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THE NATION | DISPATCH FROM SPRINGFIELD

Lincoln Museum's Civic War

History: The center will showcase important papers and memorabilia but at a cost of $115 million and possible loss of historic buildings.

July 29, 2001|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Kim Bauer tugs on white cotton gloves and opens a red curtain hanging against the wall, revealing an enormous vault. He fiddles with the lock, and the heavy door swings open. Bauer ducks inside, emerging a moment later with a framed document--a page and a half of tidy handwriting in faded brown ink.

"This is one of our crown jewels," he says reverently.

It's the Gettysburg Address. The full text, handwritten by Abraham Lincoln two months after he delivered the 1863 speech. It's the first complete copy of the speech in Lincoln's hand. And it's sitting in a vault behind a curtain in the basement of the Old State Capitol, inaccessible to scholars and tourists alike.

But it won't be here for long. Eager to share its Lincoln treasures with the world--and to capitalize on global fascination with our 16th president--Illinois is building an expansive, expensive Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

For the first time, history buffs will have access to the 46,000 priceless pieces that Bauer, the state's Lincoln curator, stores behind iron-mesh cages and in the basement vault.

Lincoln's shaving mirror is here, as are his ink well and the key to his Springfield home. There are thousands of his letters. And plaster casts of his hands taken after a tough day campaigning--the right one so swollen from greeting voters that he could not close it to make a fist.

There's a miniature cannon that Lincoln had asked a Civil War captain to procure for his son Tad--and the note he wrote reminding the officer to remove the firing pin first, so Tad couldn't hurt himself playing. There's even a scrap from the dress worn by the lead actress in the play Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated. The actress raced to the president's side when she heard the shot. The fabric is stained with his blood.

"I get excited just thinking about having these things out on display and letting the public get to see them," Bauer said.

The presidential library, geared toward scholars and scheduled to open late next year, is already under construction. The more tourist-friendly museum is slated to open early in 2004. The entire complex will cost $115 million, funded mostly by the state and federal governments.

The price tag has sparked some sniping from out-of-town critics, who suggest Illinois would be better off spending its money on public schools. Here in Springfield, however, the controversy is not about money but about history--specifically, the architect's proposal to create a sweeping vista in front of the museum by knocking down three ornate brick buildings that date to the 1850s.

That's a hot topic because Springfield long has marketed itself as an authentic Lincoln experience.

The National Park Service has preserved an entire block of old buildings surrounding the Lincoln family home here, so tourists can see the views the president saw when he sat on his front steps--or ducked out to his three-seater outhouse in the yard. A billboard on the edge of town features a sketch of the bearded president and the invitation: "Walk where he walked."

But now the town is considering razing buildings that Lincoln strode past regularly, for the sake of improving a view. Preservationists find the notion outrageous.

"It's extremely ironic that we're [proposing] tearing down Lincoln-era buildings for Lincoln's library," said Carolyn Oxtoby, a businesswoman who refurbishes old properties, including one of the buildings that may face demolition. She and a loose coalition of preservationists have collected 1,300 signatures in support of saving the buildings. "People are extremely bent out of shape about this."

To help defuse the tension, Mayor Karen Hasara has invited a team of urban designers to visit Springfield this fall. She hopes they will assess various options for downtown and present their findings at public forums.

In the meantime, the presidential project chugs ahead.

Exhibit designers for the museum already have put together a poster pointing out every quirk of Lincoln's craggy features--from the mole at his left temple to the asymmetry of his ears--to make sure they get him exactly right. Scholars working on the library collection, meanwhile, have launched a project (which likely will take decades) to match the letters Lincoln wrote with the replies he received so that his correspondence can be viewed in proper order.

And, Illinois First Lady Lura Lynn Ryan said, state officials "have already received calls from all over world, from people asking when it will be built and what can they do to help."

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