by Robert E. St. Peters
Past President, AALA
Born in controversy, the Alton Area Landmarks Association (AALA) has been in the forefront of several cases of trying to preserve historical sites and places. It could be said that any historical preservation group that has not been in a battle to preserve historical sites “isn’t worth its weight in salt”.
AALA began with a group of artists who in 1970 wrote letters to the Alton Telegraph newspaper urging the city and Federal Government to preserve the historic GM&O stone freight station which was located between 5th and 6th Streets on Piasa Street in Alton. It was built by Benjamin Godfrey and had Civil War and Abraham Lincoln connections. The Federal Government and the 1st National Bank of Alton, in conjunction with the City of Alton, were the prime instigators for the demolition of the structure. Robert E. St. Peters saw the letters in the newspaper. He and his wife, Helen, had lived in Philadelphia. They knew the value of saving old historic buildings.
The artists involved were Ruth Means, Margaret Davis Weber, Earline Yancy, and Audrey Wiseman. Soon, Rose Marie Sparrowk invited everyone to a meeting at her home, including St. Peters and Herbert Wagenfeld. It didn’t take long for the group to decide to organize as a not-for-profit corporation and call themselves Alton Area Landmarks. Rose Marie agreed to serve as president for one year only. The next president was Phil Poehner who had come to know Ruth Means. The third president was Robert E. St. Peters who presided for the next 30 years. The present head of AALA is Terry Sharp. Rose Marie asked attorney Thad Carter to assist with the incorporation. He in turn gave the job to a young attorney in his office, namely Robert B. St. Peters who drew up the papers with the State of Illinois. The organization was incorporated as a not-for-profit organization in March of 1970.
In the meantime, AALA members were circulating a petition to save the GM&O station and obtained 3000 signatures. Mayor Lenz and the city council did not support AALA’s position. St. Peters went before the city council and presented the petition and spoke on behalf of saving the GM&O station. A council member made a motion to put the petition on file. That was the last time it was ever seen again.
Meanwhile, Ruth Means was filling out paperwork in an effort to get the station listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Before that could be accomplished, the Federal Government brought in a large wrecking ball and demolished the stone station. As a “concession” to AALA, they said, “we will build the wall around the new Federal Building with the stone from the station”.
The Berm Highway Case
The membership of AALA by this time had grown to approximately 150 people. Included in the group were Charlene Gill and some of her friends and relatives. During a reenactment of the Lincoln-Douglas debate by Phil Poehner and Steve Bachelor in Lincoln-Douglas Square, two bearded hippy-type engineering students from SIUE (Gary Wallace and his brother) were passing out fliers to those in attendance. The fliers stated that the Federal Government was going to build a federally funded four-lane elevated highway through the public commons of Riverfront Park. St. Peters met with a friend of his, Bill Dittmann, and inquired as to whether he had seen this flier.
At the next AALA meeting, the members voted to initiate an injunction to stop the highway. We had lost the railroad station, but we were not going to lose this battle! The next day the Alton Telegraph had an article about this meeting in the paper. Mayor Lenz immediately sent a letter to St. Peters, stating how disappointed he was regarding our position.
Prior to this, St. Peters had gone before the Alton City Council and the Mayor with a proposal to establish a Historical Commission. Mayor Lenz appointed Judge I.H. Streeper, John Greenwood, Dr. Robert Carroll, Bill & Catherine Dittmann, and Robert E. St. Peters to the commission. Catherine Dittmann was elected chairman and St. Peters recording secretary. Catherine contacted Mr. Kronz, District Engineer for the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT). Mr. Kronz came before the commission and explained the proposed routing of the Berm Highway. He said it would be a four-lane 35-foot high elevated highway. It would go through the middle of Riverfront Park and elevate over the railroad tracks and wipe out Lincoln-Douglas Square. It would connect to Broadway and Piasa Streets. After questioning by Carroll and St. Peters, Mr. Kronz said “I wish I had you on my side”.
