When renovations to the Illinois Supreme Court building began last year, the high court handed over a number of items to the Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission for safe keeping.
Among them were 107 portraits of nearly ever justice who has served on the high court, which until recently, displayed them on the walls of the attorneys’ room in its more than century-old building in Springfield.
John Lupton, the commission’s executive director, said once the portraits were in his possession, he noticed some were in need of attention as they were not protected by ultraviolet glass and had frames slightly older than the court’s 1908 building.
“These portraits really are unique, one-of-a-kind pieces,” Lupton said. “To me, the portraits are a history of the court, one justice at a time.”
And thanks to the proceeds from annual mock-trial programs the commission and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum have put on since 2011, Lupton’s plan for preserving these portraits will soon be underway.
Late last month, officials from the commission and museum announced that their three events – which depicted retrials of Mary Surratt, Mary Todd Lincoln and Joseph Smith -- generated $269,000, with a surplus of about $123,000 that will be split between the two agencies for preservation projects.
The museum plans to use the funds to restore five rare and deteriorating maps, while the commission will its cuts of the money to preserve the portraits, something that is also important given that negatives of those produced after 1910 were destroyed in a fire.
Lupton said he hopes the preservation project, which will include unframing the portraits to digitally scan them, will lead to the creation of an interactive touch screen display in the attorneys’ room to provide a history lesson of sorts about the justices.
That idea, however, is still in the early stages and the details haven’t been figured out yet, Lupton said, adding that he envisions visitors being able to touch a justice’s face on the display screen to pull up a biography and other relevant facts about the justice's tenure on the high court.
“The idea is to put these people into context,” he said. “Right now, you’re just looking at faces on a wall.”
For instance, most visitors to the attorneys’ room, which is located just outside the courtroom where arguments take place in Springfield, probably wouldn’t “know John Scofield from John Doe,” Lupton said, adding that Scofield served on the state Supreme Court in the 1800's.
Another bonus to the preservation project, Lupton said, is that it will allow the commission to resize the portraits, which will help free up some space on the walls of the attorneys’ room.
“There is probably only room for one or two more justices,” on the walls, ” he said, joking that “no one can retire at the moment.”
Chief Justice Rita Garman said in a statement that the preservation project will allow “the photographs of those who have served in this Court since its inception to be preserved for future generations without any taxpayer expense.”
“My colleagues on the Court and I are appreciative of those who have given their support in this endeavor to preserve our rich and storied judicial history by supporting” the events hosted by the commission and museum, she added.
Garman serves as a liaison to the commission, along with Justice Anne Burke.
Burke said in a statement that one of the goals of the commission and museum “has been to work together with other agencies and groups to promote education on legal issues rooted in our state's history – education not only for the legal community, but the community at large and, especially, for students.”
She said they met that goal in their production of the three retrial programs that took place in 2011, 2012 and 2013 in both Springfield and Chicago.
Lupton said the commission and museum didn’t necessarily intend to make money off the programs and just wanted to generate enough to cover the costs, but is pleased there was a surplus and that it will be going to good use.
He said he recently put together a committee to look into its next program and anticipates the preservation of the 107 portraits will be complete by the time the Supreme Court building reopens.
Renovations, which moved arguments to Chicago, are expected to be finished by the court’s September term.
“Preservation of any historic artifact is of supreme importance,” Lupton said. “If you preserve history, you are able to interpret and learn from it and carry that forward to future generations.”