Edwardsville, Illinois Metro East National Register PRO Projects

Surveying Edwardsville’s Historic Leclaire Neighborhood

by Laura Jablonski

Edwardsville’s Leclaire neighborhood began in 1890 as a collaborative living experiment and soon became a model of sustained working class success. St. Louis manufacturer N.O. Nelson built his factories in the Leclaire area, constructing quaint cottages and houses near them to draw employees and their families. Homes were fully equipped with electricity, running water, and green lawns, while the brick factories were innovative and efficient. Respected and treated well, workers were offered pension among other benefits. The combination fostered a pleasant lifestyle both in and outside the workplace. A baseball diamond, bowling alley, a lake for boating, as well as community buildings for school, clubs, and concerts were free to all Leclaire residents.

One Leclaire’s historic houses.

Nelson’s Leclaire project set the national standard in working class dignity. Ensuring an enjoyable work and home life encouraged care for the whole person. Nelson’s premise is simple: Happy, fulfilled people are the solution to labor conflict. Those who can both provide for their families and enjoy their work can more fully contribute to a thriving community. And so Leclaire thrived: families flourished and businesses blossomed as Nelson’s formula for collaborative living saw continued harmony.

This summer, Preservation Research Office will be conducting the first-ever architectural survey of Leclaire. Our work comes at the request of the Edwardsville Historic Preservation Commission. PRO also will update and rewrite the district’s existing National Register of Historic Place’s nomination, create an inventory clearly identifying which buildings do or do not contribute to the area’s architectural or social significance, and identify the style of each building in order to determine the appropriate design work needed. The project is made possible through a grant from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

Laura Jablonski, a marketing and social entrepreneurship major at Creighton University, is serving as an intern at PRO this summer.

Architects JeffVanderLou Metro East Mid-Century Modern Missouri North St. Louis Pruitt Igoe South St. Louis Southwest Garden Wellston

The Mid-Century Modernism of Marcel Boulicault

by Michael R. Allen

St. Louis architect Marcel Boulicault’s name probably is unfamiliar to you, but a few of his works will draw an “ah ha!” or two. Boulicault is a designer whose contributions to Modern architecture in St. Louis are largely unheralded, but that needs to change. Boulicault (1896 – 1961) is best known for an obtrusive and despised addition to the St. Louis State Hospital, the Louis H. Kohler Building, which stood directly in front of William Rumbold’s domed 1869 County Asylum building. Boulicault also designed the building that became St. Louis Fire Department Headquarters, a major state office building on Jefferson City and other prominent works. Then, there is his patented electric tooth brush — which we will discuss in a moment. Boulicault’s buildings were creative, colorful (and a bit jazzy) but also purposeful — the best mid-century combination.

Highly-idealized rendering of the Kohler Building at St. Louis State Hospital — the flip side of what would happen. Source: Missouri State Archives.
Metro East Mid-Century Modern Neon Theaters

Traces of Route 66 on Chain of Rocks Road

by Michael R. Allen

One of the St. Louis sections of the historic Route 66 is the two-lane Chain of Rocks Road in Madison County, Illinois.  Between Highway 157 at the west and Highway 203 at the east, passing through Mitchell, the modest road has a surprising number of remaining signs and buildings from the Route 66 heyday.  Chain of Rocks Road was part of Route 66 from the start in 1926 until 1929, when the river crossing was shifted from the Chain of Rocks Bridge to the Municipal Free (later MacArthur) Bridge and then again from 1936 until 1955 when the crossing was moved to the new Veterans’ Memorial (later Martin Luther King) Bridg

Starting at the east and moving west, one of the first Route 66 era landmarks is this concrete block gas station on the north side of the road.  The black and white paint checkerboard marks the earliest section of a building that was later expanded.

