What is the Gustave Koerner House?

The Gustave Koerner House in Belleville, Illinois, has both a proud and heartbreaking history.

Gustave Koerner, a former Lieutenant Governor of Illinois, first built his house in 1849. Originally an imposing Greek Revival structure, it had to be rebuilt in 1854 after a disastrous fire. We tend to forget how devastating even small fires could be before water to extinguish them became readily available. As Koerner himself wrote in his memoirs in 1909: “the smoke was stifling; but if we had had a few more buckets, we could have extinguished the fire.”

The House and the Man

The imposing structure, located at the main entrance to Belleville’s National Historic District, is valued, even now in its decrepitude, as an historic landmark. In its prime, it reflected well on its owner, who is remembered as a learned man of fine character, an intellectual and a statesman. While a student in Kentucky, he became acquainted with Mary Todd Lincoln. Later, Koerner became a Supreme Court Justice in Illinois before whom Abraham Lincoln practiced in the 1840s.

From 1853 to 1854, Koerner served as Lieutenant Governor of Illinois under Governor. Joel Matteson. Though  well-respected, Gustave Koerner was never seriously considered for the position of governor for two reasons: [1] he was a German immigrant and [2] he opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, believing that it was a means of extending slavery, a practice he strongly opposed, along with suing municipalities.

The Greek Revival style of architecture manifest in the Gustave Koerner House was a popular structural form at the time it was built, so common that it was referred to as the “National Style.” In many ways its style befitted that of its owner. Its strong foundations and substantial size were well-suited to a man of Koerner’s political and judicial stature; its simplicity and lack of elaborate adornment spoke of his humility and modesty. As testament to Gustave Koerner’s strength of character and fortitude, he began the project of rebuilding his beloved homestead nearly as soon as the flames of the great fire were extinguished. A lithograph created by a fine mid-19th Century artist named Schrader is a magnificent record of the house as it appeared circa 1868.

The Gustave Koerner House Is a Piece of Our History

Gustave Koerner lived in house for 47 years, during which time it served not only as his family home, but also as a site for social and political events. Sadly, after his death in 1896, the structure was badly neglected and vandalized for decades. In the 1920s it was converted into low-cost rental units and then became a rooming house for the elderly around 1970. In 1984, it was subdivided into individual rental units again. Though the years have not been kind to the structure — as evidenced by its crumbling masonry, damaged roof, destroyed chimneys and peeling paint — some formidable aspects of the original structure remain intact. Stone lintels, a full front door,a window sash, handsome mantelpieces, and even an elegant open staircase remind us of its glorious past.

Here are 5 facts about the Gustave Koerner House:

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