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A Publication of WTVP

The Soul of a Home

Local designer is giving new life to historic houses
by Laurie Pillman | Photos by Ron Johnson |
Reagan Leslie, at home with 4-year-old daughter Seven, is the creative director at Leslie Tyler Design
Reagan Leslie, at home with 4-year-old daughter Seven, is the creative director at Leslie Tyler Design

From her passion for historic preservation to her thoughts about art and civic engagement, Reagan Leslie creates a vivid picture with words. That storytelling shines through in her design work.

As the owner and principal designer at Leslie Tyler Design, she specializes in creating spaces with a soul. It’s a style she developed while studying theater. 

’it’s about unveiling things
and where do you want
the eye to go’

— Reagan Leslie

“I think I always commit to my theater background, because it’s about unveiling things and where do you want the eye to go? Directing it in that way,” said Leslie, pointing out how lighting can completely alter the feeling of a room.

“I think theater’s given me this ability to be very fluid and creative, imaginative and daring, and a little bit whimsical,” she added. “I think when you pair that against very historic, traditional lines, it becomes magical.” 

Leslie’s home on Moss Avenue shows that she lives her ideas. Original windows let light flow down the broad staircase and into rooms painted in rich colors to highlight the architecture.

Though the house has been photographed for books and television, on most days antique vases sit right beside crayons and dolls. It’s clear that Leslie is first and foremost a working mom. Her daughter, Seven, helped her establish a firm belief that spaces are designed to be lived in. 

“My home is much more than just a showcase. It’s my refuge. It’s where I feel at peace at the end of the day,” said Leslie. “I can return and just be like, okay, I’m at home. Even if it’s messy, I’m at home.” 

She stresses that’s something homeowners can miss when approaching design for old houses. Spaces can be stunning but lack heart. Original architecture can be showcased and historic styles can be replicated, but people need to feel comfortable living in their homes. There’s a fine balancing act between keeping the beauty of the original structure and making certain the spaces are accessible, she said.

“Doing that in a historically accurate way, but then also doing it in a way that makes things accessible in our modern world, that is a juxtaposition that is age old,” said Leslie, who designs for both residential and commercial spaces.

Reagan Leslie is the creative director at Leslie Tyler Design.

She has found her clients tend to appreciate art and like investing in local artists. To make art more accessible to new collectors on a budget, Leslie started Art Box in 2020. The service allows subscribers to have an exploratory session with Leslie, then receive a new piece of art each month that has been specifically curated for their home. It’s a way to support central Illinois artists and give patrons a deeper connection to the art they acquire.  

“My thinking is if someone appreciates their art and has it in their home, they’re probably going to be taking care of [their home],” she said.

Giving a structure a long lease on life is a passion of Leslie’s as she pursues her quest to preserve historic homes in Peoria. Originally from Springfield, she was intrigued by Peoria’s diverse community and fell in love with the older homes, many with intact original architecture. 

Her Black House Seven brand was established to follow her progress as an entrepreneur and single mom working with the issues that come about with older buildings. It grew out of her desire to educate people about how to revitalize historic properties. Her Black House Seven Instagram account shares topics ranging from “Eight Black Architects Who Shaped America” to keeping unique home accents without losing modern energy efficiency.

Demolition is not always a necessity and preservation can be a catalyst for growth in poorer neighborhoods, said Leslie.

“Preservation was this mechanism and tool,” she said. “Embracing it and really educating homeowners and also the trades on their value to properly prepare them and adapt them for modern life is something that could really change the landscape of the blighted neighborhoods. So, when I see Peoria, especially like the Center Bluff, East Bluff, South End, North Valley, we could really switch the tide and it doesn’t have to be one or the other.”

Leslie is testing this idea with a house on Bigelow Street that she purchased from the city land bank. The land bank usually demolishes homes and sells off the land, but Leslie put in a proposal to rehabilitate the home. The project has brought interest from the community and even earned Leslie a mention in Peoria Mayor Rita Ali’s State of the City speech.

People don’t always understand why she’s working to keep the architectural elements of a formerly abandoned home, said Leslie.

“People always ask me, like, what are you trying to do? I’m like, I’m just being a citizen. Like I have a daughter that I’m raising here and I want to do whatever I can to help,” she said.

As a designer, Leslie knows how preservation efforts can increase the monetary value of a building. The standard solution to profit off this type of property in similar neighborhoods is to convert it into several apartments. Leslie is more interested in how the community benefits from the project. As a result, she is committed to the original structure of a single-family home. 

The building process itself serves as an educational experience that Leslie can document to teach others how to revitalize similar properties. A fully renovated, single-home dwelling can bring more equity to an area than apartments do. Homeowners who take pride in their homes also are more likely to keep the architectural pieces Leslie is working so hard to preserve. 

She sees the potential for the house on Bigelow to become a community project that will benefit every family in the area. No matter what, she plans to continue working on old homes. 

“I’ve been lucky that I’ve built a life that I really enjoy and it feeds me,” she said. “I guess I’m blessed in that way. So hopefully we’ll see what … continues to unfold, because this isn’t the end.”  

You can learn more about all of Reagan Leslie’s projects at: 

Laurie Pillman

Laurie Pillman

is an author and freelance writer/editor, based in Peoria.
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