As a reporter, I have spent a fair amount of time over the years covering events in the Coles County Courthouse and the courthouses in neighboring counties.
These courthouses feature beautiful architecture, and they oftentimes contain portraits of Illinois leaders, murals of historical scenes, or other fascinating artwork. I appreciate getting to see these majestic old buildings, but I typically have little time to enjoy the surroundings while I am working.
Given my interest in courthouses, I particularly enjoyed my visit this fall to the former courthouse in downtown Bloomington that has been home the McLean County Museum of History for more than 20 years now.
My family and I roamed through spaces that had once housed courtrooms and clerk’s offices but now hold a variety of exhibits for the county historical society, including a children’s area.
The former courthouse, built 1901-03, has towering exterior walls that are made of limestone blocks and it is topped by a copper dome. This structure has a commanding presence on a public square amid restaurants and other downtown businesses.
An open, three-story rotunda in the center of the building stretches up to a ceiling adorned with a painting that has a theme of peace and prosperity.
Our two children’s excited voices and footsteps echoed through this cavernous space as we toured the building. Visitors to the museum can use either a broad white marble stairway or an elevator to move from floor to floor.
Shortly after we arrived, my family and I headed to the third floor to visit the Harriet Fuller Rust Pioneer Neighborhood/Discovery Room. This exhibit gives children an opportunity to experience what life was like for early settlers of McLean County.
Our 7-year-old daughter had fun as she simulated sawing a log, carrying two pales of water with a yoke, grinding coffee, and churning butter in the Discovery Room. We all got a big laugh as we took turns photographing each other sitting inside the pretend outhouse within this room.
We also toured part of the permanent exhibit galleries, which tell the story of the people, politics, professions and agricultural heritage of McLean County.
There are many photos and items on display there, such as one of the battle-dress uniforms worn by soldiers of the Illinois National Guard’s 33rd Infantry Division during World War I. This display uniform included a wide-brimmed helmet and a gas mask.
I was pleased to see that many of the permanent exhibits include interactive elements. Our daughter enjoyed having her photo taken behind the bars of a 1903 holding jail cell and clacking away on the keys of a 1907 Oliver No. 5 typewriter.
The museum also has space for a changing series of exhibits, currently home to “Fiesta: A Celebration of Mexican Popular Arts.”
There are additional exhibits and artwork to be found tucked away among the mosaic tiles and mahogany doors of the museum.
For example, I was pleasantly surprised to find The Tilbury “Flash” racing airplane on display in the center of the basement. The “Flash,” designed by Owen Tilbury of Bloomington, was reportedly the smallest plane in the world when it was built in 1932, with a wing span of less than 18 feet. It reached speeds of up to 114.92 mph and set a speed record for the smallest class of planes in the 1930s.
On the way out of the museum, we stopped at the sculpture of Abraham Lincoln that is located on the building’s lawn. This artwork, created by sculptor Rick Harney, depicts Lincoln sitting on a bench with his left arm stretched along the back.
The empty seat next to him is an ideal location for taking a photo with Lincoln, who practiced law as a circuit-riding attorney in Bloomington.
When the old courthouse closed, it could have easily fallen into disrepair and ended up needing to be demolished like so many other grand buildings.
I am glad that the McLean County Historical Society has renovated and preserved this building so that it can be put to new use and enjoyed by the public. For more information on the museum, go online to www.mchistory.
This column and previous entries in the series can be found online at www.facebook.com/RobStroud.DayTripper.
Rob Stroud is a staff writer for the JG-TC. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-238-6861.