City of Belleville stepping up efforts to restore anti-slavery activist Koerner’s home
This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat.
A volunteer committee has spent more than 20 years chipping away at a list of goals for the Gustave Koerner House, one of the most historically significant buildings in the city of Belleville.
They got it placed on the National Register of Historic Places. They raised more than $300,000 to stabilize the foundation, tuck-point the brick, replace the roof, install windows and shutters, rebuild chimneys and paint the exterior. They paid for a site study that laid the groundwork for architects and contractors.
But progress on the massive restoration project has been slow and challenging. Committee co-chairs Jack LeChien and Molly McKenzie say they’ve come to accept that raffles, concerts, silent auctions and trivia nights can’t yield the kind of money needed to finish the job.
As a result, they’ve asked the city, which owns the 1854 landmark, to take more responsibility for funding and fundraising. It will be a “partnership,” according to LeChein.
“Molly McKenzie and I have been there since the beginning, and we fancy ourselves as consultants at this point,” he said. “We know the history of the building, and we know where it needs to go, and if the city is able to get us some grants, then full steam ahead.”
Koerner was a German immigrant, attorney, judge, politician and journalist. He became close friends with Abraham Lincoln and worked for his presidential administration in the 1860s.
The city bought Koerner’s former two-story brick home at 200 Abend St. in 2000. Local historians dreamed of restoring it to its 1870s appearance and operating it as a museum and education center.
“The purpose was to interpret Koerner’s life and career and his significant role in the period leading up to the Civil War,” LeChien said. “He was one of the few people who devoted his time to doing away with slavery. He found it to be oppressive and wrong.”
Due to the rising cost of labor and materials, LeChien and McKenzie think the restoration will require another $500,000, which was the original estimate for the entire project two decades ago. And that doesn’t count a porch replacement already in the works.
The additional funds would be spent on the interior, including installation of flooring and wall coverings, a kitchen and bathroom, electricity, plumbing, heating and air conditioning.
“I think people will find (the $500,000 figure) shocking because they haven’t priced rehab projects lately,” McKenzie said. “And they think its equatable to their own home renovations, which it’s not.”
McKenzie noted that historic restorations of public buildings are held to higher standards on everything from archaeological surveys to abatement of asbestos and lead paint. Not to mention the cost of period-accurate reproduction materials and fixtures.
The city’s increased involvement in the Koerner home actually began two years ago, when Eric Schauster, assistant director of economic development, planning and zoning, applied for a grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
Illinois Sen. Christopher Belt (D-Swansea), Illinois Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Swansea) and Illinois Rep. LaToya Greenwood (D-East St. Louis) took a tour of the home in March 2021.
Six months later, Belt announced that $150,000 was being allocated to remove and rebuild the side porch, which is considered structurally unsound.
“We just got the grant agreement a couple of weeks ago, fully signed by the city and the state,” Schauster said earlier this month. “We we have a contract with an architect (Rob Anderson) who has started the design work.”
The design must be approved by the Illinois Historic Preservation Division of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources before the project goes out for bids on construction.
Changing donor base
The Gustave Koerner House Restoration Committee’s need for more help from the city had become apparent in recent years, McKenzie said, pointing to declines in the project’s private donor base.
“We need somebody who can write grants for us, and it is a city owned property,” she said.
Committee members met this spring with Mayor Patty Gregory, who agreed to allow Schauster to step up efforts to obtain and manage grants for the Koerner home, according to LeChien.
Schauster had looked into grant availability in the early 2000s, but he didn’t find much, partly because the home wasn’t on the National Register of Historic Places yet. Also, the site study, officially known as a Historic Structures Report, hadn’t been completed.
Schauster now is working with LeChien and McKenzie to create a “master plan” for the restoration.
“There’s funding out there for a project like this,” he said. “But having those ideas on paper and having that plan in one place ... That’s going to help tremendously in acquiring more funding to finish the project.”
Gustave Koerner was a law-school graduate in 1833, when he fled to the United States from Germany after being part of a failed attempt to overthrow his “oppressive” hometown government, according to a historical booklet published by the committee.
Koerner married fellow immigrant Sophie Englemann in 1836. He later bought 2 acres of land off Shawneetown Road, now known as Mascoutah Avenue, which connects with Abend and Lincoln streets in downtown Belleville.
