Ben Halpern and I

I’ve known Ben Halpern for many years.  It was not until very recently, however, that he came to know me.  It was last year October, on a chilly, early autumn day that I received an unexpected phone call from him — he was reaching out to me on an architectural photography project he was working on in Springfield, Illinois, the capital city, and read the Central Springfield National Register Historic District Boundary Expansion nomination I prepared more than six years ago.  I remember that project well.  I spent a good summer inventorying and researching more than 50 new buildings in a downtown historic district that already included the Old State Capitol Building and the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices — two of the more iconic buildings associated with Lincoln’s Springfield life.  Ben read the nomination as background research for his project, which later, unfortunately, took a back seat to the Covid-19 pandemic — his sponsors delaying his work for another year.

Flattered to receive his call, I assumed he did not know me — he just wanted to get in touch and tell me about his upcoming initiative and how much the nomination helped in providing him needed background histories on downtown Springfield’s historic architecture. While we were gabbing about the buildings added in the expansion, I had to interrupt midway through a sentence — “Hey Ben, I remember you!” “I know you from my graduate school days at the U. of I. — you were a substitute instructor in a class I took on historical geography.” This was 30 years ago. Ben was momentarily silent on the phone. I’m sure he was jogging his memory for a few seconds but then, in just a few short words, he stated eagerly: “I cannot believe you remember me too!” Even after 30 years, I could not forget that geography class and Ben’s presentations on the changing rural Illinois landscapes documented in his masterful black and white photographs. I remember those images and the lectures in vivid detail. I never thought I would receive a call from him so many years later.

Back in the day, Ben substituted, and guest lectured on occasion for Professor John A. Jakle’s historical geography class at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the university I chose for my graduate work in urban and regional planning. Jakle, an eminent geographer and author of many quintessential works on historic landscapes and America’s evolving built environments, was a favorite among many of us aspiring preservation planners. He made geography fun. Geography was not just simply about nation names and their capital cities — all of sudden, it was about history’s time stamps on the landscape. It was all about how to look at the land, how people shaped places, and how even the most common vernacular buildings can reflect time in varying dimensions. I have read most of Jakle’s books over the years, and there are many of them. They are still reference works in my home library.

In my last year in graduate school, I took Jakle’s introductory course on historical geography. My advising professor in the planning department told me I would miss out if I did not. I was mesmerized from the start — the class readings, the field trips and the slide presentations were all about vernacular townscapes and how economic times transformed them in ways that no one predicted nor controlled. Then came Ben’s guest lectures. His first one — the one I can best remember after all these years — was a photo slide show on the visual impacts of disappearing railroad lines in Illinois and Indiana small towns, largely due to America’s steady march of de-industrialization and population loss in its heartland rural communities. Railroads simply did not want to pay tax for tracks they did not use any longer. One may think that losing a rail track line would be no big deal in the bigger scheme of a town’s landscape but viewing Ben’s slides gives one an entirely different take. A railroad track was a physical artery, a lifeline to the outside world. Once the railroads pulled them from the ground, it left voids in more than just the landscape.

During the middle of semester, Professor Jakle had to go on a short medical leave and Ben filled in on a few more classes. Never mind that he had a fledgling full-time photography studio — I sensed he thoroughly reveled in showing us photos of rural places, most of them showcasing the flat prairie lands and towns surrounding Champaign and Urbana. The photos documented grain elevators and farmers plowing and harvesting their farms. They were wonderful images of places in constant change even if they were farms. He also showed portrait photos of the farmers — photos of a candid and personal nature. You can see how farming changed their faces with coursed wrinkles under the eyes and around the chins and cheeks — a dead give-away to their years of labor. Ben’s presented in an articulate, languid, and deliberate style. He did not rush himself. He just wanted to tell us stories.

Ben’s phone call to me brought back memories of a remarkable time in my life. I enjoyed being a graduate student and living downstate in a vibrant university town. The University of Illinois prepared me well for a career in preservation and I had John Jakle and Ben Halpern, prime among others, to thank for. Seemingly, I never forgot Professor Jakle’s lecture discussions on vernacular landscapes and Ben providing color commentary with his spellbinding photographs. He told eloquent stories of how places change, change that happened often swiftly and without much notice.

