A Truly Walkable Community and Model Neighborhood for Urban Living
In this first of a series that puts a spotlight on historic or culturally significant homes across North America, The Plan Collection looks at the West Bluff District of Peoria, IL.
It was about seven years ago when I relocated to this city that I had my first exposure to the West Bluff. As someone from Manhattan, what really struck me about the West Bluff was its walkability. Across this country, millennials and Gen Xers are flocking to urban environments seeking to experience a more vibrant and convenient way to live. In fact, many mid-size cities are working with developers to create these environments.
Yet, what I found right here in Peoria’s West Bluff District were all the “bones” for a thriving, 21st century, urban community. A density that encourages walking. Top-ranked regional institutions committed to the neighborhood’s success, including Bradley University and Methodist Hospital. A large, multi-use park fit for all ages. A convenient commercial area located along Main Street.
But what really makes the West Bluff a standout among walkable communities? That this small, urban neighborhood has so much remarkable and well-preserved residential architecture – gems that one would expect to find only in cities far larger!
During my first visit, I was more captivated by the gorgeous fall foliage that surrounded me … and never took more than a passing look at the homes on the wonderful tree-lined streets of this historic Central Illinois neighborhood. But there’s nothing like curiosity to take you back to a place of interest. After being invited to a get-together at a charming home on Moss Avenue and listening to someone recall her wedding at the Pettingill-Morron House, I promised myself a leisurely walk along the streets of the West Bluff to “house watch” and to read more about this section of town.
West Bluff: A “Well-Preserved Reminder” of Past American Wealth
Spanning 365 acres along North and Main Streets, High Wine Street, Moss and Randolph Avenues, Sheridan and University, east of Western Avenue, and parts of adjoining streets, the West Bluff Historic District is one of three Registered Historic Districts in Peoria County, IL. The area flourished in the 1800s when prominent residents of the city built their mansions and stately residences. Today, the area encompasses Bradley University; Bradley Park; the Arbor, Cottage, and Orchard Districts; the Uplands; and a few other neighborhoods.
The West Bluff never played an important part in the economic development of Peoria and was mostly overlooked until the 1840s. During that time, a few families who would become prominent residents of the city purchased property in the West Bluff for their farming and distilling activities. One of them – Tobias Bradley – would marry Lydia Moss, the founder of Bradley University, a mid-size private educational institution located at the center of the West Bluff. The Bradley home on Moss Avenue is an Italianate brick mansion – which has been renovated into two apartments rented out to Bradley faculty.
Let’s take you on a “mini-tour” of several beautiful and historic homes on the West Bluff of Peoria.
The Francis Little Home: An Original by Frank Lloyd Wright
About three years ago, when I was learning about different house styles, I read about a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house on Moss Avenue. I was really excited to see the house in its full display of Prairie-style charm. A colleague of mine shared my enthusiasm and offered to drive along Moss Avenue and show it to me.
I wasn’t disappointed. The house was the classic Prairie style plan: simple squares at varying heights, low-pitched hip roofs with large overhangs and huge casement windows that allow a lot of natural light.
Described as the “crown jewel of Peoria's historic buildings" the Francis W. Little House was built in 1903. Its owner – Francis Little – was a lawyer, who with his wife and family lived in the house for less than a year. The Littles eventually moved to Minneapolis into another Wright-designed home.
Since 1903, the house has undergone renovations. Foundation walls and some of the brick façade have been repaired. There are now tiles on the roof that are similar to the originals. But throughout the years, even as ownership changed (five since 1903), the integrity and original design of the Francis W. Little house have been maintained. Thanks in part to a militant neighborhood community that fought to preserve the house’s history and unique personality.
With lines similar to those of the Francis W. Little House, Prairie style houses like this 4-bedroom, 4-bath, 2-half-bath home plan pay homeage to Frank Lloyd Wright in communities across the country (Plan #161-1058).
