Historic treasures or unsafe eyesores? Belleville struggles to deal with aging architecture
News of Belleville’s plan to tear down a condemned 1884 brick mansion in a historic district seemed to hit a nerve last month.
Some residents took to social media, asking why officials were allowing such landmarks to fall into disrepair. Others warned that neglect by landlords and other owners was causing the city to lose one of its biggest assets, historically significant architecture.
Belleville City Hall fielded calls from some who expressed an interest in renovating the mansion at 107 E. D St. As a result, it was removed from a list of 20 vacant structures being prepared for demolition.
“We are probably not going to tear that down,” City Clerk Jenny Meyer said earlier this month. “We may go out for an RFP (request for proposals).”
The city plans to proceed with bid requests for demolition of the other 19 structures, mostly old homes, by December. But Director of Health, Housing and Building Scott Tyler said many local companies have backlogs, so it’s unclear when the work will be completed.
The city has torn down 67 homes and other buildings in the past 10 years, according to records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Alderman Raffi Ovian has been pushing for several dilapidated homes in Ward 4 to be demolished for years. He argues that they pose safety risks and create eyesores in neighborhoods.
“This has gone on way too long, and I’m getting push-back from the neighbors who live there,” Ovian said. “You have these vacant homes that you know cannot be repaired. They want to know when they’re going to come down. I try to explain it to them the best I can without getting outraged.
“The problem is getting legal title to them. Going through the court system is a monumental task. It’s frustrating for Scott, it’s frustrating for me and it’s frustrating for Mr. Cueto, our attorney who handles it.”
Beyond structures the city already has acquired, its attorney, Garrett Hoerner, is handling another 15 court cases involving property foreclosure or demolition, according to a legal report presented at the Belleville City Council meeting on Monday night.
The 19 structures being prepared for demolition include one trailer and one outbuilding.
The remaining 17 are mostly modest, working-class homes, according to Belleville historian Bob Brunkow. Some were built before the Civil War. Others date from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s.
The two-story frame home at 218 N. 11th St. served as the residence of Martin Schnipper, St. Clair County sheriff during Prohibition. It was built around 1875 and once housed his father’s saloon.
The circa 1870 brick duplex at 326-324 N. First St. was owned by Burkhardt Krug, who immigrated from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Germany, served in the American Civil War, moved to Belleville to become a cooper (barrel-maker) and raised sons who continued the trade.
“Four of the homes are listed in the National Register of Historic Places Town of West Belleville Historic District as contributing to the historic character of the district,” Brunkow said.
“Eight of the homes are German American folk houses, sometimes called German street houses. The massing of these homes gives Belleville a very distinctive appearance, which visitors to town frequently note. They are town resources that are disappearing, taking with them our understanding of how this town came to be.”
Brunkow describes the small brick houses as “neoclassical or Greek-revival style with symmetrical (mirror-image) front facades and little ornamentation except for the cornices at the top of the front wall.”
German American folk houses were built close to the street with small or non-existent front yards that left more room for gardens and livestock in back. The city tore down half a dozen of them in 2020 and 2021, according to Larry Betz, president of Belleville Historical Society.
But demolitions of historic structures aren’t limited to city property. Private owners can make their own decisions without public input, unless taxpayer dollars are involved.
This fall, the City Council voted to give $20,000 in tax-increment-financing funds to Denny Tribout to tear down two of his buildings, described as “derelict” in a development agreement. He wants to expand parking for his business, BelleVegas Bingo on South Illinois Street.
One of the buildings is a 1937 storefront that housed the old Schlesinger’s grocery store, Raetz Bakery and other businesses. It’s distinguished by its textured brick and yellow tiles.
“When it’s all said and done, I think (the plan) would give us 106 parking spots,” Tribout said in September.
Steady growth in 1800s
Belleville was named and established as the St. Clair County seat in 1814 and incorporated as a city in 1850. The large number and often-distinct style of its historic structures result not only from its age, but also its size in the early days and German influences.
