Fire Alters Downtown Belleville Landscape

200 block of E. Main Street
Belleville, IL

Of the 3 buildings pictured above, the first two from the corner are now gone because of a major fire in the early morning hours of May 26,2010. Read the detailed story with photos from the Belleville News-Democrat.

The consistently excellent reporting by the BND revealed that what I always thought of as two distinct buildings is actually 3 buildings. And while it was obvious that the facade of the former Fellner’s department store was a very choice mid-century modern retrofit, I had no idea just how very, very old all 3 of these buildings are (and, sadly, were) – dating back to 1865!

By late Wednesday afternoon, the sad remains of the two buildings (partially depicted above) were demolished and being carted off.

This part of downtown Belleville constantly amazes me because so very much of its original density has been preserved simply because it’s still being used. And I’ve admired the Fellner storefront because it was so tastefully done, adding a thick chapter of jet set glamor to the Belleville business district story. Now there are two businesses down and a violent void.  But because it is such a visible and functional spot, neighbors are immediately thinking ahead. As quoted from the BND report:

“It’s a tragedy to lose a building built in 1865,” said Geri Boyer, a resident of the Writers’ Lofts across East Main Street from the fire. “But, because I’m involved in development, it does open up some development opportunities for the buildings that are left. It opens the door for some potential for that space: parking, green space, a courtyard. Maybe it becomes a restaurant with outdoor seating.”

Boyer is an engineer and owns the Kaskaskia Engineering Group in Belleville. One of the structural engineers employed by her firm inspected the burned buildings.

“She made the same assessment the fire chief had already made: It was really unstable and something needed to be done immediately,” Boyer said.

This portion of the former Fellner still remains, and was saved by the intact fire wall, as reported by BND:

A fire wall that divided the thrift store from the community center stopped the fire’s progress. That wall separated the women’s department of the old Fellner’s from the rest of the clothing store.

The fire wall extended from the basement to the roof and was one story higher than the building that was on fire, which helped firefighters, (Belleville Fire Chief Scott) Lanxon said.

“If there are no places to stop a fire like that, there’s a chance you could lose a whole city block,” Lanxon said. “That’s what they’re there for, to stop from losing a city block.”

Lanxon stressed the importance of keeping fire walls intact. “If a fire wall is intact, it does its job. If there are holes made in it for one reason or another, if people punch holes through them, the fire could spread,” he said.

A reader’s poll within this on-line news report shows that the overwhelming majority of participating readers want the city to “rebuild so new businesses can open there,” and I love that can-do spirit, and agree with them. But I do hope that this portion of the MCM retro-fit can be retained as a remnant of the story that was extinguished. Maybe it can even inform the look or style of the new structure that may rise from the ashes.