Originally built in 1879, the house served as a private residence for the Alexander Young family and subsequently for the John Bell family, until it became the Behr Funeral Home in 1948. Our funeral home is one of the many homes and businesses in Dubuque that were designed by Fridolin J. Heer, Sr., a Swiss born master stonecutter and architect. A restoration project was begun in 2000 to return the home to its original design.
Architects of the Second Empire Style seldom chose to build with stone – making Swiss-born Master Stonecutter and architect Fridolin J. Heer, Sr.’s design a rare specimen. His talent as a stonecutter is evident in the shallow reliefs of the surface decoration, false mortar joints and the ornate carvings around the front entry. The north and east facades are cut entirely from stone quarried in Joliet, Illinois and transported to Dubuque on rail, or more likely, on several of Alexander Young’s steamboats – for whom the house was completed in 1879.
Alexander Young was born of Scotch parents in the city of New York on February 24, 1814. After growing up in New York City he came to Galena, Illinois in 1834 at the age of 20. He was elected Sheriff of Jo Daviess County in 1840 and re-elected in 1842 and 1844. Sheriff Young was universally acknowledged to be one of the bravest and most efficient officers that ever held that position. In 1845 he resigned his office and engaged in steam boating between Galena and St. Louis in company with Smith & Carter, bankers of Galena, and later he engaged in the lumber trade, dividing his time between Galena and Dubuque. Mr. & Mrs. Young came to Dubuque for permanent residence in 1859, and up to the year 1868 he was largely interested in the lumber business. For many years their home was at the Julien House. Some years later they moved to the house on Iowa Street, and shortly after took a suite of apartments at the Lorimer House, which they occupied until they moved to their elegant mansion on Main Street at the corner of 15th in 1879. Completion of the house brought an elegance to Dubuque not before seen in our city. The residence contains 8 hand polished imported marble fireplaces surmounted by priceless matching Chippendale gilt and exotic wood mirrors, original Satsuma china and brass chandeliers, stencil painted ceilings and walls, inlaid wood floors, and wheel cut and etched glass in the interior doors. Rumors were begun of doors adorned with plates and knobs of gold, and former President Grant was rumored to have been entertained at a banquet in his honor at the residence shortly after its completion. Alexander Young died after a brief illness on August 1, 1880 at the age of 66 – less than one year after taking possession of their home. Ms. Elizabeth (Bates) Young continued living in the home until her death on January 14, 1897.
In 1897 Ms. Nannie (Richards) Bell (wife of the late John Bell) purchased the home from Mrs. Young’s estate and resided there with her son and daughter-in-law, Frank and Laura (Coates) Bell. Mr. John Bell was born in 1818 in England and came to Dubuque in 1838 and engaged in mining. His business continued for some time when he went to Platte River, Wisconsin where he established a smelting furnace which operated until he married and moved to Dubuque. He entered the mercantile business with Pratt & Mason on Main between 2nd and 3rd Streets. He eventually sold out to Coates & Wilde and became interested in the Dubuque Harbor and Central Island Improvement Company, and was one of the leading men in these corporations. In 1861 Mr. Bell again embarked in the mercantile business and bought out Coates Bros. General Store at Second and Main with James Wallis under the name of John Bell & Company. In 1864 this firm was enlarged with the addition of Mr. John V. Rider, and they purchased the stock of Wood, Luke & Company whose place of business was in the old town clock building. A few years later the firm closed out of its retail department and entered on an extensive scale into the wholesale trade, in which he took a very active part until 1886, when he disposed of his interest to his partners, after which time he entered into the real estate and banking businesses. He became president of the German Trust and Saving Bank – a position he held until a year before his death, on July 29, 1896.
Nannie Bell resided at her home in the companionship of Frank and Laura until her death in November 1910. Her home was left to her son Frank and his wife.
