Ground Broken for New Lincoln Site

Monday, February 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Illinois runs five major Abraham Lincoln historic sites, and the National Park Service has four others. Collections of Lincoln papers are scattered from Washington to Tennessee to California.

So why is the government spending $115 million to build a Lincoln museum and library in Springfield?

Hundreds of spectators joined Illinois' top dignitaries and national historians to break ground in downtown Springfield for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum on Monday, Lincoln's birthday. The complex will be 198,000 square feet, divided into two parts — a library scheduled to be finished in fall 2002 and a museum set for spring 2003.

State officials say the country lacks a major museum devoted to telling the full story of Lincoln's life rather than just specific parts. They also cite the need for a cutting-edge library to house the state collection of Lincoln documents and artifacts, billed as the world's largest.

``You can go to the different sites and get the significance of the sites, but nothing brings it together. There's no overarching place where people can get the Lincoln story, as well as the legacy,'' Illinois state historian Thomas Schwartz said.

Many Lincoln scholars agree.

``It seems to me the great thing about what Illinois is doing is providing a place where people can learn about the whole Lincoln,'' said Richard Behn, research director at the Lehrman Institute, a private organization that supports research into American history.

But John Sellers, Lincoln curator at the Library of Congress, questions the project's value in improving research into the 16th president's life.

Most of the state's Lincoln documents are from before his presidency, so that limits the collection's value to historians, he said, and Springfield is an ``out of the way'' place. That means the complex will be of more interest to tourists than researchers, he said.

``I think they'll do it nicely and it will be something children can relate to,'' Sellers said. ``They really want to promote Lincoln. I don't have any problem with it.''

Planners promise the new museum will use Lincoln artifacts, lifelike statues and the latest special effects to tell Lincoln's story. The same promise applies to the library: Scholars will use it for serious research, but even casual visitors will be welcomed.

Scholars, meanwhile, will get a state-of-the-art research facility with the latest in Internet connections to link them to other Lincoln collections. The library could end up offering grants to help support research and hold symposiums on related current events, such as the debate over reparations for slavery.

The project has almost universal support among Illinois officials, from Gov. George Ryan to U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert. The major exception is Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, who argues that construction contracts could be awarded to politically connected companies at inflated prices.

The National Park Service also has objected to supporting a state-run project from its federal budget.

The price tag is $115 million — $50 million from the state, $50 million from the federal government, $10 million from the city of Springfield and the rest from private donors.

Plenty of historic sites try to tell Lincoln's story, or at least some part of it. Ford's Theatre in Washington focuses on his assassination in 1865. New Salem in Illinois highlights his years before becoming a lawyer.

The largest museum that tries to give a complete picture is The Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Ind., a 30,000-square-foot institution supported by the philanthropic arm of an insurance company named after Lincoln.

The latest museum's president, Joan Flinspach, praised the idea of a Lincoln center in Springfield. She predicted it will increase interest in Lincoln, and thus attendance at her museum, especially as the 2009 bicentennial of Lincoln's birth approaches.

``The visiting public when they get here, one of their questions is, 'Why isn't there something like this in Springfield?''' she said. ``I'm excited that that expectation is being fulfilled.''


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