Lydia Moss Bradley’s Italianate Brick Mansion
The restored Italianate brick mansion on Moss Avenue is one of the oldest and historic treasures of the West Bluff. The home belonged to Lydia Moss Bradley, the founder of Bradley University. Born in Vevay, IN, Lydia Moss showed an entrepreneurial spirit at a very young age. Historians note that she traded a horse given by her father to buy a tract of land. She then cleared the land and sold the logs to a local sawmill managed by Tobias Bradley, the man she married in 1837.
By the time the Indiana natives moved to Peoria in 1847, Tobias Bradley had a successful business, and they had accumulated enough wealth from the sale of Mrs. Bradley’s land holdings in their town. Their circumstances allowed them to buy acres of land in the West Bluff – where they built a two-story, 11-room brick mansion on Moss Avenue for themselves and their children.
Lydia Moss Bradley outlived her husband and her children – none of whom lived past age 14. Even in an era when women were rarely allowed to get involved in financial affairs, she more than doubled the $500,000 estate left by her husband. With her business acumen, Lydia Bradley found ways to add to her wealth and to pursue construction and philanthropic projects in Peoria.
Her lasting and most fitting tribute to the city and the memory of her husband and children was the founding of Bradley Polytechnic Institute – today’s Bradley University, a prestigious school with 5,400 students pursuing degrees in more than 100 undergraduate programs and more than 30 graduate programs in five colleges. Just what Lydia Moss Bradley had in mind when she established a “school where young adults could learn to lead purposeful lives.”
If you wanted a "mansion" of your own similar to the Bradley house, you might choose something like this 3-bedroom, 2.5-bath home plan (Plan #170-1116). Change the roof from hip to gable and add a wing on the right, and the structure would look almost identical to the Bradley mansion, though on a smaller scale.
The Pettingill-Morron House
In 1833, Moses Pettingill, a hardware merchant from New Hampshire moved to Peoria when the city consisted of 150 people, a number of log cabins, and frame houses. The first house he built on Moss Avenue in 1865 was destroyed by a fire. In 1868 – three years after the fire – Pettingill completed construction on an 11-room Second Empire style brick mansion for his family. Like typical Second Empire designs, the Pettingill house has a boxy shape, steep roof pitch, tall arched windows and columns.
The house included three bedrooms, a sitting parlor on the second floor, a main floor parlor, a library and servants’ quarters. It has an arched entrance with a natural oak door with glass sidelights, arched windows, and elaborate decorative details. In 1900, the house was renovated to include a Colonial revival porch and porte-cochere.
Moses Pettingill’s family lived in his mansion until 1892. After the Pettingill family, five other families occupied the house, including the John Boyd Stone family who renovated the house – and installed modern kitchen facilities and bathrooms.
In 1953, Jean Morron bought the property from the Boyd Stone family when her ancestral home was demolished to make way for I-74. A descendant of a very prominent Peoria family, Morron graduated from Smith College and studied in France and McGill University in Montreal. She also taught geometry at Peoria High School.
Records of the Peoria Historical Society document that when Jean Morron moved to the Pettingill mansion, she brought “all her household furnishings, the fine ornamental fence, the once highly polished brass rails from the front porch, the silver nameplate on the front door, the gas lighting fixtures and a marble fireplace mantel from her bedroom.”
Jean Morron lived in the Moss Avenue mansion until her death in 1966. A year later, trustees of her estate donated the house and its contents to the Peoria Historical Society. The house was registered on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 as the Pettingill-Morron House Museum.
Today, the Pettingill-Morron House is a museum that contains a collection of unique memorabilia from the families who occupied the home for more than a century. Its beautiful grounds and interior rooms also make it a popular wedding venue.
Hillcrest Manor: Today’s Converse Manor
Atop the corner of Main and Randolph – just before one turns right onto the historic High-Wine district – sits an 11,000-square-foot home once called Hillcrest Manor and Easton Manor (after the wealthy grain trader who built it). Designed by Charles Ulrichson, a Swedish architect, the Victorian Empire-style mansion was constructed in 1881.
