One Prospect Drive

Davenport, Iowa


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‘Keeper of the house': Belfer wins award for Hillside

Anyone who travels Davenport’s East River Drive has doubtless seen it: the brick mansion with 30-foot yellow pillars and a yellow porch atop the bluff at Mississippi Avenue.

The brick-and-limestone property called Hillside was built in 1905 by Charles Shuler, a coal magnate, and has been home for the past 35 years to Judith Belfer, a now-retired Rock Island Arsenal procurement chief.

The interior of the home is a wonderland of original architectural features: stained glass, three fireplaces, tapestry walls, pocket doors and mahogany woodwork.

And it’s filled with an amazing array of furniture, accessories and collectibles that Belfer has amassed through 60-plus years of living and simply being curious about everything from raising chickens and playing the harp to chemistry.

She has poured considerable time and treasure into maintaining her National Register of Historic Places property, designed by noted Davenport architect Frederick G. Clausen.

Most projects were basic upkeep, beginning with the new Virginia slate roof she had installed shortly after buying the home because the third floor was marred by “skylights,” as she describes the holes in the roof that let rain onto the second floor.

She also battles water issues. Stormwater runoff pours down from the properties above and seeks its way into her basement. New downspouts and drainage systems aren’t the stuff of decorators’ dreams, but they are vital to the integrity of the house.

Last summer, Belfer spent $71,506 to rebuild the stone porch foundations that had shifted with time and $27,548 to rebuild the stone retaining wall along River Drive. Grants totaling $24,856 from the State of Iowa Historical Resource Development Program and the East Davenport Development Corp. helped her with the costs.

For her work, Belfer is receiving a rehabilitation award from the Scott County Historic Preservation Society.

Karen Anderson, the group’s executive director, cited Belfer’s love affair with the house and her sense of stewardship, undertaking a large volume of renovation work year after year.

Ongoing maintenance

As Belfer explains the stone work to a visitor, one can’t help but notice that paint on the porch railing is peeling. Has she ever had that redone?

“Three times,” she responds.

The first time she tackled the project, special care had to be taken with disposal because the paint was lead-based. She also has done some of the work herself. She and her son, Evan, personally stripped paint off the west porch using heat guns.

“It took five years,” she says. “Whenever we finished a portion, we covered it with linseed oil to preserve it” until such time as it could be painted.

“I’ve been at this (maintaining the house) for 30 years, and all anyone sees is what still needs to be done,” she says. “I don’t think I’ll live long enough to finish the house, put it that way.”

This year she hopes to paint the inside of the basement foundation, reconstruct the wood capitals of some of the interior pillars and — hopefully, she says — secure a grant to help with the cost of installing a new boiler. Incredibly, her house is still heated by the original boiler, a 100-year-old model that was converted from coal to natural gas.

Other projects have included the construction of a free-standing three-car garage, plumbing and electrical work, and landscaping.

Despite the never-ending list of projects, Belfer loves her house. Every room is a story, filled with objects near and dear to her heart, and the views of the Mississippi River are unparalleled.

“I’m the keeper of the house, not a housekeeper,” she is fond of saying.

Belfer retired in 1999 from the Arsenal, where she was chief of small arms procurement. “I would buy everything a soldier could carry into battle,” she explained.

Alma Gaul can be contacted at (563) 383-2324 or agaul@qctimes.com. Comment on this story at qctimes.com.

Davenport business leader built Hillside

Hillside was built in 1905 by Charles Shuler, the owner of Shuler Coal, which had title to vast coal mines throughout southern Illinois, Iowa, Colorado and Wyoming. Shuler was also in the lumber and construction businesses and the president of several companies, including a bank.

His obituary in May 1948 described him as “one of the last remaining business leaders from the group who built Davenport from a small city to an important commercial center in the years between 1900 and through the 1929 depression.”

The home was designed by Frederick G. Clausen, assisted by his son, Rudolph J. Clausen. The Clausens commanded a regional reputation. Their works include Central High School and the department store now housing the River Music Experience, both in Davenport.

The home is made of brick with a limestone foundation, a slate roof and copper trim in the Georgian Colonial Revival style of architecture.

There is a porte-cochere (roof projecting over a driveway) on the north side, porches with projecting semi-circular bays on the east and west sides and a south-facing porch that extends the entire length of the house.

The porch floors are made of hand-laid mosaic tile the size of pennies in intricate patterns. Sometimes children try to pry the tiles off, owner Judith Belfer says.

Also on the south is a two-level projecting pavilion, the upper part of which was enclosed sometime after 1921. The front columns are 30 feet high and fluted with Ionic capitals. All secondary columns are 15 feet high.

The house sits in a pivotal location as the entrance to the Prospect Park Historic District.

Hillside remained in the Shuler family until their grandchildren’s generation. In the early 1950s, it was purchased by Al Offerman, and Belfer purchased it from Offerman’s widow in the early 1970s.

— Alma Gaul

Kitchen is most-used room in the house

Step into Hillside from the west porch and you pass between two nearly 9-foot-high panels made of beveled and leaded glass.

The main floor contains two large parlors, a dining room, kitchen, butler’s pantry and bath, with a huge hall that links the front door on the south to the open staircase at the north.

The dining room is particularly ornate, beginning at the top with a beamed ceiling in which the wood creates a grid of squares. The walls are paneled to a height of about six feet, with the top portion covered with cloth tapestry. There also is a floor-to-ceiling, built-in china hutch and a massive, mirror-topped fireplace.

It’s owner Judith Belfer’s favorite room. “The craftsmanship in this house is incredible,” she says.

An approximately nine-foot-square stained-glass window of grapevines at the staircase landing is an outstanding feature of the house.

The second floor contains five bedrooms, three baths, another huge central hall with a fireplace and a sunroom with windows on three sides offering sweeping views of the Mississippi River.

This room was created when what was originally an open porch between the home’s two 30-foot exterior pillars was enclosed in the 1920s. One can see the Interstate 280 bridge from the room.

The master bath features walls made largely of white marble and a floor of blue and white mosaic tile.

The third floor that was built as servants’ quarters is now a spacious rental apartment.

The most-used room in the house is the kitchen. Belfer doesn’t cook, but she spends a lot of time there, working on projects such as stripping woodwork and doing paperwork for one of the many organizations for which she volunteers.

The kitchen features snow-white metal cabinets installed in the 1950s, with stainless steel counters and a vintage Chambers stove. The floor is the original blue and white hand-laid mosaic tile.

 furnishings reflect eclectic tastes

Judith Belfer’s house is filled with fascinating furnishings. Among the notable ones:

* The makings of a soda fountain, salvaged from a shop at Davenport’s 3rd and Warren streets. It includes a bar, three stools, a pillared backdrop with a mirror and equipment such as spigots that read “butterscotch” and other flavors.

* A Civil War-era U.S. Army officer’s horse saddle.

* Two busts of Belfer’s mother, whose classic facial features were used as models by reconstructive surgeons on the East Coast to help people who were disfigured in accidents.

* A lead crystal handgun that Belfer purchased in Belgium on one of her buying trips for the Rock Island Arsenal.

* An alligator handbag in which a small alligator head serves as the clasp.