Springfield's museums and historic sites

History in the heart of Illinois

click to enlarge Springfield's museums and historic sites
Photo David Hine
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dana-Thomas House State Historic Siteat 301 E. Lawrence Ave. in Springfield


Dana-Thomas House - A Frank Lloyd Wright design
301 E. Lawrence Ave.

A visit to Springfield is not complete without touring the magnificent Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Dana-Thomas House, now an Illinois State Historic Site. The home contains the largest collection of site-specific, original Wright art glass and furniture and was Wright's first "blank check" commission.

In 1902, Susan Lawrence Dana, the socialite daughter of a Springfield industrialist, commissioned architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design a new residence around the existing family home. Trusting in Wright's genius, Dana spared no expense, and Wright went all-out in what's considered one of his first full expressions of the Prairie Style. When it was finished in 1904, the $60,000 project was the largest residence Wright had built – 35 rooms on three main levels, encompassing 12,000 square feet of living space. Dana loved to entertain, and her house was designed with that purpose in mind. The grand entrance is theatrical; one enters the house as though walking onto a stage. The three floors contain 16 varying levels.

In the early 1980s, to preserve this architectural gem, the state of Illinois acquired the residence from then-owner Thomas Publishing. The Dana-Thomas House Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes the house, hosts programs and special events. Extensively restored in 2011 to reflect even more of its former grandeur, the house is operated by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

The house contains the largest collection of Wright furniture and art-glass windows in the world. The house also features a panoramic mural, created by internationally renowned artist George Niedecken, who painted many murals for Wright. The Sumac Gift Shop offers numerous Wright-related items.

Events at the Dana-Thomas House include Made for Music Concerts, specialty tours, Jazz in Bloom and special floral designs during the holidays.

Elijah Iles House
628 S. Seventh St.
Donations accepted

The Elijah Iles House was built in the 1830s, making it one of Springfield's oldest houses. There is evidence that it was designed by the same architect who designed the Old State Capitol. It is one of Illinois' earliest residences in the Greek Revival style of architecture.

Two of Springfield's most famous citizens, Abraham Lincoln and poet Nicholas Vachel Lindsay, are known to have visited the house. Lincoln spent time in the house as a guest of Robert Irwin and he enjoyed many a card game in the front parlor. Because of the house's impressive architecture and rich history, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Having been moved from two earlier locations, the house found its current home at the corner of Seventh and Cook in 2004. The house is thought to have been built by Elijah Iles in 1837. An elevator, accessible from special parking behind the house, provides access to visitors with limited mobility. The Farrell and Ann Gay Museum of Springfield History is located in the house's lower level. Exhibits have included topics such as Springfield's early beginnings and the history of the Illinois Watch Company.

click to enlarge Springfield's museums and historic sites
Photo Joseph Copley
Illinois State Museum

Illinois State Museum
502 S. Spring St.

There's something for people of all ages and interests to do and enjoy at the Illinois State Museum. Three floors of permanent and changing exhibits display a vast array of items drawn from the museum's collection of over 13.5 million objects. The Illinois State Museum tells the rich story of the land, life, people and art of Illinois. Life-sized dioramas and thousands of authentic fossils, artifacts and natural history specimens explore 500 million years of changing Illinois environments and tell the stories of Native American life and European settlement in Illinois.

Did you know that the land we call Illinois was once a tropical sea teeming with marine life located south of the Equator? A walk through the Changes exhibit is a learning adventure through 500 million years of environmental change in Illinois. Marvel at the strange and intriguing species that once inhabited Illinois, including the massive American mastodont. With pull-out drawers at child-height, the exhibit is designed for adults and children to explore and discover together. Visitors will learn how human actions affect the environment and gain a deeper understanding of how evolution has affected life on earth.

The Peoples of the Past exhibit brings to life Illinois' rich Native American heritage through life-sized dioramas and artifacts. In At Home in the Heartland, hear the stories of real people who lived in Illinois and learn about the choices they made. Exhibits showcase the dramatic changes in household life over the past 300 years. Illinois art is presented in changing exhibition galleries featuring both fine and decorative arts and contemporary and historic Illinois artists.

The kid-friendly Play Museum is designed for children ages 3-10 to learn through play what it is like to work at a museum. Children will enjoy loading a jeep, digging for fossils, crawling through a cave, framing art and exploring all kinds of collections.

