Wright Building Conservancy: Keep Future Trains Away From Dana-Thomas House

Amtrak train en route to Chicago along 3rd Street rail line (image: Peter Gray, WUIS/IPR)

A national group dedicated to protecting and preserving the work of one of America’s best known architects is headed to Springfield with a message for state and federal transportation officials.

As Peter Gray reports, the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy is joining local leaders in Springfield in wanting to keep future train traffic away from the Dana-Thomas House.


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Learn more about the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy at WWW.SAVEWRIGHT.ORG

Learn more about the IL Dept. of Transportation’s High Speed Rail plans at WWW.IDOTHSR.ORG

The “Prairie Style” home Frank Lloyd Wright designed for Springfield socialite Susan Lawrence Dana in 1902 has long been regarded as the architect’s finest and most ambitious early work – and it has been tied to state government for more than a generation.

In 1981, Governor Jim Thompson earmarked $1 Million dollars to purchase the Dana-Thomas House and the state set aside another $5 million to restore the site from top to bottom before opening it to the public in 1990. Another 2.5 million was spent just in the past year to make needed heating and air conditioning updates.

After all the state has invested, one preservation architect says some of the options on the table for routing higher speed trains through Springfield could pose a threat to the iconic Wright building.

HARBOE: “Certainly a masonry building is solid in one sense, but something that’s undergoing regular and consistent shaking, so to speak, that’s the concern. You have to think if you’ve ever stood near where a freight train goes, you feel it in the ground. And if it’s shaking the ground, it’s shaking the house.”

Thomas “Gunny” Harboe has gained a national reputation for his award-winning work, and is currently leading the restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Frederick C. Robie House in Hyde Park. Harboe is among those concerned about the possibility of more trains running next to the Dana-Thomas House.

HARBOE: “The tracks are very close to the house and the amount of vibration that you get from the passing of a train, particularly if one is braking, could be a long-term detriment to the house, so I think that’s the biggest concern.”

The lot on which the Dana-Thomas House sits is less than 40 feet from Springfield’s 3rd Street rail line. Currently 35 trains pass through Springfield each day on three separate tracks across the city. Studies show traffic is expected to more than double by 2020, and an option being considered by the Illinois Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration would see a second track built next to the Dana-Thomas House to accommodate as many as 72 trains each day.

HALSTEAD: “This is a very special house. It’s a National Historic Landmark and it needs to be protected.”

Janet Halstead is Executive Director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. The group has one mission: To defend Wright’s aging structures, 20 percent of which have already succumbed to time, weather or the wrecking ball.

HALSTEAD: “We felt we couldn’t afford to lose any more Wright buildings – either through neglect or deliberate demolition – and we’ve been very successful in doing that, from Florida to the Seattle area and all the Wright buildings that are scattered between those two points, and we have some contacts with the Wright buildings in Japan as well.”

The actual level of danger increased train vibrations may pose to the Dana-Thomas House is unclear. Engineers at Hanson Professional Services in Springfield have conducted noise and vibration tests as a part of an IDOT-funded environmental impact study, but the Illinois Department of Transportation refused our request to interview Hanson engineers for this story.

It’s no surprise that IDOT is so guarded about information relating to its rail projects. Since the Obama administration first announced stimulus funds to run higher speed trains from Chicago to Saint Louis, how those trains should be routed through Springfield has been a political “hot potato”. Springfield Mayor Mike Houston:

HOUSTON: “Administrator Szabo, who heads the Federal Railroad Administration, has used the phrase ‘locals know best’. If the Federal Railroad Administration will follow that model, they will in fact choose the 10th Street Corridor. Because I think locals do know best.”

Mayor Houston has long argued for an alternative which would shift all train traffic to a line seven blocks east of the Dana Thomas House – along 10th Street and the Mayor says it helps to have a respected group like the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy join those advocating against 3rd street.

For as much as community leaders and historic preservationists may protest, federal law requires IDOT to consider all possible options as it plans for high speed trains and increased freight traffic. IDOT says it will recommend a rail corridor by the end of this month, after which it will host meetings to allow the public a final chance to weigh in before issuing a so-called “Record of Decision” this December to green light construction on the chosen rail line. Mayor Houston says he’s cautiously optimistic he’ll see the outcome he’s hoping for.

HOUSTON: “We’re really looking for what is in the best interest of Springfield and Central Illinois on a long-term basis. I believe that when that Record of Decision is issued in December of this year, that they will give a Record of Decision for the 10th Street Corridor. And then it becomes incumbent upon us to put the funding together.”

When members of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy from around the country visit Springfield tomorrow to tour the Dana-Thomas House, they won’t get any information from IDOT that might lessen their anxiety about train vibrations. Instead, they’ll be told to hold their breath and wait – like the rest of Springfield – for the highly anticipated public release of a study that will decide the future of one of Illinois’ most travelled rail corridors.

-Peter Gray, WUIS/Illinois Public Radio

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3 Responses to Wright Building Conservancy: Keep Future Trains Away From Dana-Thomas House

  1. Pingback: The FLW Building Conservancy Comes to Town « Susan and Me: Two Women in a Wright House

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