When thinking of a city like Charleston or New Orleans, it’s easy to connect that city with its historic architecture. Tales are told about the lives and activities that once were touched by buildings in those communities. Part of those narratives often go back to how preservation efforts fostered protection. A community’s efforts to respect its architectural legacy can not only add economic benefit to a region but more importantly help provide an important connection to the area’s history and its people.
Can we find those same connections in the structures that we see everyday in Peoria? What is the status of our local preservation effort? We drive past buildings often unaware of the significance that might lie hidden. We pass over streets not realizing on those very streets just a thin layer of blacktop may separate us from the brick roads of our earlier city.
Interest in our local stories through our historic buildings is not a new phenomena. The preservation of our local history can be seen in the 1867 formation of the Old Settlers Society and has never really been absent from our community’s principles since. The Peoria Historical Society was formed in 1935. As engineers started the planning of Interstate 74 to bisect Peoria, community efforts were made to help save certain buildings from demolition. Some of these efforts proved successful (the Peoria Women’s Club), while others could not stop inevitable destruction (the Reynolds House). Under the leadership of people like Les Kenyon and Tom Lighter, the 1970s saw preservation efforts grow through such actions as the creation of the Central Illinois Landmarks Foundation, the publication of a four book collection of historically significant properties, and the first official local landmarking through the Historic Preservation Ordinance passed by the City of Peoria. Offering protection, newly formed historic districts started to appear and house tours spotlighted some of our hidden gems.
Recently, the area has seen the addition of salvage efforts with stores like Peoria Architectural Salvage and Whiskey City Salvage. Glass plates are being rediscovered, giving an insight into local daily life. Add the adaptive reuse of warehouses just south of Peoria’s downtown and the attitude of historic preservation increases momentum – momentum that finds its footing on the efforts all of those who have worked to keep the legacy of our local buildings and their context in the local story alive for future generations.
Each of these buildings has a story to tell. There are details in the construction and design that reflect changing attitudes in the world in which they were constructed. Human stories and mores are weaven through these buildings as well. Future columns of “Brick & Mortar” will connect our local structures and architectural styles with the community stories that are part of their existence. I look forward to being able to help bring these connections to our readers.