Today, we often run across buildings from past eras and wonder just what used to be there. We might be curious about the purposes people once had for constructing a particular building and perhaps even wonder what in the world could it could be used for today, if anything. Surely times have changed and so have the technologies that drive our world. Today, everything is computerized, electrified, simplified—you name it. We drive, we fly, we Skype and so forth, yet one thing has not changed: we are still human with the same basic needs. Of course when the subject of basic needs arises, we tend to think of food, clothing and shelter, but I think there are more basic needs than that. Surely we can't exist without those particular three essentials, but in order to actually live, we need to feed our souls, ignite our imaginations and have a sense of solid grounding. That's where history jumps up to the plate.
History and the physical evidence of it give us a large part of the grounding that anchors our sense of being as individuals and as a community. When we can walk past landmark structures, touch them, enter them and otherwise make them a part of our lives, then we are able to truly understand their significance and the significance of those who felt the drive and need to build not only these buildings, but the very foundation of the society that we enjoy today. Landmark buildings are part of the historic fabric that has been left to our care. They are legacy and heritage encased in pride of workmanship. When we care for these structures, they care for us right back in the sense of belonging and pride that they offer. There is just something that is so good and nourishing for the soul to be a part of something bigger than ourselves while remaining tangible, earthly and approachable. There is a true human connection to be had in these buildings if you just reach out and make it.
Often, landmark buildings were built for a specific purpose and later converted to other uses or abandoned to eventually fall to demolition by neglect. All over our city, there are wonderful buildings that could still be useful in myriad ways. Surprisingly, there are many buildings from earlier times that actually still serve the original purposes for which they were built. Of course, many of them are public buildings such as the Cathedral, the Scottish Rite Cathedral, Lincoln Library and a number of others. However, one absolute jewel remains hidden right in the heart of the city and has played a pivotal role in our history: The Peoria Women's Club.
In 1886, the Peoria Women's Club was established by a group of forward thinking Peorians for the purpose of educating women in the arts and providing a social and cultural outlet. For several years, the founding ladies of the club gathered at various homes throughout the city until they were able to build a permanent meeting place at the corner of Fayette and Madison. Built in 1893, the Peoria Women's Club building was designed by Jenney & Mundie. William LeBaron Jenny, of course, is known as the father of the modern skyscraper. Interestingly, it is said that the club building was intended to be three stories, but the foundation was mistakenly constructed to support two and two floors it remains.
The Peoria Women's Club tends to be hidden in plain sight simply because it is an unassuming red brick building that sees little daytime activity. Although the architecture is simple, it is a fine example of Romanesque architecture and there is notable ironwork visible on the front. To me, however, the most important features of the building lie within--rather like the layers of an onion.
Downstairs, the interior of the club boasts elegant and simple late Victorian gathering rooms for public events. Upstairs, is a theater that was once host to productions by the ladies of Shakespeare and many concerts and other events by organizations such as the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, Peoria Players and famous persons such as Carl Sandburg. Today, the theater sits empty and in need of restoration, but it echoes loudly with history that seems to just drip from its walls. Indeed, the very paint that peels from the ceiling and walls seems to be laden and saturated with history.
Whenever you pass a building that has taken upon the dignity of age despite the indignities of neglect, look carefully. Listen to it. You might even stop for a minute and shut out the world around you in order to commune with it for just a bit. There are so many stories and tales of life surrounding us in this city if we will only be willing to listen. Some stories have ended while others have merely paused while awaiting a new listener. Other stories, like that of the Peoria Women's Club are continuing to be written at this very moment. Choose to be a part of that story and be sure to share it. Peoria's history is your history. Make it count.