Route History, Inc.
737 E. Cook St.
Donations accepted

A tourist attraction and souvenir shop where visitors can experience and learn about the tragedy, resilience, and excellence of Black people, Black-owned businesses and related events and places located along historic Route 66. Learn about pioneers that made significant contributions to Illinois, the city of Springfield and the greater society.  Of note are Springfield's roles as a haven along the Underground Railroad, the Race Riot of 1908 which led to the formation of the NAACP and the lifesaving commodities and guidance provided by Black-owned businesses during the Jim Crow era.

Vachel Lindsay Home State Historic Site
603 S. Fifth St.
Donations accepted

"Prairie troubadour" Vachel Lindsay captured the attention of audiences around the world during the early 1900s. He was born on Nov. 10, 1879, and died on Dec. 5, 1931. Both events took place in the Lindsay family home across the street from the Illinois Governer's Mansion. Lindsay's father, Thomas, was a physician; his mother, Catherine, was an artist and social reformer. Lindsay was supposed to follow in his father's footsteps, and after high school he attended Hiram College in Ohio to study medicine, but he eventually dropped out to attend art schools in Chicago and New York City.

In the early 20th century, Lindsay set out on a series of tramps across America. At the conclusion of one of these trips, his poem "General William Booth Enters into Heaven," a eulogy to the founder of the Salvation Army, was published in Chicago's Poetry magazine. The poem brought him national attention, and subsequent works garnered international acclaim. Some of his best-known poems include "The Congo" and "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight."

Lindsay's family home, now a state historic site, has been restored to depict life in 1917, when Lindsay's parents still played an active role in community life. Examples of Lindsay's poetry and art, not a part of the house at that time, have been added to showcase the poet. Events include poetry readings and writing workshops. Hours change seasonally, tours by reservation.

Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Museum
629 S. Seventh St.
Donations accepted

As the soldiers who fought in the bloody Civil War returned to civilian life, many retained the bonds of brotherhood forged in battle. Several fraternal organizations of Civil War veterans sprang up, and the Grand Army of the Republic, established in Decatur in 1866, became a leader among them, with more than 409,000 members who previously served in the Union forces. The Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Museum in Springfield memorializes those veterans and sits within walking distance of the Lincoln Home and across the street from the Elijah Iles House.

The collection includes tintype photos by Mathew Brady, rare drawings of the infamous Andersonville and Libby prison camps, and a complete list of Union soldiers held there during the war. Owned by the National Woman's Relief Corps, an auxiliary to the Grand Army of the Republic, the museum also maintains many volumes of Civil War history that may be examined on-site.

click to enlarge Springfield's museums and historic sites
Camp Butler National Cemetery


Illinois State Military Museum
Camp Lincoln
1301 N. MacArthur Blvd.
Donations accepted

Located on the grounds of Camp Lincoln, headquarters of the Illinois National Guard, the Illinois State Military Museum is dedicated to the state's military heritage and collecting, preserving, interpreting and exhibiting the military artifacts associated with the citizen-soldier of Illinois. The Citizen-Soldier exhibit features the military experiences of famous Illinois soldiers such as Carl Sandburg, Robert McCormick, John A. Logan and Abraham Lincoln.

While you're there, take a close look at the target board used by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 to test-fire the new Spencer rifle, or ask about the museum's collection of Civil War flags currently held in storage but viewable by the public. A realistic World War II scene depicts Illinois' 132nd Infantry in combat on Guadalcanal in 1942. Displayed outside are restored Vietnam War-era AH-1 Cobra and UH-1 "Huey" helicopters and an M60A-3 tank.

Illinois War Memorials
1441 Monument Ave.

The World War II Illinois Veterans Memorial in Oak Ridge Cemetery was constructed to honor the 987,000 men and women from Illinois who served our country during World War II, when 22,000 Illinois citizens gave their lives in pursuit of liberty. The memorial design centerpiece is a globe 12 feet in diameter, which represents the world in conflict during World War II. It is surrounded by a granite wall engraved with the names and dates of major battles of the Pacific and European theaters of war. A central plaza of personalized engraved bricks completes the design.

The Illinois Korean War Memorial, dedicated on June 16, 1996, is also located in Oak Ridge Cemetery. The monument's centerpiece is a 12-foot bronze bell surrounded by four larger-than-life warriors representing the five branches of the armed forces – Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force and Marines. The names of over 1,700 Illinoisans killed in Korea are inscribed along eight walls of the memorial's granite base.

