A Publication of WTVP

The Life & Times of Cletis Foley

Rediscovering Peoria’s quiet architectural avant-garde…

by Beth Johnson, Peoria Historical Society, and Ed Barry, Farnsworth Group |
Historical portrait of Cletis Foley

There has been considerable fanfare in recent years about the late 20th-century Peoria architect Richard Doyle. With the spark ignited by developer and entrepreneur Kim Blickenstaff, the community has been reintroduced to several of Doyle’s architectural jewels, including mercantile structures along North Prospect Road and the delightfully modernist former Peoria Heights Public Library. Peoria was also home to several of Doyle’s contemporaries cut from the same fine cloth: quiet yet passionate about their architectural craft, possessing immense creative talent, and powerfully committed to the community they called home. One of these contemporaries was Cletis Roy Foley.

A Modernist Legacy
Cletis Foley was the quintessential 20th-century modernist architect, ready to throw off the “shackles” of classical architectural dogma and detailing in favor of a sleek, clean and altogether new paradigm that was bold and powerful in its simplicity. Not only did he believe in the beauty engendered by this approach, he also believed in its transformative power to make society a better place. While hindsight tells us that pure modernism had its shortcomings, that passion ran deep and wide at the time.

A diverse sampling of Cletis Foley’s modernist architectural legacy in Peoria (some of which remain with us intact; others have been inelegantly modified; while some have been lost forever) includes:

  • 4444 North Knoxville. The first high-rise condominium residence in central Illinois is a superb example of the symmetry and purity of the International Style. It is located just south of David Connor’s equally superb modernist residence, also influenced by Foley.
  • Demanes Interiors. A beautifully Miesian commercial building, purpose-built as the home of Lou Demanes’ interior design firm. This gem has been somewhat lost in the cacophony of surrounding retail development.
  • CILCO Headquarters. Peoria’s only high-rise metal curtainwall structure of the Modernist era, with delightfully robin’s-egg blue finish panels. Only the ground-floor detailing has been lost by an inelegant update in more recent years.
  • Downtown YMCA. Very much in the spirit of Le Corbusier’s Villa Radieuse or Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia, this tall and thin building “slab,” with its low and shapely counterpoint, perfectly captures the spirit of its time.
  • Central Park Pool. One of Foley’s later public buildings, a joint effort of the School District and the Park District, this facility included expansive, translucent sliding doors that created a spectacular indoor/outdoor connection for all swimmers.
  • Varsity Theater. In contrast, one of Foley’s earliest designs. This excellent example of “urban modern design” (as opposed to modernist design) has been lost to a suburban-inspired strip shopping center.

Historical portrait of Cletis FoleyService to Community
This is just a sampling of the many buildings Cletis Foley helped create in our community during a career that spanned well over 50 years. He began as an associate with architects J. Fletcher Lankton and John N. Ziegele, and later became a partner at Gregg, Briggs & Foley, and then Foley, Hackler, Thompson & Lee Architects. Finally in 1965, he broke away from these larger practices to get “back in the trenches” by forming Apace (Associated Professional Architects and Consulting Engineers) with fellow modernist architect Gordon L. Tinsman and engineer S. Alan Baird. He formally retired from Apace in the late 1980s.

A true renaissance spirit, Cletis Foley was passionate about his family and community, as well as his chosen field of architecture. He was a devoted husband to Margaret and father to four children: Don, Mark, Gay and Pat. At Westminster Presbyterian Church (where he designed their beautifully modern parish hall), he taught Sunday School for 28 years and also served as an elder. He spent two decades on the City of Peoria’s Planning Commission; served 12 years as an elected trustee for the Peoria Park Board; and served on the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission. He was also involved with youth as a Boy Scouts leader and in a court counseling program for youthful offenders. In their spare time, he and Margaret hosted countless foreign exchange students, reveled in taking their grandchildren for some serious whitewater rafting, and delivered meals for the Meals on Wheels program.

Cletis Roy Foley left us some six years ago, after a long and meaningful century in America’s heartland. As an architect, citizen advocate and quietly impactful human, he left a powerful and positive imprint on that heartland. Much of what Cletis Foley was, as an architect and as a man, can be understood in the following quote from an article he wrote in the early days of his career:

“It is my firm conviction that the modern movement is winning out because it has a better product to offer. The point should be made, however, that this movement is not a style as compared with other traditional styles, but is a conviction of men, particularly our younger men, who see through the superficiality of past mistakes. Homes should not be modern in a stylistic sense, but modern as truly good architecture has always been—that is, suited to the times and people using it.” PM

Beth Johnson is secretary of the Peoria Historical Society Board of Trustees, and Ed Barry of Farnsworth Group serves as a board member.