'Ceremonial opening' takes place for Lincoln library

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Amid showers of fireworks and praise Monday evening, officials opened a library dedicated to the history of Abraham Lincoln's life, just 137 years after his death.

Speaker after speaker called Lincoln America's greatest president and said the library will help people understand his legacy.

"Perseverance, courage, integrity -- these are the characteristics that Lincoln embodied," U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., told the crowd. "These traits are relevant to all people."

The library, set in the heart of the city where Lincoln rose to national fame, is the first part of the $115 million Abraham Lincoln President Library and Museum to open.

It will house thousands of items in the state's collection of Lincoln documents, including an original copy of the Gettysburg Address, along with the entire Illinois State Historical Library of 12 million items.

The "ceremonial opening" of the unfinished library drew hundreds of state officials and employees. They sat in a secured area while members of the public were kept behind fences.

The ceremony began with four Illinois Air National Guard fighters flying overhead. Colored lights -- from red, white and blue to shocking purple -- bathed the library as a portrait of Lincoln was projected on the building.

Miss America sang the national anthem, and President Bush sent a videotaped message praising the library for preserving Lincoln's history.

Reading of famous speech

Some two dozen people shared in a videotaped reading of the Gettysburg Address, each on them reciting a line or two. Many readers were ordinary citizens, but they were joined by Gov. George Ryan, former Presidents Gerald Ford and George Bush, and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The event ended with the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," a fireworks display and a blizzard of streamers.

Six-year-old Kayla Carr of Riverton attended with her grandmother. She wasn't sure who Abraham Lincoln was -- her grandmother had to whisper the answer -- but she left no doubt about why she was there.

"I want to see Miss America," she said.

Builders hope to complete the finishing touches by the end of the year, letting historians move in their Lincoln collection and other documents by the president's Feb. 12 birthday. The museum is to open in 2004.

The idea of a Lincoln museum and library has floated around for years. When Ryan took office in 1999, he enthusiastically backed the project.

But some critics have complained that the federal government's $50 million share amounts to "pork."

Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Inverness, fought the project vigorously, arguing the state would pay inflated construction prices to companies with political connections to state leaders.

He issued a statement Monday criticizing Ryan chief of staff Robert Newtson and his handling of fund raising for the project.

Ryan called that "a cheap shot" and said the wealthy senator ought to donate a couple million dollars to the library.

The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency oversees one of the nation's best collections of Lincoln documents and artifacts.

But the collection has been housed in a cramped office complex built under the Old State Capitol. Key documents are stored in a vault without a fire-suppression system, and less valuable items are left out in the open or crammed into overflowing storage areas.

The new library offers twice the storage space -- 6.5 miles of shelving in 22,000 square feet. The Lincoln collection will be in climate-controlled rooms with high-tech systems for putting out fires without water.

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