All rise! The Senate chamber in the Illinois State Capitol Building
DESTINATION Springfield, Illinois
DISTANCE FROM CHICAGO 200 miles
Waiting for the Midnight Mink tint on my newly dyed eyelashes to dry, I ask the aesthetician if the rumors are true: Is the building haunted? She laughs, then adds, midchuckle, “I won’t go down to the basement alone. I should’ve taken the laundry down last night. I left it by the door with a note.”
I’m truly grateful I didn’t have this conversation last night, when, thanks to a fluke convergence of cancellations by other guests, I was the sole occupant at Springfield’s Inn at 835, a lavishly restored 1909 mansion with 12 guest suites and a spa.
“You’re the only person here tonight,” the innkeeper said with a smile when I checked in. “Feel free to poke around. You won’t be bothering anybody.” So, not long after midnight, I spent a few insomniac hours rambling through the opulent, silent rooms once inhabited by the turn-of-the-century florist Belle Miller. Plunking out tunes from Victorian-era sheet music on the parlor piano, I played to an audience of sepia-toned portraits staring from the walls. Sipping hot chocolate at the long, stately table in an empty but elegant formal sitting room, I read about how Belle transformed her home at 835 South Second Street into a social hub—the place to see and be seen on Springfield’s Aristocracy Hill.
Obviously, you don’t need to pull a quasi–all nighter to understand that Springfield is a city defined as much by its historic past as by its present identity as a legislative hub. Locals may turn a collective fisheye toward some of its current politicos (“We sure didn’t have much use for Blagojevich,” notes one local historian, Garret Moffett), but the statesmen of yesteryear are an undeniable draw. Roughly 600,000 students have passed through the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum since the multimillion-dollar complex opened five years ago. I’m keen to find out whether the museum—and Springfield at large—holds any appeal for grownups who aren’t elected officials. The short answer? Absolutely.
Abe, is that you? Holographic fun at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
High tech and hands-on, the Abraham Lincoln Museum merges scholarship with theme-park-style thrills. Take, for example, Ghosts of the Library, a 25-minute movie with special effects rivaling those in Avatar. Really. There’s no visible screen; the action unfurls on a stage. And it’s not clear until the final bloody plot twist whether the narrator/historian on that stage is an actor performing live or light flickering across celluloid.
Across the rotunda, the museum’s Whispering Gallery offers another multisensory experience, this one an onslaught of anti-Lincoln rhetoric in the form of historical quotes and political cartoons from his contemporaries. The audio barrage slams Lincoln as a coward, an idiot, and a grotesque ape, among other invectives. The walls are a claustrophobic study in illustrated satire—Lincoln as Satan, as a monkey, as a vampire, and, in one stunning depiction, as a trickster ripping off a mask to reveal his true identity: a leering black man.
Outside the museum, Garret Moffett is dedicated to ensuring that visitors get an equally vivid portrait of the city and its roots. A compelling storyteller with a palpable passion for Springfield’s history, Moffett spends his days piloting walking tours, narrating as he goes. His most popular excursions are Lincoln Ghost Walk and Wicked Springfield—walks designed, respectively, to give people the creeps and highlight the salacious portions of local lore.
“What’s great about Springfield,” Moffett says, “is that you can immerse yourself in history in so many ways. You can spend days in the museum. Or you can step outside and literally walk its path.”
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (212 N. Sixth St.; 800-610-2094, alplm.org) is the city’s marquee museum. Must-sees include the life-size—and heart-rending—replica of a slave auction in progress and The Civil War in Four Minutes, a fascinating electronic map that shows battlefields rolling across the country. To literally walk in history’s footsteps, sign up for one of the guided tours offered by Springfield Walks (217-502-8687, springfieldwalks.com). The proprietor, Garret Moffett, leads 90-minute excursions that trace the history of Springfield’s 1908 race riots, as well as Lincoln’s life in Springfield. At the Old State Capitol (Old State Capitol Plaza; 217-785-9363, oldstatecapitol.org), get a tour from the veteran docent Sandy Temple. For more information about Springfield, check out the Illinois Visitor Center at Union Station (500 E. Madison St.; 217-557-4588, visit-springfieldillinois.com).
WHERE TO STAY The Inn at 835 (835 S. Second St.; 217-523-4466, innat835.com) is within walking distance of just about all of Springfield’s museums and historic sites, with the exception of Lincoln’s Tomb; rates range from $110 to $216 a night.
WHERE TO EAT For lunch, the Holy Land Diner (107 W. Cook St.; 217-544-5786) has a tasty Middle Eastern buffet. For fine dining, try Maldaner’s (222 S. Sixth St.; 217-522-4313, maldaners.com), which has been serving dinner since 1884. For breakfast, Charlie Parker’s Diner (700 North St.; 217-241-2104, charlieparkersdiner.net) offers two eggs, sausage, and toast for less than $5.
Photography: (Senate chamber) Eric Hausman; Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum