, floors were added or removed, and the building changed right along with the rest of the state.

Oftentimes, the workers doing these renovations would leave materials behind in parts of the building which were slated to be covered up or otherwise closed off. Subsequent renovations later discovered many of these artifacts. A display case at the north end of the Stratton Building contains many of the items found by construction workers who came along later. They include old soda and beer cans (and some bottles which held stronger stuff), doorknobs, papers and even a pair of shoes.

With a tip of the hat to the publishers of ilstatehouse.com and their 2009 book Images of America: The Illinois Statehouse, here is a tour around the Illinois State Capitol building as it is, and as it used to be.

Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum
The basement press room
Following the 2011-13 renovation of the west wing of the Capitol, press offices—both the Blue Room and the offices of the media’s Capitol bureaus—were relocated to the basement. Formerly, they had been in a mezzanine level between the 2nd and 3rd floors atop the “grand staircase” with an entryway just below the giant 1886 Gustav Fuchs portrait of George Rogers Clark. The area of the basement now home to the Capitol press corps was until that time the location of the “Rathskeller” cafeteria.

The basement was also used for storage space for everything from civil defense supplies during the Cold War to vaults with contents worth as much as $1 billion. Much of the area along the tunnels under the Capitol building is still used for storage, but of a much-less financially valuable variety. The space also once included such necessities as a carpenter shop and an engine room.

A legend has survived for many years suggesting that there were once stables in the basement, perhaps encouraged by the series of brick arches that line both sides of the tunnels. However, there has been little proof discovered to support this story, and some have pointed out that the arches are too low for a full-grown horse to make use of any stable they might enclose.

First Floor
This spring, many visitors will move through the Capitol’s first floor, usually for rallies in the rotunda or committee hearings in one of the handful of House committee rooms in the west and south wings. Some might also visit the offices of senators in the north wing.

In the early years of the Capitol’s use, Memorial Hall, located in the area of present-day committee rooms 100 and 115, housed the state’s Civil War battle flags, which were later moved to the Centennial (now Howlett) building and later to Camp Lincoln. Room 115 is one of many rooms which still bears at least part of the artwork from its original use. The first floor rotunda also housed a gift shop and concession stand throughout the 20th century.

Other tenants of the first floor in the Capitol’s early days included the Railroad and Warehouse Commission, the Farmers’ Institute, the Board of Live Stock Commissioners and the State Board of Pharmacy. Supreme Court justices had their chambers in the area which is now House committee rooms 118 and 122.

Along the east side of the south wing of the first floor is the office of the Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB). But in the original alignment, this space belonged to the Adjutant General, the commanding officer of the Illinois National Guard. The walls of the office were adorned with paintings and sculptures of Illinois soldiers from the Civil War. After the Guard moved to Camp Lincoln, walls were put up in this area which concealed the artwork. It was re-discovered in 1971 and is still visible in some parts of the office.

Across the hall from LRB is House committee room 114, which retains its original role. But what has changed is the room’s outward-facing appearance: the large etched-glass windows which graced the original hearing room were covered over by the walls of the hallway, only to be re-discovered still in nearly pristine condition during a 21st century renovation. The windows are once again visible.

Second floor – or was it the first?
Old photos of the original construction of the Capitol show a large, broad staircase on the east side of the building. The staircase was removed in 1885, turning the then-basement into today’s first floor, and that era’s main level into today’s second floor.

The original main entrance to the Capitol building was through the space now used as a reception area for the Governor’s second-floor office. Visitors would enter through these main doors and see in front of them, across the rotunda, the skylight-covered grand staircase.

The main outside doors are still there, but they open only onto a balcony. This grand entrance was flanked by large murals of art, literature, peace and war. The murals are still displayed on the walls, but two of them are now behind the glass entrance to the Governor’s office. The statues of Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas and Governor John Wood now installed around the rotunda were originally placed in this corridor of the second floor.

