Charles and Nanette Thomas purchased the Dana House from the sale of Mrs. Dana’s holdings in 1944. They used the house as the executive office for the Charles C. Thomas Publishing company until the house was sold to the State of Illinois.
The House as Office 1944-1981
The Charles C. Thomas
A history of the Dana-Thomas House would be incomplete without a reference to its use by Charles C Thomas, Publisher as its administrative and editorial offices. It is largely due to Charles C Thomas’s diligent efforts to maintain the integrity of Frank Lloyd Wright’s design and furnishings that the house survives today as the most complete example of Wright’s early Prairie period. The hundreds of pieces of art glass and original furniture that are part of the house have been retained through a conscious effort by the Thomas family and later the State of Illinois, so they can be enjoyed by thousands of tourists and architecture aficionados each year.
According to the DT House Volunteer Manual, the Charles C Thomas ownership began with a newspaper announcement and interview with the Thomases on August 13, 1943. In April of the following year, Charles and Nanette Thomas took out a mortgage for the house for $11,250, which was paid off within one year.
When Thomas wrote to Wright after acquiring the house, he said: “I thought you would like to know what a great pleasure is being given to me by the Dana House…. The floors are in beautiful condition…. We secured most of the sculpture—Bock’s work is absolutely intact. The lamps and lights all seem to be there…. I’ve told Nan Thomas many a time that there were only two houses I’d like to own in Springfield—and we now own both of them.”
The other house was the Caldwell Mansion on Route 4 south of Springfield. Michael Thomas, current president of Charles C Thomas, Publisher (now located at 2600 S. First Street) remembers that often his grandmother Nanette resided at the Caldwell Mansion while Charles stayed at the Dana-Thomas House, sleeping in the master bedroom.
The Thomas medical publishing firm occupied the house from August 1944 until it was sold to the State of Illinois in 1981. Since the house has been completely restored to the period that it was occupied by Susan Lawrence Dana, it is difficult to imagine what the house was like when it was in use by the publishing firm.
Kathryn Phillips, now aged 88, a former Thomas publishing company employee, shared her memories of the house when it was used as an office.
She writes: When I moved to Springfield in 1949, I had two children to raise without a father. My first employment was with Charles C Thomas, Publisher. I worked there for 16 years, from 1949 to 1966 in the Accounting Department, the Editorial Department, and the Journal Department.
From the outset, it struck me that this was not your typical building to house a publishing company, but I had no particular interest in architecture. From the beginning, I appreciated the fact that I could look out and see green grass and trees. When I worked in the library (Journal Department), I still remember the vines that grew up the wall on that side of the Carriage House. I can still see Mrs. (Nanette) Thomas coming down the walk from the Carriage House a little after eight each morning to take care of the day-to-day business of running the company. Everyone was at his or her desk at 8 a.m. sharp and nobody was late for work. The Thomases were good to their employees but they also expected a day’s work for a day’s pay.
I remember one fall day when Frank Lloyd Wright and a busload of his students stopped on their way from Wisconsin to their winter campus in Arizona. (She didn’t remember much about Wright, but remembered the warm welcome she received from Charles Thomas.)
The Editorial Department was located near the main entrance (the glass enclosed porch off the conservatory hallway), the Marketing Department in the Carriage House, the Accounting Department in the big room that overlooked Fourth Street (the Living Room), the Steno Pool typewriters lined both sides of the long dining room table. The Journal Department was in the library.
Mrs. Thomas handled all of repairs and upkeep for the building. She expected and demanded that everything be done just right. (Mrs. Phillips related that Nanette Thomas, despite being an intimidating employer, was relaxed and fun at social gatherings.) If not to her satisfaction, they didn’t get paid. The roof was always a problem. More than once, I saw her (Nanette) climb the ladder to inspect the work. The State of Illinois is in debt to the Thomas family for taking such good care of an architectural treasure, but a special thanks is owed to Nanette Thomas.
Michael Thomas remembers shooting BB guns with his grandfather (Charles) off the back porch of the house. “He had one of those big paper targets. I don’t think I was more than three or four years old at the time.”
Thomas’s mother Judy, married to Charles’s son Payne in 1954, recalls living in the house shortly after her marriage for two weeks. “I had trouble finding my way around that big house. I was getting lost all the time,” she says.
Later, Judy remembers chasing her small boys around the house. “It was a good house for hide-and-seek and the boys (Michael and Peter) used to hide from me. I had a hard time finding them.” Charles and Nanette had Christmas dinners around the big dining room table, and Judy says that the house had a much different air than hers. “It was quieter, more elegant and sophisticated,” she remembers.
When he was in his early twenties, Michael Thomas lived across the street in an apartment house on the southwest corner of Lawrence and Fourth Streets that his family owned for many years. He worked for the publishing company doing a variety of jobs: proofreading, advertising, write-ups for books, and copy editing, generally learning the business. At night, Michael would bring his laundry to the house and do it in the basement. “It was kind of creepy being in this old house by myself, but I never saw any ghosts,” he recalls.
Thomas says: “My father also lived at the office for a period of about seven years before getting married and building a home at Lake Springfield on Island Bay Lane. Payne and Charles used to work together at all hours. Charles and Payne would travel to many conventions and make calls on doctors throughout the country, who were their primary authors. Later, Charles would be doing most of the traveling and Payne would handle the day-to-day business operations along with his mother, Nanette. Traveling in those days was done mostly by train. Before the move to the Dana-Thomas home, the publishing company was located at Third and Monroe streets where the Federal Court Building is now located, close to the train station. Thomas says, “My father knew my grandfather was supposed to be on a train to go somewhere and Charles would sit and dictate letters to authors at his desk even after the arrival of the train. Payne was sure he would miss it many times, but just as the train was getting ready to pull out, Charles (who was an assistant track and swimming coach at Georgia Tech University) would be sprinting after it, jumping on as the train was departing from the station.”
“Payne became an avid flyer in his early twenties and used to fly his airplane to meetings around the country and, later, as his primary means of traveling between his homes in Fort Lauderdale and Springfield.” Michael recalls Payne telling him a story about when he first started flying: “He and Charles were going to a convention and they took off from somewhere on a hot summer day in his single-engine airplane. There were some tall trees at the end of the runway and Payne was concerned that they weren’t going to clear them. They eventually did, but the tops of the trees made a brushing sound on the aluminum bottom of the plane as they flew over them. Payne said that Charles didn’t say a thing the entire time, but when they landed, he said “I believe I’ll take the train home.”
“Before my father took over the business, my grandfather (Charles) and he both lived at the Dana House and my grandmother lived at the Caldwell Mansion on Route 4. He was a great friend of Frank Lloyd Wright – they even went to Italy together. Then in 1961, my grandfather had a stroke. He was in the kitchen of the house at the time, and he was standing up eating some salad out of a bowl with his fingers, having a conversation with my father, Payne. My father knew something was wrong, because when he had the stroke, he dropped the bowl onto the floor. After that he was hospitalized for a time and then lived at the Caldwell Mansion for the following seven years, unable to ever speak or walk again. Obviously, he wasn’t able to become re-involved with the business after that,” Thomas says. Charles died in 1968.
When he worked at the publishing company, Michael remembers that Payne’s office was in the master bedroom. The three stenographers worked in the guest and cousin Flora’s bedroom. Editors worked in the dining room and living room and Mother’s bedroom.
On the ground floor, Michael remembers the accounting and typesetting departments. There were desks for proofreaders in the billiard room. The carriage house contained the advertising department downstairs and the art department upstairs. Every available room was used, and there were even offices in the servants’ bedrooms, he remembers.
“There were oil-fired furnaces in the carriage house and I remember the scent of fuel oil and the whooshing sounds from the furnaces in the wintertime in the carriage house. There was a coal-fired furnace before that. Father told me he had to stoke fires in middle of night to keep fire from going out, and sometime remove clinkers from the furnace,” Thomas says.
The house was beginning to show wear when he worked there, Thomas recalls. “The windows in a couple of the doors were beginning to warp and we had some of these repaired. It was an expensive process. The furniture was all there, but it was more something to walk around than sit in – it wasn’t comfortable,” he remembers.
When the time finally came to move the publishing company in 1981, Thomas says that the family remained true to Charles’ wishes. “When my father decided to sell the house to the state, Governor Thompson came over and toured the building, and afterwards, we were all in the living room and Governor Thompson was sitting in a chair and he asked ‘How much?’ and my father said ‘One million dollars’ and the governor said ‘I believe you have a deal.’ An interested party from New York found out about the impending sale and sent two representatives to investigate the matter. They had wanted to speak to Payne, but he refused to see them, so I met with them and they said their buyer was prepared to pay seven million dollars for the house. I had heard from one of our other employees that they were wanting to move the entire building to New York. But we knew that my grandfather wanted the State of Illinois to eventually own the house and so that’s what we arranged to do.”
The rest, as they say, is history. While Michael Thomas maintains that the house isn’t haunted, sometimes, on a quiet summer morning, if you pause in the conservatory, you might hear the pecking of typewriter keys from one of the upstairs bedrooms or see Nanette Thomas striding across the yard to greet her employees at their desks.
Authors note: This article was originally published in the Dana-Thomas House’s volunteer newsletter in 2007. Our thanks to Michael Thomas for editing and to author Melinda McDonald.