Witness to History

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The Sentinel on the Bluff. Just think: this incredible Bur Oak was already well over a century old when the French first explored this area in the late 1600s. If trees could talk…..

 

Quilt Keepers

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When it comes to heirlooms, few are treasured as much as a quilt that has been handed down through the generations. There is just something wonderful about a handcrafted piece of history that keeps you warm in winter and serves as a beautiful piece of art during the rest of the year. Every old quilt tells a story of DSC_2718-1generations past who loved and labored, hoped and dreamed and helped to form the world in which we live today. Swaths of fabric from various garments and scraps of this and that are held together by stitching that has often been repaired by succeeding generations who just may have added a patch or two from their own favorite old garments. Many times, when the face of an old quilt became to worn, in the old days, it was refaced with yet another layer of beautiful patchwork. Layer after layer, family stories are preserved in these priceless possessions. Quilts pass through the ages and tell their stories because they are mended and cared for along the way. It is much the same way with our city.DSC_2658-1

The story of Peoria is preserved all around us much like the various pieces of a quilt. Myriad buildings in every conceivable style, shape, purpose and condition still stand to tell us about the wonderful days of our boom town past, the trying days of the Great Depression and every era that has followed. Our City Hall was considered the finest amongst comparable cities in the nation at the time that it was built. Great mansions line the bluffs and occupy unexpected spots in the valleys right alongside the cottages of dock workers, serving to tell us how people lived together through time. Warehouses speak of the volumes of freight that have passed through our city through the ages and inspire us to think of what could once again rise from our river banks.DSC_3353-1

However, much like an actual quilt, the patchwork that is Peoria must be tended. The fabric pieces that make up our pattern need to be preserved, repaired and made strong for a useful future. Sometimes, in a quilt, it is necessary to replace a few pieces of the pattern while some others only need a reinforcement or simple mend. Thus, it is the same with our city. We must identify the weak spots in this urban quilt and prudently repair them. We must diligently guard against the unnecessary removal of vital seams and pieces that keep the picture in balance.DSC_3059-1

While we are making our repairs and improvements, we must remember that while our repairs do not always need to be carbon copies of the original, we must be prudent in our choices. We should preserve the balance of the pattern and protect the integrity of what makes our urban quilt distinct from others while leaving our own mark along the way. It is important that we choose our own replacement parts of this quilt by choosing only the best and most durable materials. We need to pay homage to the pattern that was laid before us while making certain that our own interpretations will be durable and a fitting testament to those who will someday enjoy this beautiful quilt and become its responsible keepers themselves.

 

NO. It is NOT ok to DEMO!!!

Back in 2009, my partner and I purchased a house that most people would have run away from with a quickness.  Since then we have put everything (I do mean EVERYTHING) into saving the house and restoring it.  Slowly, it is coming along, the process often boosted in fits and starts by the occasional availability of salvaged Victorian house parts.  That is the most bittersweet aspect of being passionate, but financially challenged.

The bittersweet part of it is the simple fact that every time another piece comes along to help complete our home, although it is exciting to us, it is always a sign that yet another house has been sent to its final resting place–the landfill.  Back in March, most of the 400 block of NE Monroe, in addition to the house at 500 NE Monroe were demolished courtesy of the Catholic Diocese.  They say it is for a good purpose.  Of that, I am sure.  Too bad there were no vacant lots available anywhere nearby in the North Valley.  Due to this unnecessary demolition spree, we lost several houses worth saving, notably the home of Captain Thomas Detweiller.

Currently on death row is most of the 700 block of Bryan Street.  This is courtesy of Methodist Hospital who so desperately needs another…….drumroll…….PARKING LOT!  Until recently, these houses were all occupied and pretty well maintained.  Although I am something of a purist and hate to see modern alterations, they were in good shape and each of them still possessed something unique and original worth noting when passing by.

In 103 degree weather, my son and I helped to salvage an enormous amount of bricks from the sidewalk.  As we pulled the bricks up, we were drawn to the thought of them as witnesses to generations of families’ lives.  We also noted that with the passing of these four houses, there would be but one house remaining on the block.  One.  This, folks, is not how to build a community.  This, people, is another example of how institutions walk right in and do as they please.  Certainly, the homeowners were paid for their properties, but to me this is not about money.  It is about the social and cultural value of preserving our past.

