History & Architecture

Illinois Centennial Commission,
Capitol Grounds and Buildings

Centennial Memorial Building print by William Crook Jr
As Illinois neared the one hundredth year of statehood and the anniversary of its entrance into the Union, citizens sought ways to celebrate the event. In 1913, the Illinois General Assembly created the Illinois Centennial Commission. Over the next five years of its existence, the Centennial Commission guided the state’s celebration of one hundred years of statehood, creating memorials still prominent to this day.

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In 1917 a re-organized commission established seven standing committees: State-Wide Celebration, Celebration at the State Capitol, Centennial Memorial Building, Centennial Memorial Publications, Historical Statues and Markings, Publicity, and Pageants and Masques, with the official celebration to be held at the Capitol on October 4-6, 1918. The Illinois Centennial Celebration consisted on the dedication of the Stephan Douglas and Abraham Lincoln statues on the capitol grounds.

As an outgrowth of the Centennial Commission’s committee on the Centennial Memorial Building, a Centennial Memorial Building Commission was created to contribute to the planning and construction. The building would be a lasting commemoration of the admission of the State of Illinois into the Union. The cornerstone laying ceremony later became part of the official celebration. On October 5, 1918, the fiftieth anniversary of the laying of the Statehouse cornerstone, the Centennial Memorial Building’s cornerstone was put into place.

As a result of early efforts in a large part by the citizens of Springfield the Centennial Memorial Building was erected south of the State Capitol Building. The Capitol Grounds Purchase Association, organized January 5, 1915, had previously relocated twenty residences and purchased the grounds for the expansion of the State Capitol. Organized by citizens of Springfield, the object of the Association was to secure for the benefit of the State of Illinois a certain tract of land in the City of Springfield equal to more than three city blocks about the same size as the former State House Site. A 1920 Association Report of the Board of Directors states,

“It was also contemplated that this tract was of such dimensions that it would accommodate other buildings which the State may require for its use from time to time in the future.”
Thus creating what has forevermore become the State Capitol Complex.

The Capitol Grounds Purchase Association ultimately doubled the grounds of the Capitol Complex, erected the Centennial Memorial Building and later built the Illinois State Armory located at the corner of Second and Monroe north of the State Capitol.

Earlier in 1915, members of the Special Legislative Committee, of the Capitol Grounds Purchase Association testified before the Senate regarding Springfield’s commitment to the State Government. Excerpts of testimony before the Senate:

“For 78 years Springfield has enjoyed the prestige of being the Capital City of this great state. During all those years Illinois has dealt generously with us and the citizens of Springfield have on their part endeavored to show their appreciation of the many favors bestowed upon them…..When Springfield fought to retain the capital in 1867, they indiscreetly promised to provide the land to the south of the new capitol when the state required more space. The land however was occupied by Ninian W. Edwards, member of the Long Nine, Lincoln’s own brother-in-law, and faithful servant of Illinois. It would not have suited either Springfield or Illinois to deprive such a man with his chosen place of retirement. It was not until after his passing that the land could be acquired to fulfill Springfield’s promise to the state….

The bill now before you is not a Springfield measure, it did not originate with us, it is not especially advocated by us. It is a measure of state-wide interest in connection with the proposed celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of the admission of our State into the Federal Union…..

If in your wisdom you decide to pass this bill our business men will contribute to the extent of their ability. The situation has been carefully canvassed and it is believed that we can raise $100,000, and that is the utmost limit of our belief. We have only some three or four rich men in Springfield, and they are rich only as riches are estimated in a small city; but they have formed the habit of giving. The large part of our donation will have to come from the people of moderate means, and the times being as they are you must realize that it will not come easy.”

The bill passed and Springfield raised more than $100,000 making the way for the State to build the Centennial Building. In grand Federalist Style the building has engraved atop the impressive front colonnade facing the State Capitol “TO COMMEMORATE THE ADMISSION OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS INTO THE FEDERAL UNION.” The stone structure housed a beautiful State Library, Museum, and a Grand Hall of Flags displaying battle flags of the Illinois Regiments that served and fought in the Civil War.

The Centennial building was completed in 1923. In addition to government offices, the Centennial Building housed the Illinois State Library and the Illinois State Museum. Later the original Centennial Memorial Building was added to in 1928 and again in 1966, which connected structures changing the composite from a rectangular design to what appears to be a square building.

In 1992, the buildings were renamed the Michael J. Howlett Building in honor of a former Illinois secretary of state. In 2003, the flags carried by Illinois regiments as far back as the Civil War were removed from their original permanent display cases in a the Ceremonial Hall of Flag and relocated to the National Guard museum.

The Capitol Grounds Purchase Association continued after the completion of the original Centennial Memorial Building when the Association turned its attention to raise even more money for the construction a new arsenal building, the State Armory.