One of most impressive signs on Chain of Rocks Road is the old Bel Air Drive In sign, which faces an uncertain future.  One of the large letters is already missing, but the sign’s bell still rings out with a swanky mid-century design.  One of the metro east’s largest, the Bel Air Drive In opened in 1953 and could accommodate 700 cars.  Mid-America Theatres built the Bel Air.  The drive-in was so successful that the owners added a second screen in 1979, but times changed rapidly before the theater’s closure in 1986.  Wreckers took down the theater buildings in 1991, and the site is now partly built out as an industrial park. The owner of the land has expressed interest in either retaining the sign on site or selling it, according to a 2007 Belleville News-Democrat article.  Originally, the sign had a channel silhouette on each bell and then incandescent bulbs spelling out the Bel Air name.

The Greenway Motel and the Apple Valley Motel remain in operation despite less traffic on the old Route 66. The Greenway sign is now bereft of its channel-letter neon tubing, but it is well-maintained and retains its historic two-tone paint scheme.

The Luna Cafe to the east pre-dates Route 66, and is located in a sprawling frame building from the 1920s. The sign went up later.  The martini glass takes the eye on a swirling journey along an arrow pointing at the cafe.  Time to pull over for refreshment!

Collinsville, Illinois Metro East Mid-Century Modern Signs

Bert’s Chuck Wagon in Collinsville to Fall for Highway Widening

by Michael R. Allen

The Madison County Journal reports that Collinsville mid-century landmark Bert’s Chuck Wagon Bar-B-Q (see “Heavenly Bar-B-Q” will be demolished soon for widening of Illinois Highway 159. Bert’s Chuck Wagon will relocate to a nearby location on Main Street and move the fine conestoga sign to the new location. The A-frame building with the vivid religious scenes painted in its gable end windows, however, will be history.

The widening of Illinois 159 costs the state $56 million, and the sites of several tax-paying small businesses — not to mention at least one landmark mid-century building. Such an expensive project in recession may very well take away more economic activity over the long run than it generates.

See also “Mid-Century Modernism in Collinsville” (August 8, 2008).

Housing Metro East

Shiloh House With a Cool Brick Chimney

by Michael R. Allen

Suburban place-making can be difficult when builders rely on the build-by-the-material approach through which home designs are derived from dimensions of common materials. That’s why we see so many woefully under-fenestrated tract houses, with wide rear faces of tiny white vinyl windows amid siding that seem to defeat the point of suburban life. Why face the back of the house onto an expansive view and then put puny little windows on that side?

I digress. I was meandering from a job at Scott Air Force Base to lunch in Belleville when I spotted this new house — workers seemed to be applying finishing touches — on Indian Ridge right off of Main Street in Shiloh, Illinois. By and large the houses in Indian Ridge showed modest originality, especially in chimney design. For one thing, the chimneys here are all brick — not vinyl-covered boxes of questionable fireproofing or graceless exposed sheet metal stacks. No, here the chimneys are solid masonry, and one really makes the most of that fact.

Check it out — a turned chimney in buff brick, with a more traditional cousin behind. the cap is even brick around a genuine clay pot. Should it be said that the suburbs are architecturally lifeless, remove this little house in Shiloh from the observation.

Industrial Buildings Metro East Venice, Illinois

North End of Venice

by Michael R. Allen

If you have not read the Riverfront Times cover story “Meltdown in Venice” by Keegan Hamilton, please do so. The photograph above shows one of the houses in the very north end of Venice whose residents literally have the former Dow Chemical plant in their backyards. There is a pocket literally surrounded by that plant on the west, the field where Dow and its successors dumped PCB-tainted waste on the north and a foundry on the east. At the foot of this neighborhood is the city’s elementary school. The creation of such a landscape is hardly unique, and its abdication by those who shaped it only commonplace.

East St. Louis, Illinois Metro East

East St. Louis Videos on New Geography

by Michael R. Allen

Last month, New Geography uploaded the third of a three-part video series on East St. Louis. Alex Lotz created the videos, which started with a whirlwind tour that I gave him and St. Louis University history professor Flannery Burke on New Year’s Day last year. Alex shot footage on that day of the various places we saw, including downtown, Alta Sita and the stockyards district. Then he interviewed me and located archival footage to develop the videos.