Paul Cousley was the editor of the Alton Telegraph at the time and could not write an editorial without referring to AALA as the “agginers” and those “against progress”. Also mouthing those sentiments was Harry Button, then head of the Alton Chamber of Commerce. Mr. Button in turn enlisted the aid of James McPike, an Illinois State Representative. George Arnold, an engineer at SIUE, suggested that St. Peters contact the Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. in order to obtain funding. St. Peters did contact them and they wrote that they could not provide funding, but did provide the names of two environmental lawyers. St. Peters contacted attorney David Lincoln Ader, a LaSalle Street lawyer from Chicago. This turned out to be a good move, as he accepted the job. He was a tremendous lawyer in the court and had a vast knowledge of environmental law. He could handle all the opponents in court, hands down. The opposing attorneys represented the railroads, the City of Alton, and the Illinois Department of Transportation.
At a meeting that was held, attorney William Haine asked if IDOT was holding a court hearing on the proposed highway. As it turns out, they were, but doing it very quietly. Once we learned this and knew that IDOT was hoping we would not attend, the next court hearing you can be sure that we were there with Mr. Ader. Judge Johnson wasn’t sure what to think. It was more than likely “Where the Hell did these people come from??”. He immediately called a recess. AALA asked the court to intervene in the case and Judge Johnson refused the request. The special assistant to the Attorney General claimed that he represented the General Public. This was the beginning of 13 years of continual litigation with our attorney Mr. Ader at the helm.
There were three judges that heard the cases: Judge Johnson, Judge Ferguson, and finally Judge Paul Riley. Helen St. Peters, the wife of Robert St. Peters, although confined to a wheelchair, always attended the court hearing even though it made her nervous. Other AALA members generally in attendance were George Arnold, Beverly & Paul Jacoby, Jackie Monroe, and Herbert Wagenfeldt. Attorneys for the City of Alton were Thad Carter, Robert Ryan, and Steve Mottaz. The primary attorney for AALA remained David Lincoln Ader and at times other attorneys were called to file or appear in court: Harry Marxhall, Robert B. St. Peters, and others. Also, generally at the hearing was Dennis Gurbaugh, editor of the Alton Citizen. Mr. Grubaugh gave AALA a fair accounting in his newspaper. One of the reporters from the Alton Telegraph, Doug Thompson, continually poked fun at AALA and attempted to make the group look foolish. This probably kept him in the good graces of the Editor! Another person who took an interest in the Berm case was Professor Edward W. Gondolf from Principia College. He published a document titled “Small City Standoff”. He was, for the most part, fair in his treatment of AALA. However, another professor from Principia, who was a highly respected person by the National Trust in Washington, D.C., was critical of AALA. It was always suspected that this was one reason why we never received much support from the National Trust.
Soon after we became involved in the Berm Highway case, St. Peters contacted the heads of the Architectural Department of the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, IL, and Washington University in St. Louis, MO. Surprisingly, both universities responded. They came to Alton and St. Peters met with them to discuss the case. The professors decided that so as not to duplicate efforts, the U of I would study possible alternate routes for the Berm Highway and Washington University would study ways to revitalize Downtown Alton. The plan was to have several public meetings at the Stratford Hotel and St. Peters was given the job of contacting proponents and opponents of the highway. He would invite them to the meetings where an open discussion would take place and students would outline their findings. The universities proposed that they would not take sides in the controversy. Several meetings were held before large crowds, with people stating their views. Afterward, both universities published booklets on their proposals.
Mr. Ader was a wonderful attorney, but he was also very expensive. Each court appearance would cost hundreds of dollars. Mr. Ader would fly to St. Louis and St. Peters and his wife would pick him up and make sure he got to court in Granite City, IL, or Edwardsville, IL the next morning.
Mr. Ader requested that St. Peters find people who would be interested in intervening in the Berm Highway case. This would not be an easy task. Who wants to get involved in a court case?! However, he was surprised to find people who were indeed willing. St. Peters contacted people who had property abutting the Public Commons. The intervenors were Mr. DeSherlia who owned a paint store across the street from Lincoln-Douglas Square, Dr. Robert H. Carroll, Carl Maddock who owned Hub Tobacco, and Sam Thames who owned Thames Antiques on Broadway. Mr. Ader asked St. Peters to locate descendants of the City of Alton founder, who in 1818 founded the city and laid out the streets, and established the city commons.
St. Peters and his wife, Helen, traveled to a city in Missouri where there was a strong indication of some Eastons who would be of interest. After going there with the aid of a genealogist, they found the family had moved to Kansas. St. Peters contacted Mrs. Emma Easton and was delighted to learn that her son was named Alton Easton. The Eastons came to Alton several times and attended the court hearings, all at their own expense. Emma was a real fighter for the cause. Alton Easton also entered as an intervenor.
When Mr. Ader entered Alton Brooks Easton as an intervenor in the court, one of the opposing attorneys stated “This is some of Bob St. Peters’ work!”.
AALA began winning in court and after a favorable ruling in the circuit court in Granite City, IL, the City of Alton appealed to the Appellate Court in Mount Vernon, IL. Mayor Lenz attended and shook hands with St. Peters. Although they were arch enemies in the Berm Highway case they always showed respect for one another. They had things in common: both believed in their cause, both were Catholic and they had children attending school together.
The Appellate Court ruled in favor of AALA and the City of Alton appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court which refused to hear the case. The name of the two court cases were 73MR26 and 80CH223. After AALA won 73MR26 the City of Alton initiated 80CH223, hoping to wear AALA down and break them financially. However, AALA continued the fight. One of the opponents spoke to Mr. Ader and said that St. Peters is stubborn. Mr. Ader replied, “No, he is tenacious”.
St. Peters knew that the AALA position would be misunderstood, so he established the Landmarks Technical Committee which in turn drew up a document titled “The Landmarks Technical Report”. On the committee were all engineers or people working in the engineering field. The members were Bill Bauer, Bob Neidenhofer who lived on lower State Street in Alton, and St. Peters who was a Senior Design Engineer for McDonnell Aircraft. Mr. Ader advised that the committee not specify a specific plan because if an error was made the opponents would find it and destroy the case
Bert Weullner defeated Paul Lenz for mayor. Mayor Weullner wanted to settle the Berm Highway problem. The city hired attorney Steve Mottaz who worked closely with Mr. Ader in drawing up a court order with the blessing of Judge Paul Riley. This court order was a masterpiece that specified what can occur in Riverfront Park (The Easton Commons). Judge Riley stated that he did not know what Rufus Easton had in mind when he designed the land as public commons, but he was certain that it was NOT a four-lane highway! The court order was signed on January 29th, 1987, thus ending 13 years of litigation.
AALA financed the legal battle with hard work and unity and support of its Board of Directors. The Board always supported St. Peters on all projects. To raise money, artists Ruth Means, Margaret Davis Weber, and Rose Marie Sparrowk made pen sketches for historic Alton stationary. AALA reprinted historic county histories and sold them for a number of years. AALA erected 40 booths and sold beer and food at the Alton Arts and Crafts Fair on 3rd Street. Booths were also placed at Lincoln-Douglas Square. There were a few people who made substantial financial contributions, namely Hugh Horstman, William & Catherine Dittmann, and Dr. Robert H. Carroll.
There are still a few “sour grapes” people around, but the truth is that none of the development could have taken place if AALA had not saved the Public Commons and Lincoln-Douglas Square from the 35-foot elevated four-lane highway.
Note: Judith Joy, a reporter for the Centralia Sentinal, penned an article that was published on February 21, 1999, entitled “After 13 years in court, Alton preservationists kept a highway from going through a public park”. This article was very well written and illustrated. The AALA secretary has copies available.
Submitted by Robert E. St. Peters
Edited by Steve Sands
July 2nd, 2006