A Publication of WTVP

Bringing a Peoria Landmark to Life

Remembering my small role, and the legendary architects who conceived it
by Thomas Wilson | photo by Mike Bailey |
A photo of Sonar Tide Sculpture with the Peoria Civic Center in the background
The Peoria Civic Center

I was involved with the design and construction of the Peoria Civic Center from the start of design through the completion of construction.

I was the project manager for the local architectural firm LZT Associates, which served as associate architect to the primary architectural firm, Johnson Burgee. This provided the opportunity for close involvement and interaction with all involved, including the Civic Center Authority, City of Peoria, Johnson Burgee, all the specialty consultants, and the construction manager and subcontractors. 

During design, I regularly spent time in Johnson Burgee’s office in New York City, and I was involved on site daily throughout construction.  

I believe the most critical reason for the success of the project was the broad-based involvement and support of community leaders, Authority members and city staff. There was initially controversy regarding the need for and future viability of the Civic Center. This was overcome through the leadership of those involved in marketing the concept to the community.

The property acquisition was quite involved and sometimes disputed. Demolition of existing buildings was required, including the implosion of the Jefferson Hotel, as were the relocation of utilities and rezoning of properties. 

My close communications with Philip Johnson and John Burgee and their staff continued throughout design and construction. I was impressed by their availability. Philip Johnson was always personable, friendly and open. He never behaved with any airs despite his reputation and status as an influential architect and designer. I was regularly briefed by Philip in his office and treated with respect by Philip and John as a member of the project team.

I was surprised by Philip’s method of design, which primarily included working with three-dimensional models — this was before the wide use of computer modeling — and hands-on approach with staff. His office was void of superficial items except for the current project he was discussing. I usually picked Philip and John up at the airport on their many trips to Peoria. There was always conversation, with Philip seeming genuinely concerned about my family and what was going on in town. 


A hand written note
Personal note from Philip Johnson

One particularly memorable moment with Philip at an Authority meeting was when he was presenting materials and finishes for the project. He would hold up small samples, review the characteristics and why they were being recommended, and then cavalierly throw them on the table. This continued for a period of time until he picked up the glass samples. I think all present in the room thought he would also toss the glass samples on the table, and they were holding their breaths. He hesitated, then calmly set it on the table, much to everyone’s relief.

He was always an entertainer.

One year I was honored to be invited to his New York City home – the celebrated Rockefeller Guest House
 — for a Christmas party. By the end of the project, I considered Philip Johnson a friend. 

As with all design and construction projects, there were the usual problems during construction: 

  • During the pricing phase of the project, the glass arcades’ main exterior design elements had to be value-engineered.

The original design included radiused glass extending back to the buildings from the vertical elements. The glass was to be supported on a round, curved steel structure placed within the arcades. This configuration was kept on the outside walls of the theater lobby but was modified significantly in all other locations to a vertical and shed glass system supported on an extruded aluminum tube structural system.

This was a difficult decision for all. It modified the original design concept significantly but it permitted the arcades to remain in some fashion and resolved the budget issues. It was not a decision that was taken lightly by Philip and John and we discussed it more than once. I believe they understood the reason behind it but were not happy about it.

  • The exterior walls of the arena included 18-inch thick, curved concrete walls in four corners with square masonry corners on the other four corners. Basically, the configuration was an oval intersecting a square.

Initially, the interior face of the curved walls was exposed concrete. After the roof was in place, we discovered that the curved walls created an acoustical effect where you could stand on top of the seating areas, adjacent to one of the curved walls, and whisper, with the sound clearly heard and understood in the other corners due to the reflected sound from the curved surfaces. It also reflected the sound back to the center of the arena. This was quickly resolved with the installation of acoustical material on the curved surfaces. 

I believe the Civic Center was significant, successful and special for the community. Over the decades since its completion, the facility has hosted a variety of events addressing the many different interests of our community. It has grown in stature and size and validated the support of all those who fought so hard for the facility 40-plus years ago. It has anchored the downtown and provided an impetus for other development downtown and in the Warehouse District.

I have always been proud to have been a small part of its development.

Thomas Wilson

Thomas Wilson, AIA

is a Peoria native and recent retiree from Architectural Design Group, Inc. after 50 years in the profession. Most of his architectural career was devoted to the design and construction of health care, educational and community projects in central Illinois, such as the Peoria Civic Center