Watch the videos:

Part I

Part II

Part III

Abandonment Illinois Metro East


by Michael R. Allen

The Fantasyland on Illinois Route 3 in Brooklyn once held two strip club stages, many video viewing rooms and a “health spa.” In a small city whose center seems to have a church on every corner not occupied by a strip club, Fantasyland was the biggest of the non-religious operations. Then it closed at some point in the first few years of the 21st century. In 2007, there was a fire that started the damage shown above (See “Driving to Granite City”, September 30, 2007).

Two years later, surprisingly, the burned out, collapsing hulk still stands. The sign out front advertising a “health spa and rubs” is even still standing. Meanwhile, a convenience store across the street, opened in 2005, already is out of business. Once, the gigantic adult facility proclaimed the luster of roadside fantasy, but now the building and its remaining sign have a different message. The crumbling hulk is not far from the decaying remains of the National City stockyards, and the landscape in that stretch is a bit of unwanted fantasy — the dwindling traces of long-gone industrial employment, the failure of even the marginal “adult entertainment” industry and the glimmering St. Louis skyline at night showcasing the glowing Lumiere Place casino. Life out of balance, or just the reality of the tenuous state of the inner ring of metro east cities?

Historic Preservation Metro East Salvage

Behind the Scenes Tour at the Conservatory

by Michael R. Allen

St. Louis Building Arts Foundation president Larry Giles welcomes guests to the Conservatory.

Amid unusually pleasant weather, over 100 people attended yesterday’s happy hour and tour at the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation Conservatory in Sauget, Illinois. The event was a joint fundraiser for the Foundation and the Chatillon-DeMenil House Foundation. Guests enjoyed food and drink while exploring the 15-acre, 13-building historic steel foundry that serves as the Conservatory. The site is home to some 300,000 architectural artifacts and eventually a research library of rare literature related to architecture and allied arts.

The last time that the Conservatory was open for a public tour was nearly one year ago. While more events are planned for the future, including a fall party, the chance to get an all-access tour of the Conservatory was a rare one.

Thanks go to Lynn Josse, board member of both organizations, bon vivant Ray Brewer, grill masters Mike Rodgers and Jeff DeTie, Building Arts Foundation President Larry Giles, Chatillon-DeMenil House Foundation President Ted Atwood and many others who worked to pull the event together.

Photo by Beth Florsek.
This is one of two events for the Chatillon-DeMenil House this weekend: On Sunday, August 23rd, Doug Harding will give a talk entitled “Shadows of Immortality: 19th Century Photography.” Using examples from the DeMenil collection, Mr. Harding will delve into the history of photography and actually demonstrate how photographs were made. The public is invited to bring in their own photographs for dating. This free talk begins at 2pm at the house, 3352 DeMenil Place at Cherokee.

Edwardsville, Illinois Historic Preservation Metro East Planning

Edwardsville Residents Rally for Buildings Housing Small Businesses

by Michael R. Allen

My coverage is a little late, but I wanted to give a shout out to the 50 people who demonstrated against demolition of historic commercial buildings last Friday in downtown Edwardsville. The Belleville News-Democrat (perhaps the region’s best daily paper) has coverage here.

The bottom line: a law firm wants to demolish six small-scale storefront buildings now home to small businesses. These buildings are all historic, with some older than 100 years. However, some of the buildings were reclad or greatly altered over time. Indeed, some of them are barely recognizable as historic buildings.

However, the tenants and others oppose the move not just because these buildings are old. The opposition stems from recognition that downtown Edwardsville needs buildings like these to retain small business and vital street scapes. Giant new office buildings take away not only the low rents that foster commerce, but the differentiation in a block face that makes it a welcoming environment. Preservation here is not essentially about saving something old, or something pretty, but something that encourages a mode of business conducive to building community. Maybe someday someone will restore the facades of these buildings, but even if that never happens the buildings are working just fine.

Downtown Edwardsville’s commercial district has seen a resurgence of small business activity, and retaining storefronts is essential to future growth. Like many downtowns, Edwardsville’s has plenty of surface lots where a new office building could be built. There is no reason why the lawyers seeking their own building and the small businesses cannot coexist.