Historic Alton Driving Tour
Covering three historically prominent neighborhoods, the Historic Alton Driving Tour is a self-guided glimpse into the architectural past of Alton. Great shakers of industry forged economic wealth through railroad companies, limestone quarries, brick and glass factories, flour mills, and powder mills and the Alton area thrived through the 19th and early 20th centuries. The industrial revolution allowed mass produced objects for the home and made obtaining a lavish household more attainable. Many grand houses and buildings sprung up in Alton between the end of the 19th century and the 1930’s- Victorian, Italianate, and federalist architecture dominating the designs of wealthy households.
Industrial magnates, insurance companies, doctors, politicians, and landowners wanted their wealth and influence to be reflected in their architecture and were willing to pay talented architects- men like Theodore Link, Lucas and John Pfeiffenberger, Thomas Walsh, Barnett, Haynes, and Barnett, and Henry Richardson- to design and build glorious buildings made to last. Victorian homes spared no expense in their design- full of extravagant details and ornate layers- the homes are considered the opposite of the more down-to-earth and practical Arts and Crafts Movement which produced the Craftsman Style.
There are 15 buildings in the Christian Hill District. Perched on the bluffs of the Mississippi, Christian Hill was developed from the 1830’s to 1910 and contains over 250 buildings. Most homes are Victorian, with the occasional Federal Style. Christian Hill is home to Riverview Park with its steep steps, sunken garden, and Victorian bandstand. The climb up State Street is reminiscent of the streets of San Francisco- West Seventh Street is a contender for one of the steepest streets in America. The Post House, built in 1838, the Women’s Club, built in 1910-11, and the State Penitentiary Wall, built in 1833, are all on the National Register of Historic Places. The Jennie B. Hayner Memorial Library rests at the bottom of Christian Hill and was built by the same Theodore Link who designed St. Louis’ Union Station.
The second prominent neighborhood is centered in Alton and aptly named the Middletown District. More than 650 buildings comprise the district which was once a great center of wealth in Alton’s past. Henry and East 12th Street feature many of the larger and more elaborate homes. Brick sidewalks, made with bricks created in Alton, and extravagant architectural styles connect with a beautiful park and Victorian playhouse and an area known as Insuranceville- home of many insurance and banking financiers. There are seven locations in Middletown on the National Register of Historic Places: The Stratford Hotel, Lyman Trumbull House, The Haskell Playhouse, Bruch-Guertler House, The McPike Mansion, Union Street Brewery/Yakel House, and the Alton National Cemetery. Views of the river and well-tended gardens make Middletown perfect for walking and biking exploration- though the brick sidewalks and roads can be a bit bumpy on a bicycle!
The third neighborhood on the Historic Alton Driving Tour is called the Upper Alton District- coming in as the smallest district with only 75 buildings. Many of the oldest and largest buildings are on Seminary Street and College Avenue, named for the multitude of educational institutions built in the area, and were built to house professors and teachers. Most of the historical houses in the Upper Alton District are Victorian or Federal Style, though the Orlando Castle House is built in the Italianate Style. The Western Military Academy on Seminary and Loomis Hall are some of the oldest educational buildings in Illinois. Shurtleff College, now Southern Illinois University- Edwardsville and Southern Illinois School for Dental Medicine, lies at the corner of Seminary and College and its campus is home to the life-sized statue of Robert Wadlow, the World’s Tallest Man.
The Historic Alton Driving Tour is sponsored by the Alton Area Landmarks Association and Rivers and Routes Tourism Bureau.
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Want to see more historic properties and how they were back in the day? The 2021 Then and Now Tour has snapshots of 10 notable Alton properties as they were in their youth.
Click this link to see the 2021 Then and Now Tour