Richard “Dick” Hart, an attorney known for his longtime preservation work in Springfield that included the city’s oldest home and who was the 2021 State Journal-Register First Citizen Award winner, died Monday at Springfield Memorial Hospital.
Hart, 79, was visiting Springfield but had recently relocated to Bonita Springs, Florida, with his wife, Ann.
In a Nov. 28 story in the SJ-R announcing the award, David Barringer called Hart “today’s most knowledgeable person on Springfield and surrounding area history.”
Hart served as president of The Abraham Lincoln Association and the Sangamon County Historical Society and was a prolific writer on local history and Lincoln.
He told the SJ-R that his membership in the historical society fueled his starting Springfield Preservation Limited.
Hart’s day-to-day supervision of the preservation and restoration of the Elijah Iles House, now at 628 S. Seventh St., and his fundraising for it was a crowning achievement, he admitted. The Greek revival cottage, dating from 1837, is the oldest structure in Springfield.
“It’s where Springfield’s story can be told,” Hart said in 2021.
Barringer said through the Iles Foundation he got to know Hart. Barringer’s father, the late Dr. Floyd Barringer, once owned the Iles House.
“We would go driving around,” David Barringer recalled, “and he would point to these houses and tell me things. I wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but I wish I had a camera on him when he’s telling me all these stories. We’d go to the old part of Oak Ridge Cemetery and he’d talk about the Pasfield (family) and different people and the things that they did, but Dick knew it. I was just fascinated by it.”
Barringer recalled that Hart said Dr. Barringer “was his inspiration to get involved in local history. Dick told me, ‘I adored your father.'”
Kathryn Harris, The State Journal-Register’s 2020 First Citizen, said she respected Hart’s knowledge about Lincoln and Springfield history and considered Hart “a true friend.”
“I’m reading one of Dick’s books right now, so he is going to be with me for awhile,” said Harris, reached Monday.
Harris met Hart when he was researching articles at the Illinois State Historical Library. Harris joined the library staff in 1990 and became its director in 1996.
“He would come to the library at 4 p.m. and we would quit pulling books at 4:30 p.m.,” Harris recalled. “He would always get books about African Americans and I was nosy and (I asked him about it.) He told me he was very interested in African Americans in Springfield at the time of Lincoln because at the time he was researching, the thought was (Lincoln) didn’t know any African Americans until he got to be the president.
“He dispelled that myth because he knew several African Americans in Springfield. The article that appeared in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association did raise lots of eyebrows in the Lincoln community.”
Michael Burlingame, a Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies at UIS and the author of “Abraham Lincoln: A Life” (2008), called Hart “the heart and soul of the (Abraham Lincoln Association) for many, many years.
“He is the very definition of a civic-minded citizen,” Burlingame added.
In 2012, Hart was presented with the Logan Hay Medal, the ALA’s highest honor.
A later interest of Hart’s was “Lincoln’s Springfield Cottage.” The idea, championed by Burlingame, was to recreate the cottage the Lincolns lived in before the house at Eighth and Jackson came to look like it does today.
That home, now part of the U.S. National Park Service, was the only one Lincoln owned.
A group has raised $400,000 to get the project started and has architectural plans for it. It would be built in the 600 block of South Eighth Street, a short walk from the Lincoln Home.
Hart majored in history at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He returned to Springfield to practice law with Sorling, Catron & Hardin before starting his own firm, Hart, Southworth & Witsman in 1985.
Springfield Preservation Limited saved and modified three unoccupied and deteriorating workingmen’s cottages along the 300 block of West Cook Street, according to SangamonLink, an area that became known as German Settlers Row.
Hart also was instrumental in saving the Strawbridge-Shepherd House on the University of Illinois Springfield campus, now home to the Illinois State Historical Society. The ISHS presented Hart with its “Lifetime Achievement Award” in 2013.
Hart’s booklets and articles covered a wide range of history, including Springfield’s early Black population, Lincoln’s neighbors and early entertainment in Springfield.
Hart was presented the city’s Preservationist of the Year award in 1999.
Hart served on the Oak Ridge Cemetery Board, the Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum board and the board of directors for the Rutledge Youth Foundation.
Hart is also survived by three children: Evan in Springfield; Julia in Austin, Texas; and Jay in Sarasota, Florida; and seven grandchildren.
Contact Steven Spearie: 217-622-1788, [email protected], twitter.com/@StevenSpearie.
Springfield, Illinois historian and author Dick Hart dies Monday