Historic sites, some parks to close after Sunday

By David Mercer

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Donald Hallmark first walked the dark-oak halls of the Dana-Thomas House in the 1970s and was awed by the house and its architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.

“I was just blown away by the fact the building was as astoundingly complete as it was,” said Hallmark, now superintendent for the downtown Springfield home. “I had never seen anything as complete as this, with all the original furniture and nearly all the art glass here.”

After Sunday, Hallmark will be alone with the art glass and wood Wright built into the 104-year-old home – a state historic site – which experts call one of the finest examples of Prairie School architecture.

The house is one of 11 state historic sites and seven parks that will close Sunday, as Illinois struggles with what Gov. Rod Blagojevich says is a $2 billion state budget deficit.

Blagojevich in August announced a long list of park and historic site closures, along with layoffs at the Department of Children and Family Services and Department of Human Services. Then last week, the governor agreed to restore some of the money, including funds to keep four of the originally targeted 11 parks open.

That still meant making difficult choices – including closing some sites that have strong ties to President Abraham Lincoln even as the state prepares to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth – Historic Preservation Agency spokesman Dave Blanchette said.

“We sustained a 50 percent reduction in our sites’ budget. Because of that, we had to choose which half of our historic sites to close,” Blanchette said. “It’s as simple as that.”

The Department of Natural Resources, which runs the parks, had to make similar choices.

By the end of the day Sunday, the gates will also close at Castle Rock and Lowden state parks, two of the strongest drawing cards for businesses in nearby Oregon, Ill., about 100 miles west of Chicago.

“Gas, grocery stores, motels, resorts,” said Marcia Heuer, executive director of the Oregon Area Chamber of Commerce, rattling off local businesses that depend on park visitors.

The two parks draw just shy of 400,000 people a year, and are the cornerstone of the chamber’s marketing, she said, particularly the 48-foot-tall statue, 100-ton statue, The Eternal Indian, at Lowden.

“People call and say ‘Are we going to be able to get to the statue?'” Heuer said.

“Nope,” she said. “We say ‘That’s the governor. He made the decision.'”

Since the cuts were first announced, Blagojevich has blamed legislators for sending him a budget that included more spending than revenue. And, a spokeswoman says, more cuts are coming.

“We have a $2 billion budget shortfall we have to work with,” Katie Ridgway said. “We’re going to continue to look for places to make additional cuts.”

It is unclear how many people will lose jobs, according to the the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. State officials say the sites each will keep at least one employee, someone like Hallmark, to oversee them.

The state has agreed to let private groups pay to keep two of the originally targeted historic sites open – the David Davis Mansion in Bloomington, which was home to one of Lincoln’s friends and supporters, and Bryant Cottage in Bement, about 30 miles southwest of Champaign.

The Historic Preservation Agency is talking with private groups that support some of the other sites interested in doing the same, Blanchette said. But such arrangements, because of union contract provisions, aren’t an option where such deals would replace paid state employees with volunteers.

Among other sites that will close are the Vandalia Statehouse – the state’s fourth capitol and where Lincoln served in the state legislature – in southern Illinois, and the Lincoln Log Cabin site in eastern Illinois.

Lance Beever was a seasonal employee at the cabin – a re-creation of a farm belonging to Thomas Lincoln, the president’s father – until he lost that job last summer in an earlier round of layoffs. Since then, Beever has worked as a volunteer, dressing up as Thomas Lincoln for elementary school students and others who tour the farm. About 78,000 people come through a year.

He worries that the site superintendent, the only employee who will keep his job, won’t be able to care for the soon-to-be idled 86-acre farm, its buildings or the pigs, sheep and chickens kept there.

“It’s a waste, as far as I’m concerned, to have a part of Illinois history out there that is not going to be used,” Beever said.

Leaving the Dana-Thomas House sitting unused worries Hallmark.

“Our instructions so far are that we are to safeguard the house,” said Hallmark, the only one of the house’s five employees and 120 volunteers who will stay on the job. “We are constantly asking questions about how one person is supposed to maintain the site seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”