In the late 1800s, the Governor used a smaller space to the right of the building’s main entrance. It was decorated with many of the gubernatorial portraits which now line the walls of the south wing.

Illinois Supreme Court Room at the Illinois State Capitol.
Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum. 
Probably the most spectacularly-decorated room in the Capitol, outside of the legislative chambers themselves, is Room 212. Today, 212 is a hearing room for Senate committees, but in the original design it was the home of the Supreme Court. Offices of the court clerk and the state school superintendent were nearby as well – today their space houses the offices of the Lieutenant Governor. A lasting relic of the Supreme Court’s presence in the room is the painting on the ceiling of the goddess of Justice, complete with the scales of justice and a bag of gold coins which she is trampling underfoot.

Across the hall are the offices of the Secretary of State, which have always been on the 2nd floor, but have shifted from the east to the south wing as the Governor’s office space expanded. The Secretary of State has expanded as well, moving into office space previously owned by the State Library, which left behind much artwork including an ornate chandelier.

The 2nd floor itself changed in the 1970s when the windows at the north end; which for the building’s first 100 years allowed an observer to see clearly through the length of the building on both the 1st and 2nd floors; were blocked off with the construction of the Comptroller’s office. Another change to the north wing concerns the Treasurer’s office: armored doors once protected the vaults within the office, but when the vaults were removed in the mid-1950s, so were these doors. The extra-thick concrete walls and ceilings remain. The north wing also once hosted the State Board of Public Charities and an agricultural museum.

In the 1950s, the 2nd floor alcove now decorated with a portrait of George Washington was a Secretary of State counter where motorists could purchase new license plates. The Automotive Department of the SOS took over the entire south wing hallway in the middle of that decade for office space while awaiting a move into another facility.

Upper floors
Both the House and Senate chambers were restored in 2006 to more closely resemble their original appearance. Much of the House chamber was renovated after the destructive 1933 fire. There was also an extensive renovation of the chambers in 1947 and again in 1974. The House chamber was once lit by a skylight, but it was covered over in the renovations after the fire. The skylight was brought back in 2006, but a similar skylight above the Senate chamber was not. Today much of the 3rd and 4th floors are taken up by legislative offices. But, as with most of the building, it didn’t start out that way.

Illinois State Museum in the State Capitol during the late 1800s
Many of the offices behind the Senate chamber were originally occupied by the Lieutenant Governor, who in the 19th century also served as President of the Senate. But other rooms found a much different use, including the west wing’s Room 309, which served as the home of the Illinois State Museum’s geological and natural history collection.

Once the museum moved out of the building, Room 309 was converted for use as the State Library, complete with a circular staircase to the upper levels of stacks. By the 1920s, the library had moved to the Centennial Building, and Room 309 became a spacious reception room, which by the 1960s resembled in some respects a café of the era, albeit with much higher and more spectacular ceilings. Today it holds a number of Senate offices.

On the fourth floor, overlooking the east and west sides of the House chamber is a gallery which was added in 1887. Across the rotunda, Room 400 is a Senate committee room, but in the 1880s it housed much of Illinois’ Civil War archives. The room’s original murals of Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant were re-discovered in 1971 and have been restored to their original appearance.

Above each of the chambers, in space that is mostly legislative offices, were lower-profile state agencies. At the time of the 1933 fire, fifth and sixth floor offices in the south wing were occupied by such agencies as the Division of Oil Inspection and the state’s supervising architect.

Over 150 years, the Capitol has been torn apart, rebuilt, burned, torn apart and rebuilt again, with dozens of smaller construction projects and upgrades in between. Just as elected officials have come and gone, so have whole agencies and departments. But not everything in the Capitol’s interior has changed. At the front of the House chamber are displayed two portraits painted in 1869 and moved to the new location along with the rest of state government in 1877. On the Democrat side of the chamber is a portrait of Stephen Douglas, and watching over the Republican side since the very first session day in the statehouse has been the portrait of Abraham Lincoln.

Construction of the new Illinois State Capitol Building, 1871. Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum.