Architects Belleville, Illinois Events Mid-Century Modern

Charles E. King Recognition Reception

The Belleville Historical Society will honor and celebrate the body of work created by architect Charles E. King in the Belleville area at a reception on Sunday afternoon, November 4th at 2:00 at the Alan J. Dixon Student Center on the campus of Lindenwood University (2600 W. Main Street). Artifacts from King’s period of work in Belleville and a photo display of his area designs will be a part of the reception.

This Modern house designed by Charles E. King stands near Kirkwood, Missouri.

King, a 1947 graduate of the University of Illinois School of Architecture, practiced in Belleville from 1947 until 1961 when his firm was purchased by Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum in St. Louis. During his fourteen years in Belleville, at least 36 of his residential designs and 19 of his commercial designs were built. All but two still stand today. Probably the most notable of King’s works in Belleville is the City Hall designed in 1957 and dedicated in 1959. In 1957, he also designed five buildings on the campus of Belleville Township High School, one of which is the Fine Arts/Cafeteria Building in which the November 5th reception will be held.

King, who preferred to design in a Mid-Century Modern Style of architecture, went on to a very prolific career and in 1991 was named of one of Architectural Digest‘s “Top 100 Architects.” He was also the recipient of many other professional awards.

King, a native of Louisville, Kentucky, died on August 16, 1993 in St. Louis at the age of 73. This retrospective of King’s Belleville area designs is open to the public.

Belleville, Illinois

Belleville Turner Hall Makes Illinois Statewide Endangered List

From Landmarks Illinois

Belleville Turner Hall's mail elevation on 1st Street.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011, Springfield, Ill.—The Belleville Turner Hall, 15 N. First St. in Belleville (St. Clair County), was named to Landmarks Illinois’ annual “Ten Most Endangered Historic Places” list, which was announced today at a press conference in the State Capitol.

“At the time of its construction, this was one of the largest private gyms in the U.S.,” said Jim Peters, President of Landmarks Illinois. “We hope that the publicity generated by this “10 Most” listing will spark a new use for this important building.”

Landmarks Illinois, the state’s leading voice for historic preservation, listed nine other endangered historic properties on its annual list which focuses attention on sites throughout Illinois threatened by deterioration, lack of maintenance, insufficient funds, or inappropriate development.

The Belleville Turner Hall, with Art Deco and Gothic ornamentation, was constructed by the German community in 1923-24 as a social and civic center. Its primary purpose was a venue for physical fitness and educational programs for the community. Owned by the City of Belleville since 2006 and vacant, the building is in need of a new use and immediate repairs. A grassroots organization has offered to raise funds for repairs and to develop a plan for converting the building into a visual and performing arts center, but the City has not expressed interest.

More information at

Belleville, Illinois Demolition Fire Historic Preservation Mid-Century Modern

Opportunity Lost in Belleville

by Michael R. Allen

Photograph by Chad Briesacher.

In a strange move, on October 19 the Belleville (Illinois) City Council voted 14-1 to approve a plan that would replace the former Meredith Home with a park. The Meredith Home is the six-story former Hotel Belleville at the southeast corner of Illinois and Main streets at the fountain circle. Built in 1931, the hotel has art deco stylistic elements expressed through brick and terra cotta. Between 1962 and earlier this year, the hotel served as retirement home operated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Belleville.

How the City Council came to vote away the sales and property tax revenues the building might generate in the future is uncertain. Using a loan, the city purchased the occupied building for $487,500 in February when the Diocese placed the building for sale. The sale generated some raised eyebrows in light of how the city of Belleville has cited lack of funds as a reason for not assisting the effort to save the former Belleville Turner Hall.

Photograph by Chad Briesacher.

After discussing redevelopment with a boutique hotel developer from St. Louis, Belleville officials abruptly changed course. Suddenly, attorney Bruce Cook stepped forward with an offer to pay off the loan on the property if the old hotel were demolished and the site became a park memorial for his late daughter. The park plan — a noble purpose best suited for a site whose development would cost less — lacks funding for demolition and construction. Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert has stated that the city might help with the cost, even though it has steadfastly refused to help the citizens trying to turn the Turner Hall into an arts center.

Photograph by Chad Briesacher.

Downtown Belleville has many vacant lots and surface parking lots well suited for a small memorial park. The city could easily have helped Cook find another site, and just as easily not purchased a large building that private developers may have purchased. The city does not have another building like the Meredith Home, which has not generated revenues in nearly 40 years. Beyond the preservation issue, it is odd that the city — with its revenues strained like every city’s — would not have jumped at the chance to move a prominent downtown parcel from tax-exempt status to a taxable piece of land. Cities thrive when private initiative, not government control, is the driving force in commercial districts. Belleville has missed a big opportunity with the Meredith Home.

Photograph by Chad Briesacher.

Another Belleville opportunity that hopefully won’t be squandered is a few blocks east at the northeast corner of Main and Jackson streets. In May, a corner building and part of the slipcover-clad former Fellner’s Department Store were destroyed by fire. The taller, more stylized section of the Fellner’s building survives, to the delight of the region’s mid-century modern aficionados.  Hopefully the city of Belleville will support new urban infill on this prime corner.

Belleville, Illinois Best Practices Chicago Illinois

Two Wayfinding Ideas from Illinois

by Michael R. Allen

On a recent trip to Chicago, I came across the wonderful “Dearborn Avenue Cultural Walk.”  The “walk” is a self-guided architectural and cultural tour with information placed on illustrated signs along Dearborn.

Each sign contains information and historic photographs about the architecture and history of buildings on that block. Dearborn is one of Chicago’s most storied streets, so there is plenty of information. The photographs make it clear which building is which and what buildings looked like at other times (or what lost buildings looked like).

The elaborate sign boards could not have been cheap, but they are an excellent amenity. They are as easy to use for those seeking to take the whole “tour” as for someone just walking to work. The signs bring out more color from a very colorful street. St. Louis could stand to implement something similar. Downtown’s Olive Street would be a good test, because it is largely intact and still very densely built up. Washington Avenue would also be a good choice. Of course, both (and more) would be a good first choice, but cost certainly is a factor. Anyone interested?

Closer to home, Belleville, Illinois has placed steel signs at the boundaries of the downtown area historic districts that read simply “National Register Historic District.”  The brown signs are placed near other road signs and thus underscore their recognition of what is an official status.

The Belleville signs do not include the historic district name or any other information, but they are a relatively economical, easy way of marking the special status of the city’s historic districts. These signs won’t guide tourists, but they do impress upon passers-by that there is something special about the neighborhood. Perhaps the signs instill some neighborhood pride in the status, too. Again, St. Louis might do well to grab this idea in some way. Anything that draws attention to our rich architectural heritage is good for cultural tourism and economic development — and we could use more of both.

Agriculture Belleville, Illinois Demolition Southern Illinois

Farm House Facing Death In Belleville

by Michael R. Allen

I have been conducting an architectural survey at Scott Air Force Base and passing back through Belleville. Last week, just east of town I came across this 19th century brick farmhouse on Highway 161 east of town. The rest of the farm — a clay tile silo and some outbuildings — are well under demolition, but work has yet to really start on the house. A porch and the roofing have been removed, but the old building is painfully still able to be saved. The demolition set me to thinking.

I know, I know. Illinois is full of these one-story brick center-hall houses, with their two-over-two wooden windows and simple brick cornices. Yet that’s really the point: these vernacular houses give the state’s rural areas unique architectural character compatible with the rich and lovely landscape upon which they reside.

Besides, this house has an interesting hipped roof, and lovely cast stone porch columns (definitely not original, but certainly a historic alteration). With a new Wal-Mart and strip retail in this vicinity, I think I know what happens next to this farm. Even if one does not see the folly of the wasted building, what about thinking through losing soil that has fed people for over 100 years?

St. Louisans should think about these things too. What happens in Belleville matters to St. Louis. The loss of good farm land and usable farm building stock within 100 miles weakens our renewing regional food economy. We lost much of the good farm land in St. Louis and St. Charles counties, but we still have a lot left across the river. Some talk about “balancing” the region’s sprawl, but without regional growth that is tantamount to doubling the waste: settled and unsettled areas, wasted. When do we stop?

Belleville, Illinois Historic Preservation

Arts Center Proposal for Belleville YMCA Gaining Momentum

by Michael R. Allen

Over the weekend, the Belleville News-Democrat carried a story by Laura Girresch entitled “The old YMCA building: Is it worth saving or will it be a money pit?”. Title aside, the article reports that St. Clair County Historical Society member Larry Betz’ proposal to turn the former Belleville YMCA into the Belleville Arts and Cultural Center is gaining traction.

Belleville officials are hopeful that Betz’ plan can come to fruition. A lot of work lies ahead but the city government’s attitude now seems firmly supportive of preservation. One of the issues ahead: how to fund mothballing the building as Betz raises money for the center.

Belleville, Illinois Historic Preservation

Arts Center Proposed for Belleville YMCA

by Michael R. Allen

Today the Belleville News-Democrat reported on an effort to turn the old YMCA building in Belleville, Illinois — originally the Belleville Turner Hall — into an arts center.

The story included some good news in the saga: members of a city committee charged with selling the city-owned building are impressed with the plan. After a lackluster response to a city-issued Request for Proposals (RFP) last year, Belleville officials have began mentioning demolition as a possible outcome. In February, I joined Belleville preservationists in urging the city to re-issue the RFP, which lacked important information on the building and mostly consisted of a report and asbestos in the building.

Proponents of the arts center have launched a Facebook group for supporters.

Belleville, Illinois Mid-Century Modern Neon Signs

Harter’s Hobby House Sign Removed

by Michael R. Allen

For decades, Harter’s Hobby House at 1001 West Main in Belleville beckoned hobbyists with its colorful sign, which resembled a blue pin-striped stick of dynamite with a starlight mint-like pinwheel fuse. The sign is no more, having been replaced recently with a simple new sign.

The old sign was a complex metal sign with three plastic back-lit name boards, an enameled body and neon tubing on the pinwheel. The letters in the possessive “Harter’s” were proper cursive fit for business, while the words “Hobby House” had a carefree lettering somewhere between kindergarten script and a typesetter’s mistake.

Where did the sign go? Anyone with information is welcome to post in the comments section or email the editor, who missed the changeover.

Belleville, Illinois Historic Preservation

More Time Needed to Market Belleville YMCA Building

by Michael R. Allen

On December 5, the Belleville News Democrat carried an article with the title “Reality check for old YMCA building: ‘Unless money is found, nothing’s going to happen'”. The article contains disturbing news from Belleville’s effort to market the historic downtown YMCA building, originally the Belleville Turner Hall (see ““Old Belleville Turner Hall Could Be Yours”, August 7, 2009). From the article:

Jack LeChien, alderman in Ward 7 and the chairman of the YMCA committee, has favored using the building rather than tearing it down; after all, he’s a member of the Belleville Historic Preservation Commission. But he thinks anyone with a strong proposal and adequate financial backing likely would have stepped forward by now.

Alderman LeChien had had a tough job, and has done it well. LeChien reached out to historic preservation blogs, magazines and other publications to carry the Request for Proposals issued by the city. However, the timing of Belleville’s quest to sell the YMCA building has been a problem. Belleville picked the worst possible time for developers to get financing for a large project like the YMCA building. As I wrote to Alderman LeChien in June: “One thing to consider is that the lending climate is still emerging from stagnation and many developers who might be interested could need time to close on financing.”

The fact is that the market is still slow and recovery is not complete. Belleville needs more time to sell the YMCA building, and its leaders should not rush to any conclusions about lack of responses to the RFP.

Also, the RFP posted on Belleville’s website this year was not very strong. The document consisted of a short cover statement and a lengthy report on asbestos issues — not a great marketing package. All old buildings have some asbestos, but not all old buildings have the reuse potential, location and cool interior spaces that the Bellevilel YMCA has. More time and a better RFP are needed.

Belleville, Illinois Historic Preservation Metro East

Old Belleville Turner Hall Could Be Yours

by Michael R. Allen

The city of Belleville, Illinois has extended through August 30 the period for its Request for Proposals for the old city-owned Belleville Turner Hall. Located just north of the bustling Main Street business district at the southwest corner of 1st and A streets, the large building enjoys strong architectural and social significance.

The RFP can be found online here with instructions on how to contact the city for interested developers. This is a great opportunity: a large mixed-use building adjacent to a commercial district that seems to add new shops and pedestrians every week.

The Belleville YMCA used the building from 1960 through 2005, so the building is most commonly called the Old YMCA Building. Hence, the advocacy website for the effort to preserve the building is called Y Save the Y. That site has a lot of historical information as well as photographs.

Designed by Julius Floto and completed in 1923, the Craftsman-influenced Turner Hall features a wooden bow-truss gymnasium and a theater on the second floor with storefronts below. The 20,000 square foot building combined the large spaces required by the Turners with space for small businesses along the downtown the sidewalk. To this day, the building remains remarkably intact (inside and out) and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency has determined that the building is individually eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Citizens have submitted a nomination that is pending.

There is an interesting architectural connection between the Belleville Turner Hall and Frank Lloyd Wright: Julius Floto, an structural engineer by training, was the structural engineer for the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. After the hotel survived the 1923 Tokyo earthquake, Floto published the article “Imperial Hotel, Tokyo, Japan” in the February 1924 issue of Architectural Record. The article detailed the structural properties that made the hotel survive the devastation.