U.S. Census Bureau figures show that the city’s population went from 2,941 in 1850 to 10,683 in 1870 to 15,367 in 1890. It was much larger than the older settlement of Edwardsville to the north.
Tensions between historic preservationists and Belleville officials go back to at least 1972, when the massive Greek Revival-style St. Clair County Courthouse was torn down after 111 years to make way for a modern L-shaped structure of concrete and glass.
The demolition followed a nasty political fight. One of the opposition leaders was the late James Young, who coincidentally lived at 107 E. D St. with his family in the 1970s and ‘80s.
“He was standing there when the wrecking ball hit the building,” said his ex-wife, Phyllis Young, 94, of Belleville. “It still gives me chills thinking about it. That building was gorgeous. It overpowered everything around it.”
Since that time, debates over historic structures have continued.
The historical society formed in 2010 to help preserve the city’s heritage. Members fought to save Belleville Turner Hall, a 1924 art deco and Gothic brick building on First Street. A private company recently renovated it.
Preservationists lost their battle over the Security Abstract and Title Co. storefront, built in 1929 with a terracotta facade. It was demolished in 2016 to make way for additional parking behind City Hall.
The historical society has acquired and renovated several buildings, including an 1892 bar that’s now being converted into the Historic Garfield Street Saloon museum. But it can only save a fraction of Belleville’s architectural treasures, according to Betz, the president.
“We don’t have the money,” he said. “That’s really it in a nutshell.”
Betz would like to see the city develop a landmarks ordinance similar to those in other communities that could help protect historically and architecturally significant buildings.
Serious water damage
The city of Belleville also has a Historic Preservation Commission, but its role is largely limited to enforcement of rules that property owners must follow when making exterior changes to structures in three downtown historic districts.
The East D Street mansion is in Hexenbuckel Historic District.
The commission signed off on demolition plans earlier this year after Chairman Jack LeChien inspected it and saw multiple problems, including three large holes in the roof that have allowed rain and snow melt to saturate the interior and destabilize upper levels.
“Water does more damage to buildings than fire or termites,” he said.
LeChien also is co-chairman of the Gustave Koerner House Committee, which is renovating the political leader’s Mascoutah Avenue home, built in 1849. The committee has spent $230,000 on exterior work alone.
Because renovation is so expensive, LeChien doubts that it’s financially feasible to save the East D Street mansion.
“I’m not for demolishing old buildings, but I am a realist in the sense that everything comes down at some point to money,” he said. “The problem that all preservationists face is, ‘How do you pay for this?’
“Sadly, there are a lot of irresponsible owners who just let things go. The young couple that bought (the mansion), if they knew they were getting into financial trouble or weren’t able to meet the commitment they made for fixing the property, why not put a for-sale sign in the yard?”
Tyler, the housing director, echoed LeChien’s sentiments about the poor condition of 107 E. D St.
3 years to catch up
Each year, the city of Belleville buys commercial and residential buildings that have been forfeited to St. Clair County due to unpaid property taxes by bidding on them at auction.
The cost is often $795, which is the minimum $745 bid plus a $50 recording fee, according to Whitney Strohmeyer, president of Edwardsville-based Joseph E. Meyer & Associates, the county’s delinquent tax agent.
“Most of the properties we sell at auction are pretty rough,” he said.
LeChien said many vacant or neglected structures are beyond repair by the time the city acquires them because Illinois law gives property owners three years to catch up on taxes before forfeiture. He would like to see officials find a way to intervene earlier.
For city-owned buildings that are salvageable, Mayor Patty Gregory has established an Infill Program through which Tyler invites developers and investors to inspect them and submit proposals.
In some cases, the city goes to court to obtain deeds to dilapidated buildings if officials feel they’re safety risks and need to be demolished quickly.
“A lot of times, there will be a fire and there’s a wall that could collapse at any time onto a neighbor’s home,” Tyler said. “So we try to get (emergency acquisitions) through the court system as fast as possible.”