The manor home of Edward and Sarah Easton featured turrets, huge windows, a mansard roofline that extended to the upper level windows, floor tiles from England, elaborately carved woodwork and adornments, marble and stone fireplaces, a third floor billiard room, and a ballroom whose original chandelier now hangs in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
It is rumored that the Eastons entertained Presidents Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt in their mansion. After Edward Easton’s death in 1901, the manor was purchased by Col. John Comstock, a well-known Peoria realtor. Col. Comstock, his wife, and nine children lived in the house for 19 years. When they left in 1960, the house was abandoned and scheduled for demolition. The owners were given permission by the Peoria City Council on three different occasions to raze the mansion and build a high-rise apartment on the site. And each time, the city’s efforts were futile because of preservationists who protested its demolition – and finally succeeded in placing the manor on the National Registry of Historic Places.
The manor fell into disrepair in the ensuing years until two historic preservationists bought the home and began renovations. In 1997, Jane Converse, a prominent business executive who owned Converse Marketing bought Hillcrest Manor for her company’s home office. Saving and renovating the magnificent historic home was a labor of love for Jane Converse who continued the work of the former owners. Today, Hillcrest/Easton Manor is known as Converse Manor – beautifully maintained and cared for – still perched majestically in its original location on Main Street Hill.
The Joseph Greenhut Mansion
At the corner of North Sheridan Road and High Street, whiskey baron Joseph Benedict Greenhut built a 35-room mansion in 1884, complete with a dining room that sat 50 people. The castle-like home had a large tower, porches, balconies, a solarium, a ballroom, and a carriage house.
The Austrian-born Greenhut and his family immigrated to the United States to live in Chicago when he was nine years old. He was one of the first volunteers to enlist during the Civil War. Although he retired after being wounded in 1862, he recruited a company of infantrymen who joined the 82nd Illinois Infantry. Together, they served at Gettysburg and Tennessee.
Greenhut made his fortune in a distilling business, which he started in Chicago. He moved to Peoria in 1870 and by 1884, he was a very wealthy man who owned the Great Western Distillery, at the time the largest distillery in the world. He also founded an organization that united all distillers and controlled the country’s production and value of whiskey.
Local art and history experts note that Greenhut came to know President McKinley during their service in the Civil War. When the President visited Peoria in 1899 for a dedication of a monument to honor Civil War Soldiers and Sailors, he was a guest of the Greenhuts at their mansion.
When the Greenhut family moved to New York to pursue other business opportunities, the mansion was sold in 1912 to William Wolfner, Greenhut’s brother-in-law.
In 1917, Wolfner converted the home into an apartment complex – with one apartment on each floor. He also had the letter “W’ etched into one of the chimneys (which still exists). In the 1930s, the three apartments were further renovated into smaller units. Today, there are 10 apartments in the building that have modern furnishings but have some of the old fixtures from the Mansion.
More “Gems” on Moss Avenue
Two other gorgeous homes on Moss Avenue (#1005 and #1205) don’t have historical facts attached to them. But they remain gems of the West Bluff neighborhood with their classic exterior and interior designs.
1005 West Moss
Smack in the middle of the historic houses on Moss Avenue is a five-bedroom, two bath, single-family home that was built in 1885. The Victorian style home has a brick façade and features a turret, covered front porch, and rear patio. A close look at the steps, brickwork, and interior fixtures – i.e. stairs, doors – shows the ornate details and woodwork that are characteristic of the Victorian-style design.
1205 West Moss
Built in 1890 by another whiskey baron, this 13-room home that occupies 3,506 square feet of space has four bedrooms, three baths, a covered front porch, a deck, a fountain in the backyard, a parlor for entertaining, and a billiards room.
It has been restored for modern times – without losing its former grandeur. The ornate details are still evident in the moldings in the exterior façade, the iron gate, the front door, and the interiors. Fireplaces, light fixtures, and floors have been restored; and a number of rooms have stained glass.
The River City of Illinois may not be on your itinerary any time soon. But if you’re in the Peoria area, especially in the Spring and Fall, be sure to take a leisurely walk down the West Bluff District to enjoy the sight of these “hidden” gems.
Architectural treasures can be discovered and unearthed every day. Just look closely – you may even find them “hiding” in your neighborhood. Let us know in the comments section below!