One house in particular has kept my constant attention.  It still displays a beautiful front porch even if the rest of the house is being held hostage by vinyl siding.  A simple stained glass window graces a beautiful stairwell that is decorated with intricate walnut trim.  Parlor floors are pristine and French doors still hang between the parlor and dining room.  The most amazing aspect of the house, to me, is the ceiling of the porch.  It is one of the most intricate ceilings I have ever seen.  It is composed of hundreds of pieces of decorative wood individually cut and placed in repetitive patterns.  Originally varnished, it must have been breathtaking.

Now, everything that hasn’t been salvaged will go to the landfill.  Ultimate waste.  Even given the inevitability of demolition, these four houses are chock full of doors, windows, flooring, trim, plumbing, light fixtures, and a million other things that make a house what it is.  There are so many people in need of these things, but they just get thrown away.  There simply is no excuse for wanton waste.

I could ramble forever on this subject, but I will abstain as it will serve only to raise my blood pressure.  I do not believe in needless demolition and I agree even less with the lunacy of waste.

Preservation is more than just buildings…..

Many apologies for my unannounced hiatus.  As some of you know, I am in the midst of starting my own business and it rather took the front burners for a couple of weeks.  Now, I am back……

The annual Moss Avenue Sale was held at the beginning of this month, but my mind is still full of so many images of people, merchandise, and historic houses as well as the aroma of good food wafting through the air.  Once a year, in the venerable old Moss-Bradley Historic District, friendly hordes of people come together in what has evolved from a large scale yard sale into a virtual festival of discoveries.  For as many excuses as years that I have lived in Peoria, I have managed to miss the Moss Avenue Sale until this year.  I will not miss it again!

The Moss Avenue Sale is not just a sale.  It is more than an event.  It is a living example of how historic preservation can create and sustain a community.  From one end of the neighborhood to the other, there are unique houses that have been lovingly restored.  I do mean “lovingly.”  Spend any amount of time chatting with residents of this treasured street and you will feel the love they have for their part of the world.  The annual sale that takes place on Moss Avenue is almost like an open house reception for the neighborhood.  There is an electric excitement in the air as residents open their sidewalks, lawns and even their homes to the sea of people looking to find something special.

I volunteered all day to help a local organization sell items and the range of people that I met was amazing.   As I stood there, I realized that all of the houses up and down the street were just like these people.  They were all different and they all had their story.  While most are restored and in good repair, there are others that are “getting there” or just “hanging in there.”

Another thing that I noticed is that the vast majority of homeowners in this splendid old neighborhood know their homes.   I mean they REALLY know their homes.  They know the stories about the families that built them, the architects, the quirks–you name it.  They know about just about every other house in addition to their own.   One would be hard pressed to find another type of community so closely bound as any of the historic residential districts such as Moss Avenue.  Even for a neighborhood full of diverse peoples, there is a long tie that gently binds.

Whenever you pass an historic building or district, remember that you are beholding much more than a nice old building that has been saved.  You are witnessing the history of the exact place upon which you stand.  It is embodied in the structure right in front of you.  Cherish it.

A pair of reverse sister houses. The house to the left is clad in old aluminum siding whereas the house to the right has been faithfully restored to its original colors.

 

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Mad Musings about the Madison Theater

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Certainly, by now, everyone knows about the finalization of the long and drawn out hotel deal and the demolition that has finally begun on the 500 block of Main Street in Peoria.  I have to say that I have long had mixed feelings about the whole matter.  Having worked at Carnegie’s many years ago, I was fully aware of the condition of the infrastructure at the Pere Marquette and have often wished the hotel could be given a new set of “innards.”  I am excited to see that particular wish become a reality.  I am equally happy to see the construction of the new Marriott.   The purist in me is less happy about having to lose the Lasher Building for this project, but the realist in me can accept this one.  What I cannot accept is how our city tends to act once something new is introduced into the middle of an older area.  Suddenly, everything should be new.

As soon as the hotel deal was made, I knew in my heart that the Madison Theater would be in trouble.  I had hoped it would be viewed as an opportunity for responsible revitalization, but I also knew better than to try to fool myself.  Sadly, Peoria does not have the best track record for preserving the embodiments of its astounding history.

The Madison Theater is one of the most recognizable landmarks in downtown Peoria.  It is uniquely the last complete theater extant from its time.  Many people of Peoria have fond memories of the Madison and many simply love it because it is beautiful and unique.  Emotions aside, it has the possibility of becoming a central showpiece of our community.

