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What Was, and What’s Next, For The Illinois State Armory

The Illinois State Armory is perhaps the largest state-owned building that no longer has a purpose. The 200,000-square foot behemoth was once a fixture of life and culture in downtown Springfield, and a central component to the State Capitol complex.

But, the more than 80 year-old building is a shell of what it once was. It’s fallen into disrepair.

That may soon change now that state lawmakers devoted $120 million from the latest infrastructure bill to fix up the place. 

As plans for how to do that begin to take shape, one big question looms: can the State Armory be made usable again? If so, what might it look like?

To answer those questions, I explored the legacy, and what lies ahead, for the building at 125 E. Monroe St.

Anthony Rubano is somewhat of an expert on old buildings. He's a project designer with the State Historic Preservation Office in the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

We met in front of a five story limestone and concrete structure that spans an entire city block in downtown Springfield – across from the state capitol building – for a walking tour.

“We're looking at the Illinois State Armory building." Rubano explained as we started our tour. "[It] was built in the mid-1930s, and functioned as such for many years."

Credit Sangamon Valley Collection
The Illinois State Arsenal (1903-1934), which stood on the site of the present-day State Armory. It burned at the hands of a 10 year old boy named Cecil Kiper.

Illinois has had three of these kinds of buildings since the Civil War; they were designed to store weapons and quarter horses for the state militia. The first was torn down and replaced by a castle-looking structure, but that was destroyed in 1934, when it was set on fire by a ten year old kid.

Builders commissioned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Work Progress Administration set to work constructing this building in its place. Illinois Governor Henry Horner opened its doors to the public in 1937.

And it’s got the 1930s written all over it: art deco lighting fixtures, vertical columns with wavy lines, steel window panels with Roman-looking shields in the middle of them.

All by design, Rubano explained.

“It reinforced the power of the Republic and democratic ideals, but then also this veneer of newness, of modernism, of streamlined design.”

The Armory kind of looks like a giant sandwich if viewed from above. The bread, in this case, is the building’s two sets of offices that sit on either side. And the meat is a giant auditorium.

I was confused, so I asked Rubano why an auditorium is smack-dab in the middle of a military building. As it turns out, that’s where the National Guard used to train its soldiers.

"The drill hall is a large open space and armories have, normally, a large open drill hall," he said. "So you have this large central volume that really could be used for anything that required a large gathering of people, so it functioned really well as an indoor..amphitheater.”

An amphitheater that, in its heyday, was a cultural hub for downtown Springfield and the state at large.

To find out a little more about what took place in there over the decades, I met up with historian Curtis Mann, the manager of the Sangamon Valley Collection. He spends all day researching Springfield area history, which includes state buildings like the Armory.

“What was interesting is that it was supposed to be for the military components of the National Guard as a place for them," Mann said, "but they also had two other purposes: one of those was to supply state offices.”

At the time, state government was expanding and needed more people to fill more roles. More people equals more offices.

"The third purpose," Mann explained, "was kind of like a civic center. It was used for a variety of large gatherings."

Mann said the State Armory hosted myriad events, including basketball games, the circus, conventions, and political rallies for people like JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr.

But perhaps its most memorable purpose was its use for music concerts.

One of the most famous concerts is one that never took place. Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper had been scheduled to play there in mid-February 1959, when they died in a plane crash in Iowa earlier in the month. The incident would go down in pop culture history as "The Day The Music Died."

That wasn't the end of music shows at the Armory.  As hard as it might be to fathom, the Illinois state government building once hosted rock-n-roll concerts at the height of the anti-establishment movement of the 1960s and 70s.

Credit Sam Dunklau / NPR Illinois 91.9 FM
NPR Illinois 91.9 FM
Len Trumper displays dozens of posters from shows he promoted through his company, Whatever Productions, at his home in Springfield on June 25, 2019.

The man who brought them there was an enterprising young promoter named Len Trumper, who started his company Whatever Productions in 1971.

“I just knew there was nothing going on in Springfield, nothing for kids to do," Trumper said. "I went in and out of the Army, Vietnam and all that stuff, and came home and I still saw there was nothing for people to do, so I thought 'I’m gonna try something.'”

Over the years, he convinced at least 100 national acts to perform at places like the State Armory. To name just a few, bands like AC/DC, Blue Oyster Cult, and Cheap Trick all headlined there. 

That building, of all places, may have seemed like an odd choice, but Trumper said he had a formula to make it work.

“I mean, between St. Louis and Chicago, Springfield was right in the middle, and it was easy to pick up a band," he said. "I would watch and see who was going where, and then contact the agencies and say: ‘we can do this show, a small show,’ and they’d still make their money...it worked over and over again.”

Tom Sullivan was a regular at those shows. He lives in California now, but remembered the Springfield Armory stage well.

“The shows were usually standing room only," he said. "You could sit up in the bleachers if you wanted too, but they basically cleared out the whole floor of the Armory and people would be just sitting around, standing, or in circles, just groups of friends. And it was kind of anything kinda goes.”

In the 1970s, there was no modern box office system for concerts, and security was less stringent--which meant anyone could sit anywhere, and bring in just about anything, legal or otherwise.