Tyler and his staff sometimes visit condemned homes, only to find homeless people living in them. The East D Street mansion is filled with trash left by squatters next to marble fireplaces and pocket doors.
The city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars tearing down homes and other buildings in the past 10 years.
“The cost is all dependent upon asbestos removal and size,” said Meyer, the city clerk. “Some properties are just houses. Some properties have basements. Some properties have garages. You can probably estimate anywhere from $9,000 to $20,000 (for each demolition).”
‘Slum' landlord problem
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 62% of housing units in Belleville are owner-occupied. That means more than a third are owned by people who live elsewhere.
Ovian, the Ward 4 alderman, said city officials often have trouble determining the identity of out-of-state owners who form limited liability companies to buy older homes and rent them out through local managers or let them sit vacant and deteriorate.
Ovian ran for City Council in 2015 largely on a platform of improving housing and eliminating “slum” landlords.
“Most of the time, the people who buy these homes do very little, other than to get them approved so somebody can move in and they can get rent,” he said. “That’s what they’re concerned about, as opposed to making sure they’re well-maintained and have the right people living in them who won’t tear them up.”
LeChien is encouraged by the fact that several families have moved to Belleville in recent years specifically because of opportunities to live in historic districts and experience the “adventure” of renovation.
The “upside-down” post-COVID housing market also is a factor, according to Tyler. It has prompted buyers with limited budgets to consider lower-priced older properties they would have once rejected.
LeChien has found that historic renovations are most successful when people plan to live in homes instead of trying to “flip” them and turn a profit and when the owners are handy with tools.
“Unless you’re skilled enough to do some of the work yourself, it eliminates most investors because if you have to pay somebody to do what’s necessary, 95% of the time, it’s not going to work out,” he said.
In some cases, LeChien has seen divorce, death, job loss, medical problems and other life challenges disrupt the renovation plans of “well-intentioned” buyers. He just wishes they would find new owners instead of abandoning properties.
Commercial success stories
Historic commercial structures are often more expensive to renovate than homes, but Belleville has its share of success stories. Two of the largest projects are on or near the downtown square.
The old Belleville Turner Hall at 15 N. First St. was part of a German-American association of fitness centers when it opened in 1924 and later served as Belleville YMCA. It landed on the Landmark Illinois “endangered” list in 2011 after being vacated in 2006.
The building’s renovation in the mid-2010s wouldn’t have been possible without help from former Mayor Mark Eckert and City Council members, according to owner Kurt Artinger.
They sold it to him for $1 and provided $300,000 in tax-increment-financing funds for asbestos removal and changes required for accessibility. In exchange, Artinger agreed to keep it for at least 12 years.
“It still ended up costing the city less to help me with the renovation than it was going to cost to tear it down,” he said.
Today, the building serves as headquarters for Artinger’s software company, Artigem, and provides office space for other businesses. He characterizes the roughly $2 million investment as reasonable.
“The building is 28,000 square feet, give or take,” Artinger said. “It’s huge. So the cost per square foot on the renovation ended up being $65. It was much cheaper than building new.
“I spent a lot of time (at the YMCA) when I was growing up. My kids had birthday parties there. I taught my daughter how to swim there, and my son. So I just had a lot of emotional attachment to it.”
The former Hotel Belleville, built in 1931, became a senior housing complex called Lofts on the Square in September 2021 after Southwestern Illinois Development Authority and Bywater Development Group completed a $14.2 million renovation using affordable-housing credits and government loans.
Getting the six-story brick structure at 16 S. Illinois St. on the National Register of Historic Places was considered key to the effort.
“It’s awesome,” Millstadt resident Shonda Butcher said of the building last year, when her father, Robert Butcher, moved into his apartment. “It’s like stepping back in time. It just has this energy about it.”
Teri Maddozis a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat (or other outlet), a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.