For decades, the Madison has been allowed to die a slow death through neglect.  The building has been tapped as a source of cheap income and little apparent effort has been made recently by its owners to show their worthiness to be stewards of Peoria’s history.  This building is now ingrained in the public consciousness as a run down place filled by undesirable bars.

An original Madison Theater box seat chair, from my personal collection                                                                                 

 

 

Now, more than ever, it is imperative that the public comes to understand the immense economic, cultural and social benefits of restoration, rehabilitation and renovation.  Communities across the nation have been reaping the benefits for years of what we are all too happy to toss into the landfill.

We claim to be a city of leaders, but into what direction are we leading others?  Rest assured, what we do today sets an example for what others will do tomorrow.  Exemplary is not always a positive word.

Newspaper clipping of the Madison Theater, 1925

There is a certain factor of amazement that envelopes restored historic buildings that simply cannot be imparted into new structures.  There should be no underestimation of how important it can be to the city of Peoria if out of town visitors step out of the Marriott and say “Wow!”  when they see the restored Madison and surrounding businesses.  There is no need to gut our city to make it special.  It already is.  We just need to open our eyes and see it, embrace it, and preserve it for our future.

Look Up!

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Growing up in a modern house always left me feeling a just little deprived.  My grandmother would often take me to visit friends and relatives who lived in wonderful old houses full of intriguing details that our house just never could quite equal.  There were wonderful old fireplaces, stained glass windows, tall windows, intricate carved wood and a thousand other details that were just missing in our own home.  Whenever I was in one of those marvelous old houses, I could feel the presence of the past; of the workmen who built them and of the generations of those sheltered by their eaves.

Lately, when I am out taking photos of my favorite things, I find myself looking upwards.  I do this because I am privileged to live in a city chock full of Victorian houses with surviving chimneys of all shapes, sizes and styles imaginable.  These creatures are of a different species altogether from those being built today.  Today, chimneys are often false brick or wood boxes concealing metal exhaust pipes.  Not so with Victorian chimneys.  They are often fantastic constructions of brick with intricate textures that play with light and shadow much like crown moldings and dentils.  Not only are the bricks often arranged in beautiful patterns, but the chimneys are often topped with the most fantastic terracotta chimney pots and have other ornamentations such as terracotta tiles depicting figures or geometric motifs. Sometimes, the fireplaces have split flues that allow for stained or leaded glass windows above the fireplace mantels.  The variety is astounding.

Whenever you have the chance, ditch the car and take a walk, look up and you will see what I mean.  Beautiful chimneys are yet another reason for preserving old houses.  They just really don’t make them like they used to and I suspect that they never will again.  They never will be able to build them that way for many reasons.  Aside from the deficit of true craftsmen, the least of those reasons is the simple fact that most of the bricks found in old houses were manufactured nearby.  Sometimes, in the case of rural homes, right on the property.  Those bricks have as much of a story to tell as the brick streets that I also dearly love.  Stop, look up, and listen……

The times have changed and the world has moved forward, but left behind, to our stewardship are these wonderful echoes written in bricks.  Cherish them and look after them.  We owe it to our future generations.

The Sensible Case for Saving Brick Streets

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Anyone who spends a reasonable time around me will come to realize just how much I love brick streets, brick sidewalks, and just old bricks in general.  I will go out of my way to walk down a beautiful brick sidewalk or street.  There is something so human, real and soulful about the warm color of a well worn brick walkway with grass peeking through the spaces between the bricks and tree roots giving rise to gentle undulations.  There is just something about a brick road or walkway that the cold blandness of concrete or frailness of asphalt cannot mimic.

Too often, however, brick streets have been replaced or covered up.  A walk through the old parts of Peoria, or any town, will show the usual asphalt streets.  On the less well kept streets, often one can find worn spots in the asphalt that reveal a sturdy underlying brick street.  Additionally, many of these streets still have limestone curb pieces.  Just look.  You will see them.

So what happened?  We became more hurried and we became shortsighted.  Asphalt roads cost less than half to build than brick roads.  Of course, you get what you pay for.  Asphalt roads have a lifetime that is a fraction of that of brick.  In the quest for smoother roads for faster driving, we decided to cut corners and took a terrible wrong turn.  By the time a brick road naturally deteriorates, if completely left to its own, an asphalt road will have been replaced many times.

So why should we save brick streets?  There are many reasons for retaining and restoring these historic treasures.  I think there are three points that make the strongest case.

Brick streets, as I mentioned, last longer.  Much longer.  Their durability far outweighs the initial expense of restoration/repair. Asphalt streets must be replaced every fifteen years or so.  In Peoria, there are brick streets that are either a century old or certainly approaching that age that are still in good use and in most cases, those streets have been largely left to pure neglect.  Blessed survivors.

Brick streets are good for the environment.  Their permeability allows for rain and melting snow to return to the groundwater source as clean, naturally filtered water instead of overwhelming the storm sewers and carrying polluted water to the river, in the case of Peoria. Not to mention, brick streets lie at the correct elevation for which they were originally engineered and promote the best drainage (when they are not covered in layers of asphalt).

Brick streets create safety zones.  Cars naturally must drive more slowly on brick streets and thus, pedestrians and children at play are immediately placed into a safer environment.  There is no need for ugly speed bumps and other deterrents.  As a matter of fact, traffic that normally would cut through residential areas will tend to drive elsewhere.

I could argue many other points for saving and restoring our brick streets, but as most of them relate to aesthetics, I will stick to the three that make the most sound economic, environmental and safety sense.  Let’s look at the passionate side of it later on…….

Finding Balance

It may be said that a bridge is a structure composed of enduring materials that are held together by a great deal of balance and careful planning.  Whether composed of stone, wood, steel or iron, all bridges have in common one thing: they join two or more similar areas together over a gap or chasm of some sort.  In that sense, it may be said that historical buildings and landmarks are a sort of bridge through time.  They link our past to our present and connect to the pathway of our future.  Only through careful planning and a great deal of balancing, can this be achieved.

One local bridge to Peoria’s past is Nailon Plumbing Supplies.  Apparently, after 128 years of being in business and also being in the same family, it is possible they may close shop for good.  The brick building that has been occupied by this family owned business has recently been advertised as being for rent.  As for the plumbing supply business, it is still up in the air as to whether it will relocate or close down.

I, for one, hope to see this important link to Peoria’s past remain in business.  Nailon Plumbing Supplies is one of only a handful of businesses in this area to successfully endure for more than a century.  Additionally, I understand that Nailon has obscure  plumbing parts that are quite difficult to find—something anyone restoring an historic building will appreciate.

Another link I wish to see endure is the building occupied by Nailon.  101 Liberty Street dates from 1910 and has served a variety of purposes in its time.  With the construction of the new museum nearing completion, it is hoped that a good business will fill 101 Liberty and be a responsible steward of this little bit of Peoria’s history.

Responsible stewardship is part of maintaining a balance, as is new construction.  In any city, a good mix of contemporary and historic architecture creates a fragile but vibrant balance that contributes to the overall flavor of the community.  In Peoria, we have many fine examples of modern architecture and we have many fine examples of Victorian architecture both commercial and residential.  It has never been more crucial than it is at the present time to carefully maintain balance and harmony in Peoria’s architectural flavor.  Too many gifts from our past are thrown by the wayside every year.  Once gone, the balance tips and can never truly be righted again.

So, let us hope that whomever accepts the stewardship of 101 Liberty will keep balance in mind and pass this unique part of Peoria’s past forward to the future.  Let us build bridges together.

Welcome to May–National Preservation Awareness Month

May is the month that we have chosen to set aside for National Historic Preservation Month.   May Day begins the month and, unfortunately, too often, it is a cry of mayday as a building deteriorates and crumbles before there is a push for its preservation.  Everywhere, from the largest city to the smallest town, this pattern is constantly repeated.  Why?  It is simple.  There is a lack of common sense education in regards to historic preservation.

Left to our own, without an educated directive, we often believe what we have been told about old buildings.  They are drafty.  They leak.  They make noises.  They smell funny.  The list goes on and on.  Honestly, old buildings are just like people.  Sometimes they can be easygoing and cooperative and sometimes, they can be a bit of a pain to deal with, but underneath the surface there is a wealth just waiting to be rediscovered.  They may take a little extra care and understanding but the rewards far outweigh the investment in both dollars and common sense.

As the month of May rolls along, I will be sharing more of my thoughts on historic preservation, and particularly my thoughts on historic preservation in Peoria and the surrounding areas.  Keep tuned and as I share my thoughts, please share yours as well!

Be well and do good things.