Frank Bell married Laura Coates on June 4, 1907 – Mr. Bell was described as an honest, far-seeing and capable financier. He and brother Fred operated the Bell Bros. Co. located at 4th and Locust Streets manufacturing overalls, pants, shirts, duck coats, etc. as well as importing notions, hosiery, furnishing goods, gloves and mitts. Until ill health made him give up active business he was the president of Bell Bros. Company and a director of the Second National Bank (later the Consolidated National Bank) and until his death a director of the Iowa Oil Company. Frank Bell died on July 2, 1927. Laura Bell was very active in the affairs of St. Luke’s Methodist Church, and at the time of her death was a member of the church board of trustees. Mrs. Bell died in December 1947 at the age of 81.
Prior to her death, Mrs. Bell was approached by a young funeral director in Dubuque by the name of Norbert Behr to purchase the residence for a funeral home. Mrs. Bell declined the offer at the time but directed in her will to sell the building to Mr. Behr regardless of price upon her death. In 1948 Norb Behr bought and began converting the single-family home into Behr’s Funeral Home. The home was of ample size to allow for the business on the main floor and a comfortable apartment upstairs for the new owner and his growing family. The original carriage house was converted to apartments upstairs and garage space below. The conversion to apartments over the carriage house unfortunately resulted in the removal of the Mansard roof – replacing it with a flat roof easier to maintain. Behr’s Funeral Home opened for business in 1936 and moved to it’s new location at 1491 Main Street in October 1949. Norb Behr died on December 30, 2000. The building is currently owned by Kathleen (Behr) Conlon and with her son Kevin J. Conlon and his wife Nancy is in its 73rd year as Behr’s Funeral Home this year.
Starting in early 2000 Phase 1 plans were underway for a complete interior and exterior RESTORATION. The original plan was to restore one area of the building at a time while still maintaining a viable business and beginning with the areas needing the most attention. The summer of 2000 saw the removal of the steel siding covering the original brick on the 2nd floor and the brick and frame additions of the early 1980s were bricked to better fit the architecture of the building and an outside staircase was moved out of the courtyard area on 15th street to the south courtyard out of sight. Interior spaces included turning congested offices and unusable spaces inside into a turn-of-the-century library complete with built-in bookcases, desks and wainscoting. Wallpapers were removed, textured plaster walls from the last 50 years were smoothed and painted the deep, bold colors of the period. Steel double doors in the 15th street courtyard installed in the 80’s gave way to new oak doors designed to compliment the original doors on the front of the building, which were also stripped and re-finished. New windows were designed and installed in the courtyard to match the custom arches of the main building and new 7″ wide oak trims were fabricated to exactly match the original millwork. Small baseboard trim was replaced with 3 piece 11′ high baseboard matching the original.
Phase 2 of the project, completed in the fall of 2001, included removal of the original cast iron fence around the building and replacing the age-broken cut stone below to re-align and stabilize the fence. The original fence was repaired where needed and re-installed. Phase 2 also called for new curbs on 15th street, sidewalks, steps, trees, tree grates, copper down spouts, and four new city standard street lights on 15th and Main Streets. The old tall curbs were removed and smaller curbs were installed. Original brick pavers were removed, re-leveled, replaced if necessary, and re-installed to repair and bring the street back to it’s former glory.
Restoration of the carriage house exterior and replacement of its mansard roof was Phase 3 and was completed in 2005. Photos were obtained in 2000 of the actual removal of the original mansard roof in 1948. The photos supplied all the information needed to re-construct the mansard “to the brick” the way it was originally built. All metal work and built-in guttering was replicated and re-applied, all window, door, hay door and carriage door openings were returned to their original locations and proportions and bricked-in openings were opened. In addition to re-construction all utilities were re-located to eliminate as much outside clutter as possible. Fall 2005 saw the addition of the windows and doors to the carriage house to replicate the originals in the 1948 photos as much as possible while still allowing for the completion of a single apartment in what was originally a hay loft and small living quarters for the stable-hand.