Their first Greek Revival-style home on the property, built in 1849, was largely destroyed by fire.
“Koerner said there were presses, meaning newspapers, that he had saved as part of his collection,” LeChien said. “That’s what caught on fire (probably lit by chimney embers).”
The couple rebuilt the home in 1854 and added Italianate details in the 1870s. The neighborhood became known as Koerner’s Addition after they subdivided the land into residential and commercial lots.
The couple had five children, including two sons who died of illnesses as teenagers. Koerner practiced law and served as an Illinois state representative, supreme court justice and lieutenant governor.
“If you lived in Belleville in the 1800s, you knew who Gustave Koerner was,” McKenzie said.
Koerner switched from the Democratic Party to the newly formed Republican Party in the 1850s. Lincoln, then a Springfield attorney, left the Whig Party to join the Republicans.
Koerner helped develop the party’s anti-slavery platform and built support for Lincoln’s presidential campaign, particularly among German-speaking residents of Southern Illinois.
President Lincoln made Koerner a colonel to assist Civil War General John C. Fremont’s staff in Missouri and later named him U.S. minister to Spain, where he was instrumental in that country’s decision not to ally with the Confederates, according to McKenzie.
Koerner served as a pallbearer at Lincoln’s funeral after his 1865 assassination. In his memoirs, he called Lincoln “the justest man I ever knew” and praised his leadership during the war.
“It required just such a complex and anomalous character,” Koerner wrote. “His success in saving the Union without overstepping the constitution to a fatal extent has made him the idol of the people.”
Koerner owned the home on Abend Street until his death in 1896. It was later converted into two apartments then four apartments.
The city bought the property in 2000 for $125,000, thanks to a $300,000 state appropriation for Belleville historical preservation obtained through former Illinois Rep. Tom Holbrook, who now serves as St. Clair County clerk. Money also went to the Labor & Industry Museum.
“(Koerner is) the man who put Belleville on the map,” Holbrook said.
Over the years, the city paid for the home’s utilities and insurance, mowed the grass and installed a brick sidewalk, but officials largely left management and fundraising to the committee.
LeChien is a history buff who spent 17 years as a news reporter and talk-show host for WIBV-AM radio and 22 years as a Section 8 housing inspector for St. Clair County. He also served as Belleville Ward 7 alderman for five years.
McKenzie worked 34 years for the former Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. That included managing the Old Cahokia Courthouse and Nicholas Jarrot Mansion in Cahokia Heights. She’s a member of the city of Belleville’s Historic Preservation Commission.
Other residents have rounded out the committee by volunteering regularly or periodically, depending on needs.
“That committee has done a fabulous job,” Holbrook said. “They are so dedicated and professional. It’s not just a couple of neighbors getting together and saying, ‘We ought to do this.’ Everything’s being done correctly.
“The problem is, with any great ideas and great programs, there’s always a lack of funding, and there were some tight times for a lot of these preservation grants, but they’re coming back now.”
St. Clair County Historical Society members Barbara Kern and the late Fred Kern II, parents of former Mayor Mark Kern, were major donors to the Gustave Koerner House Restoration, according to LeChien. He called them the project’s “backbone” in its early days.
The Kern family also donated more than $25,000 in the late 2000s for the city’s purchase of an 1887 brick storefront and lot at 123-127 Mascoutah Ave. that St. Clair County had obtained through foreclosure.
The storefront, which stands across the Mascoutah-Abend-Lincoln intersection from the Koerner home, was essentially turned over to the committee.
“We had hoped that it could be a visitor center for the Koerner House but also for other area attractions, where people could pick up information and see a video on Koerner,” LeChien said.
However, that building needed major renovation as well. Two years ago, the committee relinquished control, determining it couldn’t handle both projects. The city asked for bids from developers in April 2022.
Kathy Mordini, owner of Avenue Realty Associates, is now in the process of buying the storefront. She plans to move her office upstairs and convert the lower level into an event space.
Like the Koerner home, the storefront is in Old Belleville Historic District, which has rules on exterior changes.
“We just got approval for our facade from the Historical Preservation Commission,” Mordini said earlier this month. “The design is going to be a good fit for that historic neighborhood.”