A Publication of WTVP

The Creve Coeur Club of Peoria turns 120 years old this year.

Seated at the bar at Peoria’s Creve Coeur Club on a Monday afternoon, Wendy Mitchell, general manager, gingerly turns the pages of the club’s original 1894 charter. “I don’t take it out often because it’s so fragile,” she says. “But here’s the original mission statement… it hasn’t changed much!”

For 120 years, the Creve Coeur Club of Peoria—named after the 1680 French settlement as a way to honor some of the area’s earliest settlers—has offered a social outlet for local business professionals, providing members an opportunity to meet like-minded individuals and business contacts while enjoying fine dining, reciprocal memberships at more than 300 clubs across the country, and a sense of community. While the club has changed with the times, it’s retained the founders’ goal of distinguishing itself in social, civic and business leadership—proving that business and pleasure can mix.

Moving Days Gone By
In its early days, the downtown building on the corner of Jefferson and Liberty that housed the Creve Coeur Club sported large, southern-style colonial pillars and modern renovations—including a bowling alley in its basement that hosted competitive tournaments, Mitchell attests, pointing to a nearby photograph of Caterpillar executives posing with pins.

“The building was fantastic! Today, the Historical Society would’ve chained themselves to it,” she jokes. But when it was demolished in the mid-1960s, the club retained the top three floors of the renovated building, where it thrived for years. That location is now a part of the PNC Bank building, but its cornerstone still reads “Creve Coeur Building.” Other remnants of the original building remain as well—surviving the club’s multiple moves from its original home to the renovated building to the Hotel Pere Marquette in 1990, and most recently, to the Twin Towers Plaza in 2003, where the club was able to double its square footage four years ago, expanding the kitchen and adding a full-service bar. Memorabilia, photographs and trinkets of years past line the bar’s shelves and restaurant’s walls.

Today, the club’s dining room boasts an interchangeable layout conducive to hosting a variety of meetings for its members. Three private dining rooms prove charming for small group lunches, while the modern conference room, separated from the main dining hall by a blue frosted wall of glass, holds up to 30 for business meetings, replete with Wi-Fi and A/V hook-ups. The glass wall is collapsible, opening up to the main hall for larger events, such as sit-down dinners for up to 80 and cocktail parties for 225.

The Lost Art
“We offer a little bit of that lost art of fine dining,” Mitchell explains, gesturing around the dining hall, where round tables are set with fine china sporting the club’s logo. She laughs, recalling the rushed lunch she just ate her desk. “Here, you can take your time to eat,” she notes, away from the stress and fast pace of the office.

Mitchell has been with the Creve Coeur Club for 15 years. Prior to moving to Peoria, she worked for eight years at a similar club in Naples, Florida, where its beachfront setting overlooked the ocean. While she enjoys going back to visit, she says she doesn’t miss the “search for a parking spot with shade” and “endless hot days.” Here, Mitchell enjoys the four seasons while happily providing “Four Seasons-like treatment” for the club’s 300+ members.

Mitchell cites Executive Chef Anthony Egan as a major factor in the Creve Coeur Club experience. The position marks Egan’s return to fine dining, she says, something he’s always had “in his blood.” Raised by a family in the restaurant/catering business, Egan was coached by his mentor, Joseph Rembges, a fiery German chef who demanded perfection from the expediting line. Egan perfected his craft having previously served as executive chef at both the Hotel Père Marquette and Methodist hospital.

The club offers sit-down menus as well as full-service catering options—popular with members hosting work meetings. Menu items include deluxe salads and sandwiches, as well as finer fare: lamb lollipops with salad frisée, tuna sashimi and Tuscan salmon with heirloom tomato tapenade, for example.

“The club is our only downtown private club, and it affords a place to take clients,” offers Rex Linder, longtime member, past president, and partner at Heyl, Royster, Voelker & Allen. “It’s very convenient for business downtown. A lot of times you go to restaurants, but it’s too noisy or crowded. Or if you go out [north] away from downtown, it takes a lot of time to get out there and come back. The club is convenient and offers excellent service, with a little more privacy than a public place.”

Changing with the Times
Since Linder joined in the 1970s, the Creve Coeur Club has become more business-focused and egalitarian, having experienced a “dramatic change in the demographics.” Women, for instance, were not admitted as members prior to 1972, and in the very early days, female visitors had to enter the building from a separate side entrance.

“There was a place called the ‘halfway house’ where… they had a buffet lunch set up so you could get in and out reasonably quickly. Women were not allowed in there—which I didn’t realize at the time—and I took a woman there. Nobody said anything until later,” Linder laughs.

That antiquated mindset soon changed, spurred by the times and in part, by a former First Lady. In the early ‘90s, Barbara Bush was asked to speak at the club’s annual George Washington Banquet, but Linder recalls she would not commit to the engagement unless women were able to attend, as well as be club members. Since then, of course, the club has had numerous female presidents, officers and committee heads.

These days, the membership constitutes well-known pillars of the community, in addition to a growing cohort of young professionals. Mitchell stresses the club’s tradition of retaining old members and recruiting new ones through a range of social events. “Pub ‘n Grub Nights” held before Bradley University home games are very popular, with food and bar service before the game and the obvious convenience of proximity to the Civic Center. Other events include an annual golf outing, a club cruise on the Illinois River, and this year’s latest event proposal—a Green Egg outdoor cookout and grilling/smoking demonstration.

A Noble Cause
But by far, the Creve Coeur Club’s largest event is the George Washington Banquet, which draws hundreds of people each year for a dinner and keynote address from the likes of former CIA Director George Tenet, journalist Barbara Walters, former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev and Arizona Senator John McCain, who attracted more than 800 guests in 2007.

John Blossom, president of Alliance Benefit Group and another past president of the Creve Coeur Club, recalls being seated next to Newt Gingrich at a past banquet. “I remember watching as he jotted several bullet points down… on the back of the dinner menu,” he says. “Moments later, he went up onto the stage with that menu and ever so eloquently spoke on a variety of topics.”

While the speakers are always impressive, the banquet serves another noble cause as the venue for announcing the recipient of the club’s Robert H. Michel Lifetime Achievement Award. Each year, the award is presented to someone whose accomplishments and lifelong community service have gone above and beyond the expectations of everyday citizenship. Past recipients read like a “who’s who” of Peoria, including Bob Michel himself, Bill Rutherford, Ted Page, Don Fites, Jim Maloof, Pete Vonachen, Corinne Woodruff Michel, Robert McCord, Jim Baldwin, Marvin Hult, John Bearce, Glen Barton, Wayne Baum, Jim Owens and Mike McCord, who received it posthumously in 2013.

This year’s recipient was Rex Linder, recognized for his extensive volunteer work and leadership with a wide range of local organizations, as well as the achievements in his legal career. “The accomplishments these people have contributed to the city over the years are amazing,” Mitchell exclaims. “Peoria wouldn’t be what it is today if it wasn’t for them.”

Social Camaraderie
While the club mostly serves as a social entity—one of its main goals since its inception—its focus has shifted in some ways, Blossom says. “The club used to serve as a community-building entity—for example, today we might be discussing the city’s water utility buyout,” he explains. “We still have monthly board meetings and social events, of course, but today, the Chamber and other groups have stepped up and into that role.”

And that’s not a bad thing, he suggests, naming “camaraderie” as one of the club’s biggest perks. “The quality and caliber of service at the Creve Coeur Club is beyond the scope of any other options in Peoria. Of course today, there are a lot more options for business lunches and events than there used to be, but the quality and attentiveness to members’ needs is still just a level above the rest.” iBi

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