Answer Man: Does 1857 picture of Public Square exist?

News-DemocratJune 3, 2014 

A drawing shows how the Public Square looked in the 1850s.

PROVIDED/BND

I found an article from page 4 of the Nov. 25, 1911, Belleville News-Democrat that stated: "Probate Judge Frank Perrin of the Historical Society has just received from Mrs. Mary J. Paro of this city a picture showing the Public Square in this city about the year 1857. The picture is about six inches long by two inches wide and is in a very good state of preservation." Does this picture still exist and where can we see a copy of it? -- R. Tissier, of Belleville

Thanks to the always superb historical detective work of Will Shannon, you may be able to see this fascinating piece of Belleville history by visiting the St. Clair Historical Society's Victorian Home Museum.

I have to say "may" because Shannon, the society's curator, can't be certain what the newspaper or Perrin meant exactly by "picture." I suppose that sounds odd today. Even before the current selfie rage, photographs have been around so long that it's hard for anyone alive to imagine a world without them.

But an actual picture of the Public Square way back in 1857 would have been "rare indeed," Shannon said. While it's perhaps possible, Shannon has a more likely theory and it involves an 1859 lithograph that hangs in his museum library.

The lithograph -- entitled Belleville, Ills. -- was drawn by an N. Roesler and printed by A.M. McLean, of 15 Chestnut St. in St. Louis.

The central image depicts Belleville from the perspective of someone standing on Eimersberg -- or Eimer's Hill -- which today would be near Roosevelt School. This central image is surrounded by smaller images depicting houses of prominent residents and other city scenes.

Now here's where your question comes in: At 6 o'clock (if the lithograph were a clock face) is an image of the Public Square in almost the same dimensions as mentioned in the News-Democrat article.

"It is an interesting image because of the date," Shannon wrote me. "In 1859, the courthouse that would serve St. Clair County until 1972 was in the process of being built. The image shows the site being prepared for the building of the courthouse (along with the National Hotel and other prominent buildings of the day)."

In any case, I will be sending you a black-and-white copy of the scene, although I'd urge you to visit the museum at 701 E. Washington St. any weekday between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. to see the entire thing in living color. Better yet, see it during the gala street fair and house tour from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, when nine historic homes as well as the other nearby museums in "Old Belleville" will be open. (To tour the nine homes is $10 in advance, $12 at the door, with tickets now available at Dill's Floral Haven, Fletcher's, Eckert's Country Store, Circa Boutique, Local Lucy's and Miscellanea House.)

As to what happened to the original picture or drawing that Paro gave Perrin is unclear, Shannon said. Frank Perrin was one of the founding members of the Historical Association of St. Clair County and his cousin, J. Nick Perrin, is considered the founder. But back in 1911, the society collection was housed in "the museum room" at the courthouse.

As you might imagine, the collection outgrew the space. Eventually, L. Nick Perrin -- J. Nick Perrin's son -- convinced the county to turn over the early records to the state, so now the Perrin Collection is in the care of the Illinois State Archives in Springfield. However:

"These were mainly documentary sources and not images," Shannon said, "so we may never know what happened to the 'picture' given to Frank Perrin in 1911."

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Today's trivia

What street in London is probably most equivalent to Wall Street in New York City?

Answer to Tuesday's trivia: So which "Hill Street Blues" star earned an Emmy nomination in each of the show's seven seasons? Daniel J. Travanti, as the cool-under-fire Capt. Frank Furillo? The lovely Veronica Hamel as Joyce Davenport, his main squeeze? Bruce Weitz as the wild and unpredictable Detective Mick Belker? Nope, it was Betty Thomas as the tough Lucille Bates. (She won in 1985, too.) Born Betty Nienhauser in St. Louis, Thomas, now 66, went on to a successful directing career with "The Brady Bunch Movie, " "28 Days" and "Dr. Dolittle" among her credits.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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