Facelift planned for grand old hall
A venerable Peoria landmark is looking to put on a whole new face.
Brian Fox Ellis wants the Grand Army of the Republic Hall to continue its role as a place for the appreciation of history, but also become known as Peoria’s new home for live entertainment.
"This building is now open for business," said the founder of the Prairie Folklore Theatre, a touring company of 15 who spotlight area history through story and song.
Ellis has big plans for the old hall that has been kept alive through the years because of the efforts of local citizens.
"We’re grateful to the Central Illinois Landmark Foundation (which owns the GAR Hall) for preserving this building. They’ve restored the shell. My goal is to restore the soul," said Ellis, who manages the building for Prairie Property Management Inc., which leases its building from the Landmark Foundation.
Ellis sees the structure, completed in 1909, as a multicultural facility that could serve as a Civil War museum as well as a venue for banquets, weddings and corporate events. Recent users of the building include theater and dance groups that held rehearsals there.
Recent upgrades to the GAR interior provide even more options for prospective users.
"The main theater can accommodate 200 people with its stage and hardwood floor, plus there’s a dining room downstairs that will have a fully equipped kitchen," Ellis said.
Some of the equipment for the GAR kitchen comes from another landmark building in Peoria’s Downtown: the Prairie Building, owned by Ellis’ father-in-law, Jim Thrush.
"Leo Carney, who opened Andre’s Restaurant at the Prairie Building, will be our primary caterer," said Ellis.
Carney, who also is executive chef/owner of Bistro 320 in downtown Peoria, along with the Cajun-influenced Andre’s, said he feels like "the luckiest chef on the planet."
"I’m working with two historic buildings in Peoria. I couldn’t have written the script better myself," he said.
The GAR Hall’s central location downtown is a big asset, said Ellis.
"Within a couple of blocks of here, you have Caterpillar’s world headquarters and two of the major hospitals in the area," he said.
That location makes the hall ideal for staff meetings and luncheons, said Ellis, who hopes to pump up business awareness of the facility. He also plans other uses for the hall.
"We’re hoping to have live music and other things going on here. We want to give people someplace to go in the downtown," he said.
"We want to create a venue where Peoria can entertain itself with poetry readings, jazz groups and local comedy troupes," said Ellis.
A barn dance is planned for 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 9, he said.
"This is folk dancing for anybody. It’s popular in New England and Europe. Every dance is taught before it’s called," said Ellis.
While seeking to bring in new activities, preservation of area history — particularly Civil War history — remains a priority for Ellis.
"The hall continues to provide a place for patriotic and historic groups," he said.
Bryner Camp 67 of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War meets monthly at the hall along with the Peoria Civil War Roundtable and the Friends of the GAR Hall.
The GAR Hall is steeped in history, recently hosting a presentation by Western Illinois University Professor George Hopkins, who spoke on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April.
With the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth looming next February, an exhibit on Lincoln’s time in Peoria is being planned, said Ellis.
Much of the material kept at the hall precedes the building’s opening in 1909, he said.
"You’ll find Civil War ledgers and books from the period along with items like a Civil War era wheelchair and cannon balls from the conflict," said Ellis.
"The business model is not a new one. We want to strike a balance between attractions — old and new," he said.
Ellis thinks attracting people downtown won't be an insurmountable task.
"I think we’ve reached the tipping point with people living in the downtown plus, regardless of where you live in Peoria, you’re never far from downtown," he said.
Steve Tarter can be reached at (309) 686-3260 or firstname.lastname@example.org.