Work in the basement involved pouring a concrete base for a block wall that is used to provide support for a new wooden beam running beneath the floor of the second room on the first floor. At the same time, repairs were made to the floor of the first floor front parlor because two of the wood floor joists had rotted and dropped four inches.
The floor was removed and new concrete support piers were poured to carry the weight of the joists. While the floor was opened, new electric wiring and heating ducts were installed because of the narrow crawl space opening.
The 1849 stone foundation was laid above the frost line which caused minor movement over the years and cracking of interior walls. The situation was aggravated by removal of dirt from the basement to install a boiler and earth that was removed when a cistern was dug near the foundation. The combination of both factors caused large cracks on the surface of interior walls. The foundation was excavated and concrete pads were poured beneath the frost line to prevent further heaving. Metal rods were then augured into the earth and bolted to the concrete pads to provide additional support.
Opening the floor allowed installation of new heating ducts and wiring in the front parlor since the narrow crawlspace beneath the floor would have made installation difficult. A sand box beneath stones in front of the fireplace served as a deterrent to fire if embers popped from the fireplace. A well in the fourth room on the first floor, the kitchen, was filled in after floor boards were removed.
Five wood windows on the front façade were replaced due to severe deterioration of wood muntins. Five sets of Douglas Fir shutters for those windows were built by St. Louis Sash. In addition to the front parlor floor work and basement beam installation, Stan Erlinger, our devoted carpenter and contractor, attached period hardware and installed the shutters. Stan also repaired the front and rear gutters and replaced rotted cornice brackets.
During the remedial work some interesting house design features were uncovered. The three shuttered windows on the left front side were found to be false windows when the shutters were removed to reveal exterior brick. Our guess is the false windows were placed to create a sense of symmetry with the other windows on the first and second floors. A chimney at the right front roofline is also false, because there is no fireplace on that side of the building, and is there apparently to provide visual balance with chimneys on the left roofline. When the foundation was excavated on the right side to repair the masonry joints of the stone, a black line extending from the front to the rear of the wall was uncovered. This char line indicates debris had been deposited from the 1854 fire that substantially destroyed the Koerner home. Koerner’s memoirs recorded the east and west walls collapsed after the wood floors burned. Another discovery was in the doorway from the first floor second room, the family parlor, into the dining room. When wood trim around the door was removed, it was found it originally had been a solid wall, perhaps to serve as a firewall between the kitchen and parlor areas. This would mean family and servants had to use an exterior door at the end of the front hall to exit the parlor rooms, go outside on the side porch, and again enter the building via an exterior dining room door. Our conjecture is the door opening between family parlor and dining room was cut in at a later date. An enclosed first floor porch was also added to protect the family from the weather while passing between the family parlor and dining room. The fireplace in the family parlor, second room on the first floor, was bricked shut when the new owner in the early 1900’s installed a boiler for radiator hear. The bricks provided a chimney for the boiler.
The Koerner family had servants over the years. The servant bedrooms were placed at the rear of the building on the first and second floors. Windows on the right side of the servant bedrooms were originally doors onto the porch. The doors were half-filled with brick to create the windows. Foundation excavation at the right side kitchen door discovered a brick patio that had been covered with dirt and grass. The bricks would have provided a work area for Sophie Koerner’s large flower garden and a gathering area on the shady east side of the building.
Also on the east side was a four foot by thirteen foot second floor bedroom porch, embellished with ornate cast iron railing and brackets. The railing had disappeared by the time of an 1890’s photograph with a view of the left side. We do not know what happened to the railing.
A brick pathway off the right rear porch would indicate the location of a privy near the rear lot line.
