In Obed & Isaac’s, Springfield’s Conn family converted a Peoria church into a destination brewery and eatery
Karen and Court Conn were on what they call a “recon mission” in the late summer of 2015 when they came to Peoria from their home in Springfield looking for their next new opportunity.
The Conns had already toured Downtown Peoria and the Warehouse District with Chris Setti, CEO of the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council, and Mark Misselhorn, architect and chairman of the Downtown Advisory Commission, looking for the perfect spot for their next restaurant project.
But it was on their own recon mission when the couple came across the former Second Presbyterian Church at the corner of Madison and Spalding (formerly Jackson) avenues.
“It was such a cool building,” said Karen Conn, who recalls her husband commenting at the time, “Too bad it’s not for sale.” Unbeknownst to the Conns, the “for sale” sign had fallen down.
Karen couldn’t get thoughts of the building out of her mind. After returning home, she began a thorough internet search and found that the building was indeed on the market. The couple connected with a real estate agent and returned to Peoria.
“After we walked through it, I just fell in love,” said Karen of the structure that would become the family’s second Obed & Isaac’s Microbrewery and Eatery.
The building, best known by Peorians as the former Cornerstone Building, is of the Richardsonian Romanesque Revival style of the late 19th century. The 12,000-square-foot structure was designed by W.W. Boyington, who also did Chicago’s Water Tower. It was completed in 1889.
Outside, the ornate structure of Wisconsin granite stands as a beacon to those coming into Peoria on I-74 from the east. Inside, high-pitched ceilings, elaborate woodwork, ornamental plaster, arches and stunning arched stained-glass windows offer customers a unique dining experience.
“Aesthetically, we saw all the opportunity and potential,” Karen said.
The original ceiling, in particular, was a real draw.
“It has such a German Bavarian feel,” said Karen. “It really transports you to Europe and what you may experience at a Bavarian beer garden.”
In addition, the Conns knew they wanted to locate a brewhouse on the property. A parking lot next to the former church provided the space needed to not only construct the brewhouse to be separate from the restaurant, but to also have an outdoor entertainment area.
“It needed love,” said Karen. “We knew we needed to do all new infrastructure.
“This wasn’t our first rodeo. Court and I like taking projects like this on. If it wasn’t for people like us who are crazy, these places would be torn down.”
Misselhorn agreed. “Saving that precious history, that isn’t so easy,” he said. “But where else do you find a building like this? That big Wisconsin granite, they don’t build them like that any longer. It’s just so neat the Conns came in and saved this building.”
A growing empire
The Conns own Conn Hospitality Group in Springfield. The business began in 1948 when Roy Conn, Court’s father, opened Roy’s Café in Downtown Springfield. Today, the operation includes two Obed & Isaac’s Microbrewery & Eatery locations, a cidery, a boutique hotel, a farm and vineyard, and a general store featuring Illinois products.
It was a chance meeting with Misselhorn at Obed & Isaac’s Microbrewery & Eatery in Springfield that first planted the seed to launch a second location in Peoria.
“Our attraction to Peoria stems from Mark coming down to Springfield and he stopped at Obed & Isaac’s where we met him and started talking,” Karen said. “He later sent us an email indicating he would love for us to come to Peoria and tour locations. At that time, we had been discussing internally that we were looking for another project. Probably to Mark’s amazement, I replied we would be interested.”
The Conns finalized the purchase in October 2015 and immediately went into construction mode. On Sept. 26, 2016, Obed & Isaac’s Microbrewery & Eatery opened in Peoria.
“Working with the city of Peoria was a breath of fresh air,” she said. “They’re willing to work with businesses and try to find answers or solutions. We’ve done many restoration projects in Springfield, and I’ve met ‘no’ a lot and without any solutions offered. It was a joy up in Peoria.”
Beer and chili
The Peoria brewhouse is the Conn’s largest, brewing everything from cider to saison, from IPA to ale. The beer menu sports six flagship beers with seasonal offerings added in the spring/summer and fall/winter.
