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Illinois Republican lawmaker eyeing 4 to 6 new statues at Capitol complex

Students visiting from Oswego rub the nose of an Abraham Lincoln statue Feb. 12, 2009, outside Lincoln's tomb in Springfield.
Students visiting from Oswego rub the nose of an Abraham Lincoln statue Feb. 12, 2009, outside Lincoln's tomb in Springfield.

SPRINGFIELD – Would four to six new statues look better on the Capitol complex grounds?

Loosely, that’s what Rep. Tom Bennett, R-Pontiac, is trying to figure out.

Bennett is sponsoring two bills – House Bills 168 and 169 – that propose a respective four and six new statues of notable Illinoisans around the Capitol grounds. But their construction likely would cost millions of dollars, according to the Office of the Architect of the Capitol, and the grounds already have about 15 statues adorning them. Why, then, would there be six more? Bennett calls this a prime example of how state government sometimes works.

“Two steps forward, one step sideways. You just gotta keep going,” he said.

It’s the result of more than a year of discussions that have morphed and ballooned to accommodate various interests. Putting a statue of Ronald Reagan on the Capitol grounds has been in the works since at least last year, when similar legislation to this year’s bills came with the support of the Bicentennial Commission as the state was celebrating Illinois’ 200th birthday.

Bennett said big interest in Reagan’s statue came from his constituents because Eureka College, where Reagan went to school, is in his district.

“That thought led to the next one – let’s do something bipartisan,” Bennett said.

So a proposal for a statue of Barack Obama was made. Reagan and Obama are the only two of four Illinois presidents – behind Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln – not to have a statue.

From there, separate amendments were added to finally include the longest-serving Illinois governor, James Thompson; labor leader and longtime AFL-CIO President Reuben Soderstrom; former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington; and Chicago’s first resident, Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable.

Those bills went nowhere, but the interest remained. So Bennett brought up the idea again this year, “making several bills [with the] thinking, ‘Let’s put combinations of the plans out there and see which ones have more interest going forward.’ ”

Mark Flowers, who leads the Capitol architect’s office, said the last statue to be built was the firefighters’ memorial about 15 years ago. Although Flowers did not know the cost of that statue off the top of his head, he said the Martin Luther King Jr. statue on the corner of Second Street and Capitol Avenue cost more than $200,000.

That statue, made out of brass with a foundation and base, was built in 1988. In today’s dollars, its price tag would be almost $430,000.

Bennett said the funds for any of the proposed six statues would be raised by donors. In fact, one of the statues, that of Reuben Soderstrom, already is built and paid for. And the others have garnered early support for funding from various families and groups, Bennett said.

Still, it’s unclear whether the bills will make it out of this session.

“My guess is we’re not done,” Bennett said. “So you put it down on paper, and then you get people talking about it. The six [statue proposals] we have right now will probably not be the six we have when we’re all done.”

As for the feasibility of six new statues on the Capitol grounds, Bennett said he has done an informal review and concluded that there is “probably some room for all of that.”

Flowers, the architect who would oversee the statues’ contracting, planning and maintenance, said he has no skin in the game.

“If they pass a law for one statue or 10, I’ll deal with it. That’s just the way it is,” he said.

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