Credit Michelle Lechner
Michelle Lechner poses with Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen in an undated photo.

The scene was even more fun backstage. Michelle Lechner had a front-and-center view of it all. She was one of Len Trumper’s go-to stage hands, who stocked the dressing rooms with food, drinks, and whatever else a band needed to perform, meeting and greeting them all the while.

"I started doing all the concerts for a few years there," Lechner said. "We’d ice down pop, [or] Heineken. A lot of bands liked Heineken! We’d have to ice that all down and set up the table, [and] whatever was on their rider is what we’d have to put in that dressing room.”

Perhaps one of the most demanding bands to ever hit the State Armory stage was an early Van Halen.

On July 27, 1979, Van Halen arrived in Springfield for a stop on their world tour. Their self-titled debut album had hit the charts, and they were well on their way to becoming a rock-n-roll sensation. And they were about to cause a whole bunch of trouble in a sequence of events that would go down in the annals of Springfield music history.

First came the car ride between their downtown hotel and the Armory. Len Trumper had rented a brand-new Cadillac to carry Van Halen to the venue.

“When they got there, my driver told me he couldn’t do anything about it!" he recounted. "[We] got outside, and...anything in the few blocks that they had to go, anything that was small enough to tear off...they threw out the window as they went down the road!"

Once inside the Armory, Michelle Lechner was waiting for them backstage.

“In the dressing room that I had very nicely set up with these tablecloths and these trays of food...David Lee Roth got up and walked across the whole table full of food!" she remembered. "It was like, 'Oh! Ok! Thanks! Ya know, great! You guys are fun.'”

David Lee Roth also asked stage hands to bring him brown M&Ms to test their competency, something he’d become famous for later.

“People always thought that was a myth," Lechner said. "No! I did it!”

Curtis Mann recalled what Van Halen did after the show was all over the local news.

“Not satisfied with the service they got, I understand they set a small fire there and were on their way out of town when the police stopped and made them come back to answer for their actions," he said.

The state would put an end to Armory shows shortly after that. Around the same time, a new downtown convention center was completed, rendering the Armory stage pretty much obsolete. As for the building itself, the Illinois State Police were the last state agency to move out in 2008. The Armory has since been used as a giant storage locker, and has remained closed to the public.

Which brings us to today: about $120 million has been approved for the State Armory and “other Springfield projects” in the new infrastructure plan.

"The resiliency with which buildings were constructed in the 1930s...suggest that reuse is always a possibility." -Anthony Rubano

The building is controlled by the state’s Central Management Services agency, which in a statement said the money will go toward making the Armory “a usable space.”

When we toured the outside of the building, Anthony Rubano explained that will involve some work.

"There’s a certain amount of baseline cost that it may take to bring a building up to a certain standard, in terms of roof repair and utility replacement, HVAC, and mechanical and plumbing," he said.

That would simply get the building up and running again, and could be expensive. But Rubano reasoned it can be done.

“The resiliency with which buildings were constructed in the 1930s...suggest that reuse is always a possibility."

The ultimate goal planners have is to renovate the place so the state and the public can use it again. What that will look like is up in the air right now, but some already have ideas.

Lisa Clemmons Stott, Executive Director of Downtown Springfield, Inc, is one of those people.

“There are thoughts about how it could be an indoor farmer’s market," she said. "You could potentially have the Bank of Springfield Center being the overseers of any activities, where the public could use it or different things could be booked in there."

Right now, Springfield's largest venue space is the downtown Bank of Springfield Center. But Clemmons Stott explained that demand for the space is almost unsustainable.

“The Bank of Springfield [Center] is so active that they are out of space. They did a master plan about 10 years ago..to add on convention space.”

Clemmons Stott said, given the multiple-million dollar appropriation, there are multiple avenues planners can explore as they move forward with what to do about the State Armory.

“It depends how the state wants to approach it," she said. "If they have plans where they want to get it to a certain point, it certainly gets us much farther along the revitalization of that building than we had before.”

Springfield State Representative Tim Butler is one of the planners. His own ideas for the building center around state employees.

"I get frustrated a lot because we have invested a lot in facilities across the state and we don't take very good care of them. We're not good landlords, and the Armory is emblematic of that."-Rep. Tim Butler

“[Part of] the EPA building on the north side of town, off of North Grand, is going to be eliminated as part of the 10th Street Rail Project," he said. "There will be a need to house EPA employees.”

Butler said he recently was inside the State Armory on a tour, and was "disheartened" at what he saw: the heat had been turned off, mold was spreading on account of a leaky roof, and plaster was crumbling.

“I get frustrated a lot because we have invested a lot in facilities across the state and we don’t take very good care of them," he lamented. "We’re not good landlords, and the Armory is emblematic of that."

Despite what issues exist, it's clear that the State Armory is here to stay. But whatever ideas planners end up going with, there will be a review process, approval, and bidding before any shovels are in the ground. As you can imagine, that might take some time.

Both local and state officials want to see the building return to its former glory. For now, though, don’t expect any raucous rock concerts to come rolling through there.

Sam is a Public Affairs Reporting intern for spring 2018, working out the NPR Illinois Statehouse bureau.
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