The menus in Peoria and Springfield are nearly identical, with only a few local tweaks.
Those adjustments include the chili. In Springfield, it is more of a tavern-style chili that is a little “greasy” or “oily” than what some prefer.
“That didn’t go over as well” in Peoria, Karen said, so they went to a more traditional recipe for local diners.
Also, the ever-popular artichoke dip in Springfield, made with a blend of artichoke hearts, garlic, parmesan cheese, mayo and cream cheese, wasn’t a big seller in Peoria. So, the recipe was adjusted to add spinach for a spinach-artichoke dip.
“It’s a difference in cultures,” Karen said. “We all have our traditions and trends.”
And the Conns are forging a new one in the River City, for themselves and their customers.
Tom Veirs of Peoria, a retired Limestone Community High School teacher, is a frequent customer. “If you spend any time in Downtown Peoria, you can’t help but notice the building,” he said. “I sponsored an event in the early 1990s before the renovations. It needed a lot of help. The owners of Obed & Issac’s did a wonderful job maintaining the integrity of the structure and its originality.
“They’ve continued to improve it with the addition of games and dog-friendly outdoor areas,” he said. “It’s a crown jewel of Peoria. The city should consider itself lucky that such a beautiful building was saved and is now a draw for the area.”
Meanwhile, Veirs’ go-to recommendation for new diners: “Start with an upside brown coffee ale in cooler temperatures or a strawberry blonde during the summer, along with an order of Scotch eggs. Follow that with a stinger burger and you’ve got a fantastic dinner.”
Celebrating history, making history
Although the building was constructed as a church, it only served that purpose for 60 years, the last 12 of those as the First Federated Church following a merger with Second Presbyterian. In 1949, the church was purchased by the Electra Chapter of the Eastern Star with a $120,000 endowment from Ellen Donmeyer. The building was to be used as a chapter house for Eastern Star and eventually would house the Donmeyer Family Monument created by Fredrick “Fritz” Triebel.
The Donmeyers — Ellen and husband Isaac — were a prominent Peoria family that owned a lucrative milling business, making and selling flour. Ellen commissioned the monument following her husband’s death in 1911. She died on Sept. 28, 1916, having never seen it completed.
It would be another dozen years — 1928 — before the memorial was finalized and shipped from Italy to Peoria, where it was warehoused for another 24 years before finally being erected in the southwest vestibule of the then-renovated Eastern Star/Donmeyer Temple. The Donmeyer family ashes were interred there on May 6, 1952 and remained until 1985, when they were removed and relocated. The memorial remains in the building today.
In 1969, the Eastern Star attempted to have the property rezoned for development of a Shell Oil service station. Local protests led to the failure of that request. The Eastern Star owned the building until 1985.
During the next 30 years, the building housed an array of ventures, including an event and banquet operation, offices, a group tour business, dance, art and photography studios.
And then the Conns stepped in.
It was important for the couple to retain the historic nature of the building. For one, they needed to take advantage of the River Edge Redevelopment Zone program, so the building had to be put on the National Historic Register. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity program helps revive and redevelop environmentally challenged properties adjacent to rivers in Illinois.
Misselhorn applauds the work the Conns have done.
“It’s in a neat little area with the Peoria Diocese across the street, the recently renovated and closed Scottish Rite, the Ronald McDonald House and the whole medical development going on,” he said. “It really stretches the footprint of downtown. We’re really happy they came. The building survived a number of near deaths over the years.”
Karen said it was just meant to be. It was important to pay homage to the Donmeyers, who had a passion for the building, she explained. Obed & Isaac’s opened on Sept. 26, 2016, which would have been Ellen Donmeyer’s 172nd birthday, said the Conns.
Around the country and the world, there are many religious buildings that have been renovated, resurrected and repurposed into a variety of uses, including brewhouses and such.
“It’s certainly not a desecration,” said Misselhorn. “It’s a great use, sort of a church for good times and good food.”