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After year of planning, renovations for Springfield's dilapidated Armory slated for July start

Sam Dunklau/NPR Illinois
The Illinois State Armory in downtown Springfield, July 2019.

Renovations on the long-vacant State Armory Building in downtown Springfield will finally begin in July, Gov. JB Pritzker and other local officials announced Wednesday.

The 85-year-old building, a behemoth structure that takes up an entire city block just north of the Capitol building on 2nd Street, has not served as anything but storage space since the last state agency to call it home moved out in 2008. The Armory has received little attention — and even less maintenance — in the 14 years it’s stood mostly abandoned.

“It’s a building that has, for years now, stood empty and decrepit — a stark reminder of the past failures of state government,” Pritzker said Wednesday at a statehouse news conference announcing the renovation’s timeline. “But it’s a place that should be one of Springfield’s crown jewels.”

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

The $112 million in state infrastructure funding allocated to the Armory’s renovation is not a new number; Wednesday marked one year since Pritzker’s administration announced it had selected a design firm for the project and was in the planning stages. But before serious construction work can begin, crews must first rid the building of hazardous materials like asbestos, along with the mold that’s proliferated from decades of compounded water damage.

Both the Armory and the State Archives Building, located in the southwest corner of the Capitol Complex in downtown Springfield, were just two of the 35,064 new public buildings built by the federal Works Progress Administration as in the mid-1930s and early ’40s ad part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”

Springfield’s Armory was one of 900 armories the WPA either built, renovated or totally reconstructed during the agency’s eight-year lifespan. The 200,000-square foot building was built as a home base for the Illinois National Guard, but also included office space for state workers and a giant auditorium that hosted a slew of big-name performers and influential speakers in the Armory’s heyday.

Appearing with Pritzker on Wednesday, State Sen. Doris Turner (D-Springfield) said her father took her to see Muhammed Ali headlining a fundraiser at the Armory in 1978.

Others on the long list of legends to grace the Armory over the years included Martin Luther King Jr., future presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon while on the campaign trail and a former president: Harry Truman, along with mega famous rock bands like AC/DC, KISS, Blue Öyster Cult, Van Halen and Rockford’s own Cheap Trick.

But the Armory also served as a community hub, hosting Springfield’s annual high school basketball “City Tournament” — and even amateurs like future State. Rep. Tim Butler (R-Springfield), who noted Wednesday he played pickup basketball on Sunday mornings at the Armory for years before the building shuttered to the public.

In preliminary plans posted to its website last summer, Chicago-based design firm Tilton, Kelly + Bell outlined necessary major repairs to the Armory, including a new roof, skylights, and HVAC system, plus a restored limestone facade. Pritzker’s administration is aiming for LEED Silver certification for the building.

When the three-year renovation is complete, the Armory will return to only one of its original purposes: serving as office space when approximately 600 state employees transition to the building in 2025. A spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Central Management Services said in an email that the current auditorium/basketball court on the building’s ground floor “will be designed to house State operations, including public facing State programs, and programs that require large meeting spaces.”

Still, both Turner and Butler praised the plans for the Armory’s renovation, calling it a major investment in Springfield’s downtown. Turner went so far as to say the project — funded by the state’s 2019 infrastructure program Rebuild Illinois — was accomplishing “what many thought was impossible.”

Butler, who helped negotiate the $45 billion program and took heat from his own party for voting in favor of certain tax and fee increases to pay for it, predicted the infrastructure investments in the Armory and other large projects around Springfield would pay off in spades for the city.

“The state is investing in our capital city like we’ve never invested before, honestly,” Butler said. “And it’s a great thing to see.”

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