Metro-East News

Historians want to save Belleville building from demolition

The Security Abstract and Title Co. building located behind Belleville City Hall. The building was designed by Otto Rubach.
The Security Abstract and Title Co. building located behind Belleville City Hall. The building was designed by Otto Rubach. News-Democrat

Two of the most well-known architects to call Belleville home – Charles E. King and Otto Rubach – designed downtown buildings that stand side by side: King drew up plans for the Belleville City Hall in the late 1950s and about 30 years earlier, Rubach handled the former Security Abstract and Title Co. building.

But now preservationist are upset the city plans to tear down the old title building as part of renovations to make City Hall more accessible to disabled people. The demolition would occur after the city’s police department moves from the title building and goes to the Bank of Belleville building at 720 W. Main St. next spring.

The title building was constructed in 1929 just before the stock market crash that preceded the Great Depression.

“It’s one of kind for Belleville,” said Bob Brunkow, historian for the Belleville Historical Society.

Usually terra cotta is seen in Belleville as a trim around windows, doors and the tops of buildings, but the title building has much of its front wall constructed of terra cotta. It has two intricate designs of what appear to be leaves and possibly an acorn. Another design has the interwoven letters “S” “T” “C” and “O” at the top of the building to represent the name of the original business. Local historians, who described the terra cotta as baked clay, do not know why there isn’t an “A” for Abstract.

“That doesn’t need to be in the landfill,” said Larry Betz, president of the historical society. “I mean that just blows my mind.”

Mayor Mark Eckert said the title building has to be demolished so the city can comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The title building is directly west of City Hall. The demolition will allow the city to build disabled parking places and a wheelchair ramp.

“You’ll be able to walk right out of the car and come right into the building,” Eckert said.

“You have to make access from the rear. You can’t do it on the Washington Street side, you can’t do it on the Illinois Street side,” the mayor said. “You must do it from the parking lot backside, so therefore, that building must be removed.”

Betz would like the city to reconsider the City Hall plans and find a way to save the title building for another use. He suggested the city just remove the back end of the building, which appears to have been added onto the original structure. “They can renovate the inside however they want, modernize it, they can gut it if they want to,” Betz said.

Eckert said he expects to have the Lawrence Group of St. Louis, the architects for the project, meet with City Council members in mid-June to discuss the issues raised by Betz and Brunkow.

Security Abstract and Title Co. occupied the building at 10 W. Washington St. for about four decades until about 1970, according to city directories at the Belleville Public Library. In the 1970s and ’80s, Lawyers Title Insurance Corp. was based in the brick and terra cotta building. Lawyers Title sold the building to the city in December 1988, according to county records.

The demolition is part of an $18.5 million project to renovate City Hall, move the police department to a new headquarters and build an indoor parking garage for police cars. The city plans to issue bonds for the project and the bonds primarily will be paid out of the city’s TIF 3 fund.

The new police headquarters at 720 W. Main St. will have a forensic evidence lab, a dispatch center, a sally port and a 60-person community classroom. The Bank of Belleville is constructing a new building at 215 S. Illinois St. and is expected to move to its new home this summer.

Along with concerns about the demolition of the title building, members of the Belleville Historical Society are apprehensive about the changes to the City Hall designed by King.

“During a recent tour of the architectural treasures of Belleville, a representative from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency proclaimed that the lobby and the council chambers of this building are the two best and purest examples of mid-century modern architecture in a civic building in the Midwest,” Betz said to aldermen during a recent City Council meeting.

“As you contemplate the remodeling of this building after the police department has moved out, I ask that you strongly consider any changes that are made be done in the spirit of Charles King and his design concepts,” Betz told city leaders.

Betz noted that although the title building and City Hall were built only 30 years apart, “they represent very contrasting designs and display some of the best works of their respective periods.”

Eckert said the City Hall renovation plans include adding an exit to the council chambers. In the lobby, two of the three sets of revolving doors will be removed. The revolving doors on the Washington Street side will remain.

He added that he thinks the renovation would not upset King.

“I think we’re going to do it very tastefully,” Eckert said.

Contact reporter Mike Koziatek at mkoziatek@bnd.com or 618-239-2502. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeKoziatekBND.

About the architects

Otto Rubach was born in Belleville and raised on East Washington Street. He designed the Belleville Public Library; several School District 118 buildings; the 1913 Belleville National Bank, which is now home of the Bridgeman Insurance Agency; the 1929 Security Abstract and Title Co. building, which is next to City Hall; and at least 50 homes. Rubach worked as an architect in Belleville from the 1890s to the late 1940s. He died in 1959.

Charles King was born in Kentucky but his first wife, Audrey Marsh King, was from Belleville. He lived here from 1947 to 1963. The Kings divorced in 1961. He designed over 60 buildings and homes in the area, including Belleville City Hall. In 1991, he was named one of the country’s Top 100 architects by Architectural Digest magazine. He died in 1993.

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