When you drive to the same destination every day for several months you begin to learn the quirks, the quickest routes, the streets to avoid and if time allows you can even consider the scenery.
I’ve spent the summer traveling from Arenzville to downtown Jacksonville to rehearse a play and my tiny car is usually packed with long-legged teenagers whose main exposure to Jacksonville consists of the fast food stops on Morton Avenue, so when I turn east at Capitol Records (sorry, I’m old and can’t remember the new names. . . and the kids are impressed when I tell them The Beatles once lived there), hang a quick right past the fairgrounds onto Grand then an even quicker left to turn onto West State Street, it’s all new territory for my young riders. In short, they’ve been amazed.
Most of us agree that Jacksonville’s State Street remains one of the town’s most idyllic showpieces, the rows of still stately mansions telling the story of Jacksonville in stone, masonry and wood. The very names of the places bespeak what put us on the map . . . the Governor Duncan Home, the Dr. Owen Long house, The William Hook house, the Clay House, Bateman, McClure, Lathrop, Ayers, Moore, Chambers and Rockwell, plus the dozens of newer but no less breath-taking structures have been a visual treat for my young riders and each night they pick a new favorite. Of course they don’t know the historic names so their conversation is filled with phrases like “Dracula’s Castle,” or “The Plantation,” “The Vatican,” “The Fancy Shanty,” “Gone With The Wind,” or “The Cool One with the Piano in the Yard.”
I do think I’ve found a way to make young people learn about architecture: Don’t make them walk. They live in a drive-by world and personally, that’s my way to give a guided tour anyway. I’ve walked for 64 years and I’m ready to sit down for a bit. And so often I’ve wished that for just 30 minutes I had the late Phil Decker of MacMurray in the car with me to give the kids a genuine narrative of the town’s homes. I once rode from Jacksonville to Springfield with Phil and his narrative of the prairie architecture is a memory I still hold dear. His books remain our most cherished source on the town’s homes.
An interesting by-product of our nightly cruise down State Street has been to pick up on the scenery that’s not made of stone and wood . . . the people. Shortly after 5 p.m. each summer evening State Street becomes a traffic jam. The cars do just fine, but the sidewalks turn into a veritable raceway of joggers, walkers, baby-filled strollers, and dogs taking their owners for a walk. We’ve come to recognize certain characters who seem to appear nightly … the middle-aged guy who still hasn’t taught his spaniel to walk on a lead, the young couple with matching head and armbands who walk at jet speed and in complete unison, the older fellow whose shorts never quite match his socks, the “Inspector” who stops every few yards to inspect something and we’ve never been sure what, one perfectly shaped young lady in Spandex and bobbing ponytail who is a special favorite of the boys in my car and who causes the girls to turn their noses in disgust, and the elderly couple who we see perhaps only once a week but their evening hand-in-hand meander always provokes a carload of “Ahhh’s” from my group.
I know that there are parts of town where life is less perfect on a summer’s evening, places and people who have been less blessed by where life has plopped them, and folks who may not have the time or ability for an evening’s stroll. Perhaps I should have changed our route occasionally for a better-rounded view of the world, but I think my young charges know about that side of life as well. They are mature enough to be thankful for what they have and what they’ve been given. And because of our nightly excursion they have truly adopted an appreciation for things stately and beautiful and all agree that they never want to live in a new house. In fact, most felt that way before we began our tours. They are, after all, a pretty neat group of kids.
Disclaimer for all the fine folks who continue to build new homes: keep it up. That’s how we eventually get old homes.