One of the grandest homes that Springfield has ever seen is only a memory. Not even a full photograph of it is known to exist.
The home was built by Illinois Gov. Joel Matteson in 1856, during his last full year as governor. Matteson was a political opponent of Abraham Lincoln’s and a wealthy man as the result of successful enterprises in the Illinois and Michigan Canal, railroads and woolen mills, according to the National Governor’s Association Web site.
During his term, he was charged with building a new, permanent Executive Mansion for Illinois governors. The mansion, which stands a block south of Capitol Street between Fourth and Fifth Streets (and is now home to Governor Pat Quinn), originally cost about $50,000 to build, according to At Home with the Illinois Governors, by Dan Monroe and Lura Lynn Ryan (2002, Illinois Executive Mansion Association).
Matteson must have liked the location. In 1856 he bought nearly a whole city block across the street, west of the mansion, and — using the mansion’s architect, constructed a home at Fourth and Jackson streets that cost twice what the Executive Mansion cost — and “completely dwarfed it,” according to Paul Angle’s Here I Have Lived: A History of Lincoln’s Springfield (1971, Chicago and Lincoln’s New Salem). Matteson’s mansion was where the Mansion View Inn and Suites and Central Baptist Church are now.
Mary Lincoln likened Matteson’s home to a “palace,” Angle writes. Although Lincoln and Matteson were political opponents, he and Mary were invited to at least one of the many soirees the Mattesons held there.
I wonder how Lincoln felt when he walked in the front door and saw a life-size statue of his romantic and political rival, Stephen Douglas, overlooking the vestibule. Matteson, a good friend and steadfast campaigner for Douglas, had commissioned the well-respected sculptor Leonard Volk to create the likeness, according to his daughter, Clara Matteson Doolittle (from The Collected Writings of James Hickey, Illinois State Historical Society, 1990).
The Jan. 29, 1873 Illinois State Register said Matteson’s “marvel of architectural beauty” was constructed without question of expense and was “a source of just pride to the humblest of our citizens.”
The three-story house (plus basement) stood on a three-acre lot, according to daughter Clara’s reminiscence. The home had more than enough bedrooms for the Mattesons’ seven children. The second and third floors housed 14 bedrooms with canopied beds of either rosewood or mahogany. Her mother’s bedroom was unique with its “bath and toilet room, which in those days were rarely seen, especially in a western town.” A first floor library boasted floor-to-ceiling bookcases, each room had specially-designed carpets, and many walls were covered with oil murals painted by “an Italian firm in Chicago” or ceiling-high mirrors.
A separate, three-gabled, two-story home was built on the property for the gardener and his family. He probably oversaw the conservatory (which was nearly as large as his house) and the sunken garden. A “grape conservatory” was added later, which produced “wonderful hot-house grapes,” Clara wrote.
Horses were likely housed at the double barn (twice the size of the gardener’s home). It was specially constructed so that manure could be removed to the sunken garden largely outside of public view.
A high, stone-topped brick wall, blanketed by grapevines, surrounded about
one-third of the estate. A variety of fruit trees grew within and were “trained…to insure the ripening of the fruit before the frost set in.”
In the 1860s, especially during the Civil War when the Mattesons’ son was in the army, the family traveled throughout Europe and rarely saw their prairie palace, according to Hickey’s book. A couple daughters and their families lived there.
By 1873, Joel Matteson was 63 years old and failing. While he was preparing to return to his Springfield home, it caught fire. The cause was unknown.
“Flames were bursting from the rear of the building and climbing up the staircase,” said the Jan. 29, 1873, Illinois State Register. “When… it became evident to all that the building could not be saved, the doors and windows were forced” with a “rude battering ram” in order to save items. “One or more costly mirrors, some books, chairs, etc., on the first floor were removed intact.” The Douglas statue was saved, but suffered minor damage in the process. It now stands in the Old State Capitol.
While the gardener’s home, the double barn and the conservatory were saved, the house was gone. “The people of Springfield will not alone regret the destruction of this beautiful building,” said the Register. “Hundreds of people in different portions of the state have partaken of the princely hospitality of ex-Governor Matteson and [his son-in-law] and they will hear with unfeigned regret of its loss.”