Over succeeding months, Ben and I moved on from the Springfield project and started exchanging emails and phone calls about possible work collaborations and a future meet-up — certainly after we both receive our Covid vaccinations. Our opportunity came this past week — Fourth of July weekend. Fortunately, I had the Friday and Monday off between the holiday, making a quick visit to Champaign possible. Ben and I met in downtown for a quick lunch on an oddly cool and breezy day for early July in central Illinois. I easily recognized him — with the exception of some gray hairs on his head and in his still kept mustache, he had not changed much. It is remarkable how fast time goes by. All of a sudden, we were together again in the blink of an eye, not as young adults in a classroom, but now as experienced, somewhat time-worn professionals sitting across from each other in a post-pandemic bustling outdoor café. We both traveled a lot in preceding years for our respective jobs and I can sense a bit of weariness in Ben even if his enthusiasm for photography seems undiminished. I have my own weariness too after years of travel but seeing Ben and being back in Champaign again, I reconnected to long ago memories.

I was in Champaign for two days over the Fourth of July break. Apart from staying at Ben’s house during the visit and meeting his wonderful wife Olga and son Sam, I was anxious to walk the university campus for the first time since I graduated. Several colleagues and friends told me that the U. of I. campus has changed dramatically in recent years. New academic buildings here and there — facilities largely financed by big donors and industries. These days, the State of Illinois only provides 12 percent of the U. of I’s budget. So much for being a state-supported institution.

A new academic building on the University of Illinois engineering quadrangle.

While the newer campus buildings sport a mix of latter-day modern architecture and iterations of the Neo Georgian to blend in with the established older parts of campus, the real change at the university is happening rather dramatically and startingly in the adjacent Campustown neighborhood. Once a low-scale commercial and residential district — a place for small shops, cafes, bars and even some well-worn single- and multi-family student housing — Campustown is now dotted with high-rise apartment towers that almost rivals a Chicago lakefront neighborhood, or even a suburban downtown besotted with glimmering new transit-oriented developments, my own hometown included. Green Street, Campustown’s commercial strip, has almost been totally redeveloped with large mixed use buildings — one hosting a multi-floor Target store. We did not have a Target store back in my campus days. Ben tells me most of this development has happened just in the last five years, financed mainly by Chinese investors who quickly sell them once the first students move in. One wonders. Chain stores are now abundant up and down the street. I’m not sure what to make of all this. This is not the charming, small town, character-rich neighborhood I remember it to be. The new stuff looks all the same.

One of the more modest new apartment towers in Campustown.

On the Saturday of my trip home, Ben arranged for lunch with Professor Jakle, now retired and still living in Urbana.  He is in his early 80s and professor emeritus.  I was keen to tell him how much his class as well as Ben’s slide shows meant to me.  I told him the U. of I. gave me a good education.  It was worth coming here to central Illinois – it gave me more than just a degree to my name.  Like Ben, the passage of time did not seem to quell his passion for preservation.  We talked about preservation matters all through lunch and what was happening in the cities we knew.  The lunch seemed so short — there was so much I wanted to talk to him about.  We sat outdoors again in downtown Champaign on another comfortable day.

Later, Ben and I strolled the campus again. This time, we went to Illini Hall, a 1907 Jacobean Revival building that originally housed a YMCA, but which the university has now scheduled its demolition for a new high-rise data science center in a design that seemed to fit U. of I.’s current “campus modernization” program. It is hard to imagine how the new building, based on the concept designs I found on the university’s website, would fit on what is a small, tight site. Ben is doing Illini Hall’s HABS documentation. We both know the building well. It is hard to imagine it will be lost forever. Historic buildings are anchor points in our memory.

Illini Hall – slated for demolition

After stopping by Ben’s house one last time to view more of his photo books, it was time to head back to Oak Park, Illinois.  I told Ben that this was the end of the beginning — we’ll definitely meet up again and perhaps, find a project opportunity we can work together on.  That would be fun.  I sincerely hope that will happen.  Ben is a gifted photographer in capturing the meaning — sometimes the pathos — in the landscape.  For me, this was not a trip down memory lane.  It was a chance to rediscover my own fervor and excitement about the landscape and what it tells us about ourselves.

For more information about Ben Halpern Photography, please see, https://www.linkedin.com/in/ben-halpern-5711895/

Images of downtown Champaign and the University of Illinois

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