Masonry pointing repairs were performed on the soft mortar joints of the chimneys where moisture caused deterioration. The building had been coated with lead paint over the years. A lead-certified painting contractor was hired to scrape loose paint from brick and wood components. A new coat of 1870’s era colors was applied. The color scheme of gray tan on brick, yellow on windows and window frames, green shutters and brown cornice was based on paint analysis provided in the Historic Structure Report prepared by the firm of Fever River Associates of Springfield, Illinois. Contractors used motorized lifts for the masonry and painting jobs.
New electrical wiring, plumbing, and heating and cooling is a part of the remedial work program. Two new 200 amp electric panels were installed in the basement. Overhead wiring and four apartment breaker boxes were removed from the left side of the home to improve the visual appearance. The electric feed was buried and a new masthead was installed. Ameren provided a $1,500 grant to help defray the cost of the underground feed.
The Koerner House Committee thanks the many volunteers who have donated hours to removing the changes made in 1985 when the home was remodeled into four apartments, two up and two down. Kitchen and bath appliances, carpeting and drywall were removed in dump trucks to reveal the original walls and floors of the house. Pictured are members of the 126th Air Refueling Wing at Scott Air Force Base, The Belleville East High School German class volunteers organized by their teacher Andy Gaa, and church group members who stepped forward on a Belleville Community Betterment Day.
Dr. Amie Taylor of Ohio and her sister Edwina Brooks visited Koerner house to see where their ancestor worked as Gustave and Sophie Koerner’s chef. Bartlett Freeman, a descendant of a family that settled at Turkey Hill in 1818, is Edwina and Amie’s relative. Bartlett was a well known chef who also prepared meals for Belleville area militia when they conducted exercises. Their ancestor, Richmond Freeman, established an African School at Turkey Hill, perhaps the first such school in St. Clair County’s history. Another ancestor, Maggie Freeman, was the first African American female principal of a school in East St. Louis School District 189. She and another educator were honored by the naming of a school, Lilly Freeman School, in East St. Louis.
Several Koerner and Engelmann family descendants have visited Koerner House over the years, including the Koerner Rombauer family of California when we celebrated Gustave Koerner’s 200th birthday, November 9, 2009. A dinner party was held with vignettes of Gustave and Sophie Koerner’s contributions. Sophie was a leader in childhood education when she spearheaded creation of Belleville’s first kindergarten school.
Ethan Becker, a descendant of Irma Rombauer who wrote “The Joy of Cooking,” also visited Koerner House. Suzi Wizowaty toured the Koerner House and visited the family burial plot at Walnut Hill Cemetery.
For several years the Gustave Koerner House Committee has cooperated with other Belleville museums to have an Open House day in June. Hecker Post 443 Sons of Union Veterans creates a Civil War era scene with their living history demonstrations. Here the group camped at the rear of Koerner House at an Open House day.
Volunteers performed a street play written by Jane Schneider in which they discussed current issues of the 1860’s- lack of progress on construction of the new courthouse on the public square and the need for a road
connecting Red Bud, Illinois to Belleville.
August 25, 2018 historical societies and historic sites in St. Clair County observed the 200th anniversary of the state’s founding with a daylong program at the Cavins Center, OFallon. Allan Elfrink of the Koerner House Committee answered questions from those stopping by to discuss Koerner’s place in history. Other historical societies provided displays about their communities.
In mid October 2018 five retired volunteers from IBEW Local 309 installed wiring on the first floor of Koerner House. From left to right, they are Brad Mayes, Bill Hagene, Scott Nicholsen, Dan Sodam and Dave Rakers. New lighting was installed in the basement, as viewed from the top of the steps, motion-triggered front hall lighting, pictured, and, not shown, over the front door entrance and outlets in the second room on the first floor. Thanks to our volunteers for their labor which included opening the plaster ceiling and cutting through brick to install wiring. They are cordially welcomed into the “I eat dust for Gus” fraternity. Thanks again, men.
Our friend Tom Bell, who worked with the electricians on the lighting floor plan, installed exterior lighting to accent Koerner House. Thanks to Tom, another member of the “I eat dust for Gus” fraternity.