It must have been an exciting time to be alive in Peoria.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the town was awash in money. Commerce was the word of the day. Breweries, distilleries and industries of every sort were humming. Riverboats and railroads traveled into the city with industrial materials for factories and the finest in retail goods for sale in the shops.
When you have so much money what do you do?
You build! You build Victorian homes, stone banks, large department stores, steepled churches, ornate theaters and music halls, grand hotels, fraternal halls, civic buildings, rolling parks and whatever pleases your heart. And you build them to last; to show off just how successful you are; something of class and style to represent the hoped-for class and style of the owner.
Such a climate attracts first-rate architects eager to ply their trade and develop the latest ideas in design. The finest materials and high-quality workmanship were required, of course. This spilled over into middle-class homes too, where oak, mahogany and cherry woods were commonly put in place by craftsmen who took great pride in their work. Even the homes of the workers exhibited a certain degree of style.
The barons of industry needed places to live and entertain. They often chose the brow of the bluff where stunning views of the river valley below were pleasing to the eyes of the occupants and their guests. Each home seemed larger and more elaborate than the one before it. (“Keeping up with the Joneses” is not a recent invention.) The Victorian style was popular, and the Queen Anne style was chosen when the owner wanted to hang every geegaw on the house that the architect could think of.
There were not just a few nice structures. There were hundreds, even thousands, of homes, businesses, cultural centers and other buildings that were designed and crafted to represent the success that had accrued in this bustling community.
Sadly, most are now gone. Time and progress have claimed most of them. Newer buildings have replaced them as the city has continued to prosper. And some have been replaced by parking lots to meet the insatiable needs of the automobile.
Depending upon which experts you ask, there are perhaps 150 to 250 significant structures remaining from Peoria’s golden era. The number diminishes each year as buildings are deemed “too expensive to maintain,” “not suitable for modern uses,” “needs too much work” or “in the way of progress.”
The loss of historic structures prompted efforts to stem the tide of destruction. In the mid-1970s the Peoria City Council adopted a historic preservation ordinance, which allowed the creation of historic districts. Whole neighborhoods could receive protection under the ordinance, driven partly by nostalgia, but more so by the knowledge that protection would maintain and enhance property values.
In the late 1980s, a provision for landmarking of individual structures was added to the ordinance. Whether a neighborhood or a building, the ordinance applies only to the exterior of the structure. Usage of the building is not an issue. The owner is allowed to make any desired changes to the inside, although removal of bearing walls is prohibited in landmarked structures.
The Historic Preservation Commission was established to approve the designation of historic neighborhoods and landmarks, and the commission must approve changes to the exteriors of protected buildings, except for maintenance and routine matters.
The ordinance has served Peoria well. When the original historic districts were 25 years old, a study was conducted of the increase in property values of homes in districts versus similar homes in neighborhoods that lacked the historic designation. All homes, of course, had increased in value over time, but those in historic districts increased on average at a rate double that of homes lacking these historic protections.
Success with landmarked structures is measured differently. Some were landmarked when it appeared they were endangered. Success is measured by finding an adaptive reuse that rehabilitates the building.
The Judge Jacob Gale house at 403 N.E. Jefferson was empty for years when landmarked. It seemed to be a hopeless case when the owner adapted it for office space, first for the Convention and Visitors Bureau and now for attorneys’ offices.
Another saved landmark, the Musicians’ Hall on Kumpf Boulevard, languished for years, with no apparent prospects. Then the predecessors to Busey Bank bought it, beautifully restored it, and made it their headquarters. It stands as a great example of adaptive reuse.
The Duroc Building at Monroe and Fayette was nominated for landmark status but rejected by the City Council. In the meantime, the AMVETS organization, which owns the building, lost the buyer they had lined up and decided to improve the building. They have done a beautiful restoration of the third-floor ballroom, which is a great setting for receptions, meetings or events. It is available for rent at friendly prices.
Recently, the Peoria Public Library undertook a major addition to the Lincoln Library. This is a Carnegie library with the distinctive Carnegie look. It is truly a precious gem. Being sensitive to maintaining the architectural integrity of the building, the library board agreed to landmark the building. Then they engaged an architect with extensive experience in reworking historic structures. To cap it off, they invited the Central Illinois Landmarks Foundation to send a representative to the weekly meetings of their building committee. Thus, when the designs were ready for approval, there were no surprises. The project stands as a model of how historic preservation can and should work.
Landmarking per se does not automatically save buildings. What it does is buy time to find a way to execute an appropriate adaptive reuse. Experience shows that this can usually be done.
Peoria has six historic districts and 20 landmarked structures. Central Illinois Landmarks Foundation has compiled an inventory of 140 historically significant structures at the request of the City Council. Some of these may be nominated for landmark status at some future time.
Whether landmarked or not, our historic structures contribute to the quality of life in the city in more ways than one. Besides their intrinsic and nostalgic value, they are a significant resource for tourism. The Peoria Historical Society trolley tours take hundreds of people past our treasures, and visiting groups often enlist PHS guides to step on their charter coaches to show off our rich architectural heritage.
History lives! Let’s celebrate! iBi