Belleville woman envisions city becoming tourist destination
Margaret Meyer never met Charles King, but he’s had a huge effect on her life.
He designed the Signal Hill home where she’s lived for 43 years. More importantly, he helped her find a new passion for mid-century modern architecture when she was recovering from her husband’s death.
“Charles King was named one of the Top 100 architects in America (by Architectural Digest),” she said. “He won a lot of awards. He left a legacy in this community, and it just gives me pleasure to do the research and learn about it.”
She’s also managing Aunt Vi’s Apartment, an attached ’50s-themed studio that’s available for rent through Airbnb.
Finally, Margaret is a cheerleader for the idea of making Belleville a tourism destination for a growing number of modern architecture enthusiasts across the country. She recently returned from Modernism Week in Palm Springs, California.
“This is a nationwide trend,” she said. “Mid-century modern furniture is hot in the resale market, and people are looking to buy mid-century modern homes. It’s a big deal.”
Margaret’s efforts have impressed friend and neighbor Barbara Taylor, president of St. Clair County Greenspace Foundation. (Margaret is secretary-treasurer.)
Our mission statement is to preserve the history of Belleville, including its architecture. We don’t have to limit ourselves to buildings that were built before 1900.
Larry King on Belleville Historical Society mission
Barbara sees the Belleville museum as the possible start of a local movement that could someday be on par with Art on the Square.
“This is a real asset,” she said. “It’s bringing history and architecture and education and culture to our community.”
Putting Belleville on the architecture map
Another strong ally is Larry Betz, historical society president and architecture buff. He was instrumental in creating a King retrospective exhibit in 2012.
More recently, Larry worked to ease skepticism among his own members about getting into the “modern” museum business.
“Our mission statement is to preserve the history of Belleville, including its architecture,” he said. “We don’t have to limit ourselves to buildings that were built before 1900.
“(Mid-century modern) is a phase of history that’s very significant to the development of Belleville. Our city hall is a Charles King design.”
The style generally dates from the 1930s through the 1960s. It’s characterized by “clean lines, organic and streamlined forms and lack of embellishment,” according to Webster’s dictionary.
This is a nationwide trend. Mid-century modern furniture is hot in the resale market, and people are looking to buy mid-century modern homes. It’s a big deal.
Margaret Meyer on interest in modern architecture
King designed about 50 homes and businesses in Belleville while practicing in the city from 1947 to 1961, as well as structures in other states.
Margaret and Larry can envision a regional architecture tour, including the Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. The campus, which opened in 1965, has many mid-century modern features.
“People come to St. Louis just to see the (Gateway Arch),” Margaret said. “What is the Arch? A mid-century sculpture.”
Home built for German immigrants
Margaret’s gray redwood home was commissioned by German immigrants Ralph and Helen Contrael in the early 1950s, when Ralph was attending Washington University. He later became a designer and continued a friendship with King.
The home won a silver medal for residential design from the American Institute of Architects.
“When King died (in 1993), a picture of this house was in his obituary — this one and the Briar Hill house he designed for his own family,” Margaret said. “When I saw that, I knew I lived in a special house.”
She and her husband, Robert, bought the home in 1974. The real-estate agent didn’t mention the architect, but Robert, an engineer, recognized King’s work.
The couple were impressed by the sunken living room, which has floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a wooded brick patio, and a striking fireplace with a wraparound opening and metal-mesh curtain.
“Every King house seems to have a fireplace, and there are no two alike,” Margaret said. “They come in every configuration.”
The Meyers filled the home with ’50s and ’60s furniture and hung the original blueprints in the foyer.
The front exterior is plain, except for a hidden entrance with skylights and terraced planters. The red double door has vertical wooden strips flanking a massive iron medallion with ring handles.
“If people come to my house, they will remember the door more than anything else,” Margaret said.
Finding a new path after heartache
Margaret was trained as a social worker, but she left that career to help Robert with his business. She felt like a “lost soul” when he died of cancer in 2010.
A turning point came two years later, when Margaret joined the Ten Toe Express walking program. She toured downtown Belleville with historian Bob Brunkow and, during a city hall stop, mentioned that she lived in a King home.
It wasn’t long before Larry was recruiting Margaret to help with the King retrospective, which she found fascinating. The exhibit opened at Lindenwood University.
“That was the first time since Robert died that I got dressed for an event and I actually wanted to go to it,” she said. “I had experienced this wonderful immersion in the whole King thing. I was into it.”
Margaret hasn’t slowed down since.
In recent months, she’s contributed to a King book that’s part of an architectural series funded by the Gertrude and William A. Bernoudy Foundation. It’s due out in October.
Margaret also plans ’50s-themed fundraisers for the Midcentury Modern Architecture Museum, often showing up in vintage clothing.
“It’s been a blessing for her because she lost her husband,” Barbara said. “She just took the reigns and went. She’s perfect for the job. She works so hard.”
Thousands attend Modernism Week
Margaret traveled to Palm Springs for Modernism Week in February. Nearly 100,000 people from all over the world attended at least part of the 10-day event.
Activities ranged from walking and bus tours to movies and lectures.
“I loved it,” Margaret said. “It validated for me that what the Belleville Historical Society is doing is the right thing to do.”
She toured eight mid-century modern homes, mostly in the Old Las Palmas neighborhood, established in the 1920s by architect Alvah Hicks and popular with celebrities.
Her favorite stop was Frey House II, where architect Albert Frey lived from 1963 until his death in 1998. It’s high in the mountains with glass walls and expansive views. A large boulder serves as a room divider.
Margaret recognized many of King’s design features in Palm Springs, although Californians have more swimming pools. She can imagine Belleville hosting a national mid-century modern conference with a Midwestern twist.
“I truly think that we’re onto something here,” she said. “At (the museum’s) Christmas party, there were a lot of people — including young people — who came in vintage clothes. It’s very popular.”
The museum building, also known as the Blazier House, is at 8501 W. Main St. It was built as a private residence but later used as a funeral home and church.
The historical society expects renovations to cost $150,000.
“We’ve raised about $60,000 or $65,000, and we’ve got an amazing amount of work done,” Larry said. “So if we could raise the money, I would think we could get it open by late fall.”
At a glance
- What: ’50s-themed Rock ‘n’ Roll Party fundraiser
- Where: Future home of Midcentury Modern Architecture Museum, 8501 W. Main St. in Belleville
- When: 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday
- Admission: $15 in advance at Artiste de Fleurs, Dill’s Floral Haven, Eckert’s Country Store, Fletcher’s Kitchen & Tap or Peace by Piece Boutique; $20 at the door
- Activities: Live piano first half hour, then D.J. spinning records; food and beverages, 50/50 raffle, silent auction, costume contest
- Information: Visit www.bellevillehistoricalsociety.org or call 618-531-7753 or 618-920-3261