A couple Saturday’s ago I went to my dad and stepmother’s wedding anniversary over at a brewery on West Main in Belleville. When my stepsister called to invite me, I didn’t take notes on where this brewery was and since it was on Main Street, I assumed it was downtown. So I drive to Belleville looking for this place and I can’t find it. Feeling frustrated, I finally texted my stepsister and found out I was nowhere near the place and it was a good distance away on the west side of town. Starting in downtown Belleville and heading west on Main, I pass all these older buildings. It isn’t like these buildings are new to me. I have known they were there. I’m aware that there’s a lot of old houses in the area that was in the shadow of the old Stag Brewery. Of course, I don’t really have time to explore because I have somewhere to be. I think to myself, “I should make it a point to bike around here one day”.
Then last Monday, my boyfriend and I went to this same place to try it out. I want to mentioned that when I was at my parent’s anniversary I wasn’t hungry and didn’t eat anything except for some cheesecake and had something to drink. On the way back we passed by all the same buildings I passed the prior Saturday and again I’m thinking to myself, “I should make it a point to bike around here one day”.
It wasn’t an ideal evening but this was the day I was going to bike around here. It was sunny, which is good, but it was pretty cool outside but that shouldn’t stop me as long as I dress appropriately. Plus I have gone riding on much colder days. I started in a parking lot just across the street from a restaurant that looked closed, The Red Onion. It had a brightly red and yellow paint cast iron storefront. From there I meandered several blocks south and several blocks north and ended up as far west as Lindenwood University (formerly Belleville West High School) and as far east as the Firestone on Main Street. I just wanted to be sure to cover as much ground as I could. The terrain was more flat to the north and west but more hilly to the east and south.
As I rode around the sights that interested me the most were the old German Street Houses, some ghost signs, and some mid-century signage and sights.
In the process of learning about the German Street Houses, I ended up learning a lot about this area. First of all this neighborhood is on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district. Second of all, it used to be it’s own town called West Belleville. It was a place that grew independently of Belleville. It had it’s own downtown which makes sense to this strip that looks like a downtown but isn’t connected to Belleville’s downtown. It was a town that was greatly influenced by the coal and brewery industries and German immigrants. The German roots gave the neighborhood a lot of it’s defining vernacular architecture. Some of it’s earliest buildings date back to the 1830s as the area was platted in 1833 but wasn’t incorporated until the 1850s. By the 1880s, the cash-strapped town of West Belleville became part of Belleville. However what interests me is the architectural style that is most prominent in the area and that is the German Street House or the German-American Folk House. There is a recorded over 300 of these types of houses in the area. Probably the most of it’s kind in Illinois.
The German Street House in this area is mostly brick, one and a half stories, symmetrical with a door in the center and flanked by windows, and a side gable roof. These were houses constructed with local materials and designed and built by local craftsmen that immigrated from Germany. Many are of a red brick with simple alternating tooth-like dentils along the cornice. Over time many have been altered with front decks if there was room but many are almost right on the street. The front door opens right onto the sidewalk. Some have awnings or have been painted, or have dormers. Some went through more extensive alterations such as adding another floor or a mansard type roof, and additions to the side or rear for more space. Each one has it’s own character and many look very well cared for though there were some in disrepair and/or were boarded up.
Riding though the neighborhood, I get the feeling of a old working class neighborhood with saloons on the corner, small houses that were close together and close to the street (which gives it a somewhat urban feel), remnants of railroads that include tracks and small depots, some light industry and commercial storefronts that are mixed amongst the houses. Coal would have been moved through, a large brewery was near and I’m sure was a force that loomed over the neighborhood. People lived and worked and played in the same neighborhood. This is a concept which is very different from today’s zoned districts where residential areas are separated from commercial and industrial areas.
There was one ghost sign near the intersection of West Main and 11th Street. Part of it looked like it had been covered at one point. From what Larry Betz, of the Belleville Historical Society, tells me on an Instagram post, the building that has the ghost sign was called Reichling’s Saloon. You can see the name above the EDLERS word. Also next door was Gaul’s Saloon. When I took this picture I was standing in a grassy area but that used to be a square with a public scale for weighing wagonloads of coal or whatever he wagons carried. There is also the Ebeling-Maurer House that sits in the grassy area. Today it sits back from the road quite a bit but it would have been right on the square. Plus at one time it had a storefront but later was replaced by a residential storefront. I would have never known about this if it wasn’t for some of my follower’s input.
Along West Main are some mid-century stylings too. On the corner of West Main and 10th St is Harter’s Hobby House. To me it actually looks like an older building that was altered in the 50s or 60s. On the 10th Street side are some breeze blocks and another storefront that was home to a business that sold art and craft supplies. There was even an old 1970s or 80s era sedan parked in front which gave me the impression of what it would have been like then. Further west was Brite Way Cleaners that occupies another old brick building but altered with a midcentury storefront. However, the thing I love the most is the large sign complete with neon lights, a big blue star on top, and angular diagonal shapes that tower over the building. I absolutely love these types of signs.
I love riding around and looking into some of the history and I love when I post pictures on Instagram and I have others fill me in or correct me on information about these places. Sometimes the bike is just an instrument for learning. It’s being able to observe, and contemplate places. I make my observations and sometimes I’m right and sometimes I’m wrong but I always come away knowing more than I did before.