PEORIA — Just over 125 years ago, workers laid the cornerstone for the Peoria Women's Club.
In its original heyday, it was an organization ahead of its time. Twenty-seven women joined together to start a group where members could "share in the heritage of great music, literature and art," a club history says.
The red brick building in which they did so — with weekly programs in the morning and afternoon, with luncheon in between, with a 453-seat theater on the second floor for larger performances — is now showing its age.
Today's members are hoping to spruce up the structure at the corner of Madison Avenue and Fayette Street, perhaps eventually fully restoring it to its original glory.
But that's a tall order for the group of about 100 members, Carol Hornickle, the group's first vice president, admits.
"We've got work to do, but I think this building is worth saving," she says. "We've got to get people to recognize the possibilities. If these women could (start) it at a time they had no right to vote, and when most of them probably really weren't working ... you've got to do something."
First and foremost are some critical repairs to gutters as well as tuck pointing to prevent leaks like the ones sprung during a March snowstorm. Gutter work began this week.
Some of that repair was already being planned before the leaks began, with members seeking out donations to fund gutter work that hadn't yet started because of the weather, taking their account for fixes from near zero to over $10,000.
And though they missed out on a grant for some repairs, Hornickle says an "angel donor" has provided $5,000 in matching donations for what the group can raise in its repair campaign.
The skeleton of the main floor is still strong, though. Members use their meeting room and the dining area regularly, while back rooms hold a meticulously kept history of the club — old photos, books of events club members held over decades.
Some of those back spaces are getting some TLC soon, too. Hornickle hopes to make one of the three restrooms more accessible to visitors using walkers or facing mobility issues.
"I know it sounds like a little project, but for us it's a big project," she says, expressing hope that some retired or current contractors might like to volunteer some time to help out.
Long-term goals also include rehabbing the kitchen, which did get an up-to-date refrigerator last year.
A still more challenging endeavor will be repairing the second floor, where Hornickle agrees the costs are even higher. It served as early space for the Peoria Players and for the city's Amateur Musical Club; some Peoria Symphony Orchestra concerts were held there as well. And it played host to lectures or performances by notables from Carl Sandburg to Ethel Barrymore and Steve Allen, the club's history says.
The space has effectively been shuttered since a small fire in 1970, the stage of the theater there still set for the play in production at the time.
The blaze caused little damage, but the lack of use — including a lack of heat or air conditioning in the space — Hornickle says, "contributes to some of this" need for fixes on the plaster, walls and windows.
The group, too, needs to do a better job of selling itself.
"It doesn't look like there's a whole lot going on here," Hornickle says of the impressions people may have formed driving by the site, which also can be rented for events.
But members hold meetings every other week, and if they don't have the same speaker-lunch-speaker schedule as yesteryear — today it's one speaker and luncheon — they're trying to be "more aggressive" about attracting notable talks, "not the same person who's done four other places" and encouraging people to give them a look.
Those meetings are open to the public — and men, too, are welcome.
Chris Kaergard can be reached at email@example.com or 686-3255. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisKaergard