Peoria Landmark Celebrates 75 Years

The Hotel Pere Marquette is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2002, a perfect time to look back at the Peoria landmark’s history.

Its unique name came from Father Jacques Marquette, an early French explorer who traveled down the Illinois River in 1673 and landed in what’s now Peoria.

Other tributes to Marquette include a mural in the hotel’s lobby, completed by Philadelphia artist George Harding in 1926, that depicts the landing of Marquette and Louis Joliet, and a sculpted likeness of Marquette above the hotel’s Main Street entrance.

Plans for the Hotel Pere Marquette began in 1923, when attorney Emmett May dreamed of a hotel with "splendid atmosphere and dignified luxury." Construction of the steel-framed structure began in early 1926 and was completed in December. The total construction cost was $2.5 million.

When the third guest room wing was completed in 1928, the 14-story hotel housed 500 individually appointed guest rooms, each with its own bathroom, though the C wing had only half-baths. The modern structure also included a Ladies Smoking Room, dining rooms and coffee shops, and the Grand Ballroom with seating for 800 people. Guest rooms were rented for $2.50 per night.

Sales and Marketing Director Joel Green said over the years, significant changes were made. "In the 1950s guest rooms were consolidated into larger rooms, and the count dropped from 500 to 320, finally arriving at the current number of 288. The hotel expanded, and the Marquette Ballroom was added on, becoming the largest ballroom outside of Chicago."

Green said when Fred Sperl managed the hotel in the 1950s through 1970s, he tried to maintain a two to one ratio of guests to staff. "With an average of 65 percent occupancy—possibly a total of 360 people in-house at any one time—the hotel maintained a staff of about 180 people. The Pere Marquette of 2001 maintains a staff of 225, but a larger percentage of staff hours are probably dedicated to engineering and maintenance than ever before."

In 1972 the Hotel Pere Marquette briefly disappeared when it was purchased by Hilton Hotels Corp., and its name was changed to Peoria Hilton. In addition to the name change, the inside of the hotel underwent a makeover. Popular nightclub The Playground was installed in the hotel basement, and a sand box, checkered tablecloths, and vinyl wallpaper were featured in the adult recreation area.

The hotel was purchased by INNCO Hospitality in 1981, and the new owners quickly restored the name, murals, and public areas back to their original historic décor. When the renovation was complete, the Hotel Pere Marquette was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Many famous faces have graced the hotel over the years, including politicians Adlai Stevenson, Dan Quayle, Bob Dole, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, John F. Kennedy, and Dwight Eisenhower; sports stars Karl Malone, Ernie Banks, Stan Musial, Walter Payton, and Charles Barkley; and entertainers Bob Hope, Jay Leno, Richard Pryor, Jimmy Dorsey, Kenny Rogers, Dudley Moore, Eddie Murphy, Van Halen, Sam Kinnison, Jack Lemon, Andre Watts, Sting, and Liberace, among others.

Green said the hotel books so many entertainers because of the hotel’s fortuitous location. "The majority of the acts performing at the Civic Center want to be as close as they can to the venue. The interesting part is when the booking agent first calls for availability, we’re given their traveling name, which isn’t usually the actual name of the group."

Staff members are used to having celebrities in the hotel, and they work to ensure guests are comfortable. "Our employees respect the privacy of all of our guests, but with celebrities we have some very solid rules. Although the staff is to be friendly and acknowledge the guest, they are instructed to never ask for an autograph, show tickets, etc."

One thing that sets the Hotel Pere Marquette apart from other hotels is the structure itself, which Green said was built to last forever. "These days, few full-service hotels are being built; no one can afford it. Limited service hotels are invariably ‘stick’ construction and are meant to last five to10 years. The Peoria area abounds with an incredible sense of community, and the Hotel Pere Marquette has been a part of this community’s history since 1927. Everyone has their favorite memory of the hotel."

Keeping the hotel a full-service establishment means retaining good employees. "Our company is constantly advertising for qualified employees. But I’ve been in the business for 20 years, and I have never seen a retention program such as ours. We have employees who have been on payroll since the Hilton years. We have one employee who has been on staff for 35 years, and more than 15 employees have been on staff for 19 years. I believe a manager’s job is to provide his or her employees with the tools to do their jobs, and our staff is. This should be a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many places I’ve worked where there weren’t enough spoons to set the dining room, not enough tablecloths to set a wedding, and housekeeping’s vacuum cleaners were worthless," Green said.

"A positive work atmosphere is equally important. I credit our owners and General Manager Bill Carter, along with Director of Human Resources Joyce Watkins, for personally knowing the staff as well as they do, and taking plenty of time to praise those who deserve it and listen to those who have concerns. Being appreciated is extremely important to employees, but being heard is essential," she said.

Pere Marquette employees enjoy an annual family picnic each Summer and an annual Christmas party, complete with gifts for everyone. They’re recognized with the Employee of the Month Award, Employee of the Year Award, Humanitarian Award, Focus Award, Housekeeping Award, and the STAR program for outstanding achievement. Employees also have free parking, free lunches, and are furnished with uniforms.

Great food and staff usually translates to good business for the Pere, but Green said this year was different. "For the first time in many years, the hotel will end its fiscal calendar with a less than 60 percent occupancy. There are several factors to this, the obvious one being possibly tied in to September 11. Other factors include the number of hotels to choose from and a decline in business travelers."

Green said recent changes in the way Americans vacation may turn out to be a good thing for the Pere Marquette and Peoria in general. "Fewer people are able to take that two-week vacation anymore, and more are looking to get away for a couple of days or a long weekend. These people have more expendable income than they have expendable time. We’ve seen an increase in weekend package sales, especially for our suites."

While the hotel appreciates their hometown guests, they are beginning to market themselves a little farther away. "In the past we’ve tried marketing locally for weekend packages. This year, through the efforts of the Peoria Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, we’re directing a considerable chunk of our marketing dollar to a city-wide effort in the major markets of Chicago, St. Louis, and Indianapolis. The entire area, aptly being marketed as Illinois River Country, has joined the Bureau in pooling our dollars to make a bigger splash. Nobody is going to bring their convention to Peoria simply because we have a nice hotel; it’s the area as a whole that sells the convention. The same holds true for weekend packages and business opportunities," Green said.

Attracting guests may be a little easier with the perks the hotel is implementing in conjunction with its anniversary. "We’re kicking off a whole year’s celebration with our New Year’s Eve party, where we’re giving away a half-carat diamond pendant. Every month we will have two giveaway drawings: one for local business associates who book out-of-town guests with the hotel, and another drawing for our Executive Club guests (frequent travelers)," she said. The anniversary is not only a time to look back, but also to imagine the future. Green said among possible changes in the next 10 years, she hopes to see a walkway connecting the downtown hotels to the Peoria Civic Center.

Whatever changes the future brings, Green said some things will never change at the Hotel Pere Marquette: "The stability of management, the building’s location and architecture, the physical beauty of the lobby and ballrooms, and the history shared with this community." IBI