The Illinois Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in May 1988. The memorial incorporates five black granite walls upon which are inscribed the 2,970 names of Illinoisans who died or are still missing. The five black granite walls form interior courtyards, one for each of the five branches of service. Each branch of service is designated by its insignia, which is etched on inner 15-foot-high gray granite walls. Also inscribed on the gray granite walls are the names of those listed as missing in action or as prisoners of war, as well as the names of the highest decorated veterans in each branch of service. An eternal flame burns atop the memorial where the gray granite walls converge. 

Dedicated in 2016, The Illinois Purple Heart Memorial honors recipients of the Purple Heart killed or wounded from all wars the United States has participated in. The center of the Memorial includes an eight-foot piece of black granite with an engraving of a Purple Heart on it. The other side of the stone features a quote from William Shakespeare's Henry V: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother." Two smaller black granite stones to the left and right of the centerpiece of the Memorial feature the engravings of four soldiers.

Springfield and Central Illinois
African-American History Museum
1440 Monument Ave.
Admission with donation.

One of Springfield's newest museums, which first opened in 2012, it is located at the main entrance to Oak Ridge Cemetery. The goal of the museum is to tell authentic stories about African-American life in Central Illinois, past and present, celebrating and sharing history and culture and planning for the future.

The Pearson Museum
801 N. Rutledge St.

Located in the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, this teaching museum covers various aspects of healing, including pharmaceutical, surgical, dental and alternative medicine. Treatments through the centuries come to life in permanent and changing exhibits. Named for long-practicing Springfield physician Emmett Pearson, the museum features a dental exhibit, a complete homeopathic dispensary and an entire 1900 drugstore from Canton, Illinois, with its many apothecary jars and vials. School groups and practicing physicians often visit the museum to hear lectures. Open by appointment.

Air Combat Museum
Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport
835 S. Airport Rd.
Donations accepted

The Air Combat Museum showcases the role of military aviation and features a collection of historic aircraft and aviation memorabilia including a Beechcraft AT-11 used to train bombardiers in World War II, a P-51 Mustang, a Vought F4U-S Corsair, a 1930s Fleet Model 9 biplane, and a Soko G-21 Galeb, the first Yugoslavian jet. An antique Fleet Model 9 biplane is being restored on the premises. For individual visits, donations are suggested. Group tours are $40, by appointment only.

Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War Museum
503 S. Walnut St.

The museum preserves countless artifacts of Civil War history, including rifles, medals, photographs, currency, drums, uniforms and letters from soldiers at the front. A gift shop offers a variety of books about the Civil War and other memorabilia. Located next to the Museum is an American foursquare-style house built in 1898, dedicated as the Dr. Benjamin Franklin Stephenson Library and Research Center, the founder of the Grand Army of the Republic. The library houses a complete set of "War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies." Numerous other volumes are also available for on-site research.

click to enlarge Springfield's museums and historic sites
Illinois State Military Museum


Camp Butler National Cemetery
5063 Camp Butler Rd.

One of 14 sites designated national cemeteries by President Abraham Lincoln, Camp Butler was also used to train Union troops and served as a prisoner-of-war camp during the Civil War. Some 800 Confederate soldiers are buried here. So, too, are 39 German and four Italian military personnel and a Korean spy who was working for Germany, interred here after unsuccessful efforts to locate their kin after World War II. The site has an outside touch-screen kiosk that permits visitors to locate the graves of soldiers buried at Camp Butler.

Clayville Historic Site
12828 State Route 125 (about a mile east of Pleasant Plains)
From Springfield, take Jefferson Street west and stay to the left on 125 where Route 97 (the road to New Salem) breaks north.
Donations accepted

An assemblage of pre-Lincoln-era pioneer village life on 14 acres that includes a former stagecoach stop built in 1824 and the oldest log cabin in Sangamon County, Clayville Historic Site has risen like a Phoenix from years of neglect. In 2009, the Pleasant Plains Historical Society purchased the grounds and has restored the site. The Broadwell Inn and Tavern, the second-oldest brick building in Illinois, served travelers en route and returning from Beardstown. The site includes two 1830s log cabins, an1850s barn moved to the site and reconstructed and the Rustemeyer Blacksmith Shop, the last active blacksmith shop in Springfield. In 1842, the first Whig Party state convention was held at Clayville. Including some support structures added by Sangamon State University in the 1970s, there are 10 buildings at the site. Guided tours for groups of 10 or more may be arranged by appointment, and visitors may just wander the grounds.

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