Christina McCullough enjoyed growing up in Salem, Massachusetts, a town dating back to the 1600s, so when she and her husband, Chad, moved to Belleville five years ago, they were drawn to the idea of living in one of the city’s three historic districts.
But the former Virginia couple weren’t ready to commit. They didn’t know how long Christina McCullough would be working at Scott Air Force Base or which neighborhood was right for them. They rented a house in Old Belleville Historic District for a year, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The couple discovered that district residents have camaraderie and common bonds: They love 19th century architecture, proximity to downtown, brick streets and old-fashioned street lights. Most of their homes are in various stages of renovation or restoration. They share information, tips and war stories.
“We do have work to do in the house,” said Christina McCullough, 49, a military contractor who specializes in geospatial web design. “But I don’t really see it as a negative. It’s just something you have to do. I enjoy working on older homes.”
McCullough was sitting on the side porch of an 1874 two-story brick home on Abend Street that she and Chad bought four years ago and where they’re raising their two children, Adrianna, 13, and Shawn, 8.
“I love the fact that we can walk to (Tavern on Main), Charlie’s or Seven,” Christina McCullough said. “There’s a candy store downtown. I buy clothes at Circa. And I like the bike trails. I could ride my bike to work if I wanted to. We don’t even have to put our bikes in the car.”
Many metro-east cities have buildings or neighborhoods on the National Register of Historic Places, but only three — Belleville, Edwardsville and Lebanon — have regulated historic districts. Residents are legally required to maintain the historic character of their properties by following certain guidelines when doing exterior renovation or construction.
Historic districts in the metro-east
Old Belleville Historic District is southeast of downtown. The city’s other two historic districts are Oakland, north of downtown; and Hexenbuckel, northeast of downtown.
“There are about 350 properties in these three historic districts, and design review is required for anything that would change the exterior of the buildings that is in public view,” said Jack LeChien, a member of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, which conducts reviews. “If it can’t be seen from the street, design review is not required. Also, landscaping is exempt.”
Edwardsville also has three historic districts. The first to be designated was Leclaire, a former company town where industrialist N.O. Nelson operated his plumbing plant and emphasized quality of life. The second was St. Louis Street, where prominent residents built mansions in the late 1800s.
The last to be designated was Downtown Edwardsville Historic District and Brick Streets. It consists primarily of storefronts and other commercial buildings, so different standards apply with its design-review process.
Lebanon has one district, Lebanon Historic District, which also is commercial in nature. It runs along the main drag, St. Louis Street, which is lined with antique shops and restaurants.
If homeowners in residential historic districts in Belleville or Edwardsville make changes — whether building porches or garages, installing windows or doors — design guidelines can dictate the style and possibly the materials. Modern features such as swimming pools would have to be hidden by fences or trees.
“We’re trying to keep the historic integrity of the neighborhood, and most people are going to buy into that,” LeChien said. “They probably bought their house because they like historic homes in mature neighborhoods with tall trees.”
LeChien is a retired housing inspector who lives in Belleville’s Oakland district and manages the Gustave Koerner House, an 1850s home now under renovation on Abend. The Historic Preservation Commission chairwoman is Molly McKenzie, who formerly managed the Old Cahokia Courthouse and Nicholas Jarrot Mansion for the state of Illinois.
Civil War colonel built Abend home
The McCullough family’s home was built by Hugo A. Wangelin, a German immigrant who served in the 12th Missouri Infantry during the Civil War and rose to the rank of colonel. A battle wound led to amputation of his right arm, but he recovered and later fought in the Battle of Atlanta.
Wangelin and his wife, Bertha, settled in Belleville, and their descendants lived in the home at 314 Abend St. until the 1950s. Belleville historian Bob Brunkow describes it as a “German-American folk house.”
“I don’t like how it feels when you drive your car on (the brick street), but I like the way it looks,” Adrianna McCullough said of living in the historic neighborhood. “I feel like on other streets, it’s kind of boring. There aren’t many trees.”
Christina McCullough served on the Historic Preservation Commission until recently. She and Chad have become good friends with many neighbors, who chat in yards and sometimes host block parties.
An annual luminary walk in December was the brainchild of Keith Owens, who owns a nearly 7,000-square-foot brick home at 215 Abend. He also serves on the Historic Preservation Commission.
“Some people are scared of moving into an historic district because of all the restrictions, but it’s worth it in the end because of the sense of community,” Owens said. “Everyone on this street is in some stage of restoration. We’re all in this together. We’re all crazy.”
David Braswell, who operates the 1884 Corner George Inn Bed & Breakfast in Maeystown, doesn’t live in Old Belleville Historic District, but he has a vested interest in the neighborhood.
Braswell, 72, has renovated and rented five German street houses along East Garfield Street, where most homes were built in the 1800s. He has experienced the camaraderie among homeowners and noticed that Belleville visitors often drive through to get a sense of what the original city looked like, making it something of a tourist attraction.
“(Historic-district designations) keep the houses on the tax rolls,” Braswell said. “They don’t get torn down. Put a modern building in the middle of a row of historic homes, and you might as well forget it.”
METRO-EAST HISTORIC DISTRICTS
Old Belleville Historic District
Oakland Historic District
Hexenbuckel Historic District
Leclaire Historic District
St. Louis Street Historic District
Downtown Edwardsville Historic District and Brick Streets
Lebanon Historic District