By Norman V. Kelly
Let’s go back to 1900 in Peoria, Illinois. By then Peoria was sophisticated lady, I can tell you that. The population was 56,100 and we lived in a 9.1 square miles of City Limits. We had a magnificent GRAND OPERA HOUSE, a fistful of breweries and distilleries and a highly rated park system and school system. We were the center for all kinds of sporting events, and among our many, many taverns, we had over 100 churches. Peoria was simply a wonderful place to live, work and raise kids. Our Mayor was William F. Bryan and he worked out of the very same City Hall that is down there across the street from Sacred Heart Church.
In 1900 the Central City Railway Company was the company that won the contract with the City to handle the street car business in Peoria, Illinois. Well…as luck would have it that contract was coming up for renewal in 1900 and the rail company wanted to make sure they kept control of that lucrative business, so they came up with a scheme…a plan…or was it a flat out bribe? Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and let’s just call it a ‘business plan.’ Deal?
Anyway they owned some valuable property within the City of Peoria and they offered to build a civic center type building for the People of Peoria. Now this lot was located on Hancock and S. Adams and there was considerable value to this piece of real estate. They would build this building and then give…that’s right…give it to the City Of Peoria, Illinois…lock-stock and barrel as they used to say. Now was that an offer Mayor Bryan and his Alderman could refuse? Of course not. So…in 1901, after the railway Company spent $57,000.00 on a new building it belonged to the city. No strings attached…right. Wow! I wonder who got the streetcar contract? You guessed, good old Central Railway Company. Surprised? There was a nice ceremony and a gala event connected with the opening of The Coliseum on May 4, 1901. Christmas came early don’t you think? Now Peoria had two magnificent buildings that the tax payers living within the city did not pay one red cent for. The Coliseum and The Grand Opera House over on Hamilton Boulevard. Sadly the opera house burned to the ground in 1909.
The Coliseum was the gathering place for not only most Peorians, but thousands came here each year for one form of entertainment or the other. Of course it was a rallying place for union meetings, political meetings and the site of some fancy balls and a great meeting place for all folks of every financial standing. Tragically it too burned to the ground during the month of May in 1920. I can tell you that folks in Peoria mourned the loss of those two fabulous buildings.
Peoria, Illinois in 1925
Mayor Edward Nelson Woodruff was our mayor and if there is a deal making mayor in our history…he would get most of the votes. It was decided by him that Peoria should build a National Guard Armory…and when he decided to do that…why we did it. It was that simple. Of course he had Alderman to convince, but he rarely had trouble doing that. Where do you think he wanted to build it? Why of course, on the property that was gifted to the city way back in 1901. So…Hancock and Adams was the site, and how they raised the money, what deals he pulled is all available in the City Record. First there had to be some agreement with the Governor. Then of course, The United States Government, and finally with the Unions and on and on it goes. The point is that the Peoria Armory was built and the building still stands…although feebly…to this day.
The idea was to have a place for the Illinois Army man to train. That was the plan that got all the finances in line, but of course Woodruff knew that the City of Peoria would own it. That meant that they would have access to it and that of course was the real reason behind it all. It worked to perfection. The Illinois National Guard had a place to train and a place to call home, and Peoria had a grand sports arena and Convention Hall to draw people to Peoria. It was that simple and it worked like a charm.
I remember being in that place a lot of times. I used to sneak in to the Bradley games and as I got a bit older, it became an obsession with us. Once in awhile a brother or sister took me to the circus or a boxing match and roller skating there as well. I loved the boxing matches, especially The Golden Gloves. The circus was fun as well. One rigger that worked for the circus fell to his death and that was sad, but the show must go on and it did. Bradley played there for many years, maybe back when it was a Polytechnic school, but I have no way of remembering that. They also played double headers up at Woodruff High School, and those I remember. The Caterpillar team played there and believe it or not they had bowling tournaments in there as well. I loved to look at all the army equipment and when they had military parades me and my pals would head right for that place and take it all in. We were amazed by army equipment and the soldiers with rifles and bayonets. Wow…I loved the war years, 1941-1945. Finally, in 1950 Bradley moved to Robertson Memorial up on the Bradley campus. I have had season tickets since the early 1950’s, and graduated in 1958 from that great school.
A Tremendous Hit
The Armory dominated the attention of Peorians for years. Would you believe that they could seat 4,000 to 5,000 people in there? Most of the seats were bleachers but we loved to scurry upstairs to the fixed seats in the balcony. We got yelled at a lot but they never really scared us. We just kept moving.
They had rallies of every kind, a ton of unions, political meetings and a lot of strange groups that came here for one cause or the other. Lyndon Johnson was there at the Armory in 1964, and a bunch of other politicians trying to get one vote or the other. We never paid any attention to them…we were there to watch the excitement not a bunch of politicians lying to all of us. I rarely had any money so if I could not sneak in sometimes we just stood around outside and listened. They had a lot of great bands in that place and some of them played for really fancy dress balls. I was just a little poor kid that was lucky to have a pair of shoes, let alone a fancy suit and tie. I did get to see Spike Jones, thanks to my sister, and my brothers took me to a few special things. Eleanor Roosevelt spoke there before Pearl Harbor, but I surely did not have any interest in her. I liked that little dog they had but that’s about it. I don’t remember this but Eddie Cantor originated a radio show from the Armory once, and that got a lot of publicity. The Armory was an amazing place and as the years went on it grew old just like the rest of us.
The Army stopped using it and went out to an area near the Bell Wood Nursing Home and built another building for The Army Reserves. That just about did in the Armory and soon it too was on the ropes. The United States Navy was supposed to move in there, but they never did. Peorians were surprised when money was spent in 1975 on the interior and folks thought that the Armory was going to make a comeback. But, alas the old girl got older and older and then we heard that a man named Huber bought the place. I grew up with a Dick Huber, and we all had hopes that something good would come of it. I heard that the leaders of The Taft Homes were against whatever it was he had planned…and that fell through. Then a church bought it…some form of Baptist Church I believe, and that too never came to fruition. Anyone remember Chase Ingersoll…wasn’t he an attorney? He had some plans and that too never materialized. I checked a long time ago at the Recorder’s Office and found that he was a Trustee. Maybe it was The Armory Plaza Land Trust? I also saw that the property had a ‘Preserve and Maintain’ attachment to it and I thought who would want to buy the place? Could they tear it down? Anyway that is someone else’s problem, I just hated to see the big old girl sit there and die. But…everything costs a fortune so I think that all we have left of the Peoria Armory are memories. Soon, even those of us that still remember that bright star will be gone and like all memories…just fade away.
Editor’s Note: Norm is a local author and Peoria Historian. Tune in to listen to Harry, Norm and Rich on WOAM, 1350 AM . An outdoor, all American show, The Red Nose Gang on Sunday mornings from seven to ten. Norm welcomes your comments and you can also e-mail him: firstname.lastname@example.org