Restoring Koerner House to its former glory is painstaking job

News-DemocratOctober 26, 2013 

Slowly but surely the Gustave Koerner House Restoration Committee is returning the 1850s house to its former glory.

But it is a painstakingly, agonizingly slow job.

The Koerner House, located where Lincoln and Abend streets and Mascoutah Avenue all meet in Belleville, now has a gray-tan paint job with yellow windows and brown cornices, just like it would have had back in the 1870s when Gustave Koerner had mostly left public life and was practicing law in Belleville, said Jack LeChien, committee head.

Committee members know a lot about the specifics of the house because they commissioned a special investigation to determine as much about the house as they could, down to paint, wallpaper and door hardware.

They used that knowledge recently to restore the front door and entryway to the same state it was in when the Koerners lived there.

The restored door has a new faux finish and already has made an appearance in a scene in the local movie "Belleville" being shot around town.

The door is wooden but the faux finish involves painting on a grain and a glaze to make it look like a more expensive wood, maybe like walnut.

Lechien said the artist was Ted Mueller of Chester, who usually works in churches.

"He said it really was a pretty simple finish," LeChien said. "He suggested doing something more detailed and fancier."

The urge to get something better is always strong, but LeChien consulted with fellow committee member Molly McKenzie and they came down on the side of authenticity.

"We decided that what we would go with was what Koerner had wanted and paid for, the simpler design," LeChien said. "We're trying to make the house as authentic as possible."

Koerner, a German immigrant, was an early proponent of the Republican Party, an adviser to Abraham Lincoln and raised a division to fight in the Civil War.

He built the house in 1849 but it burned in 1854. He rebuilt it and he and his wife, Sophie, lived there until they died, Sophie in 1890 and Gustave in 1896.

Restoration work has made the house look a lot better from the outside, but it is a mess on the inside where restoration is just beginning. Floors have been shored up and the foundation repaired, but reversing the years of wear the house saw as apartments will take a while.

There also is the question of funding. The committee has held 19 fundraisers in 10 years, LeChien said. The money has gone into the house which the city of Belleville owns, as well as the building across the street which the committee plans to make into a visitor center. But these types of projects are incredibly expensive.

You can see more about the project on the Internet at gustavekoerner.org or visit the house's Facebook page.

And remember that painstakingly slow thing I mentioned. Even the new doorway still needs a little work.

The current door will be replaced eventually by another, more historically accurate door which was rescued from a similar period home last year. The replacement door also got the faux finish.

Have a column idea? Call Wally at 239-2506 or 800-642-3878; or email: wspiers@bnd.com

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