An 1800s-era Church in the Heart of Illinois Turns Brewery and Restaurant

When purchased in 2015 by Conn's Hospitality Group, the Cornerstone Building still contained more than 30 stained-glass windows and hammerbeam roof trusses in the former church sanctuary, which eventually became Obed & Isaac's dining room.
When purchased in 2015 by Conn’s Hospitality Group, the Cornerstone Building still contained more than 30 stained-glass windows and hammerbeam roof trusses in the former church sanctuary, which eventually became Obed & Isaac’s dining room.

Known around town as the Cornerstone Building, a limestone church built in 1889 on the fringe of downtown Peoria, Ill., has become the cornerstone of a burgeoning revitalization for the area.

Soon to celebrate three years in business, the Obed & Isaac’s brewpub from Springfield, Ill.-based Conn’s Hospitality Group Inc. has preserved as much of the church as possible—crypt included—to provide a new type of communal space for Peoria residents. The business has catalyzed nightlife foot traffic to the periphery of downtown, as well as a new 40,000-square-foot development from Ronald McDonald House. The Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Peoria has invested in its facilities and education centers nearby, too.

In addition to a brewing facility, Obed & Isaac’s has a beer garden and bocce court. The location has twice the beer capacity of the original Obed & Isaac’s in Springfield, where Conn’s Hospitality Group transformed an Abraham Lincoln-era house for its original brewpub (see “Preserving Springfield”).

Cornerstone Building History

Designed by W.W. Boyington, the same architect who conceived the Chicago Water Tower, the Cornerstone Building began as the Second Presbyterian Church. In 1949, it became a chapter headquarters for the Eastern Star—a Freemason group—and was purchased by a grant from the Isaac and Ellen Donmeyer family, a prominent family in Peoria tied to the masonic organization. In 1969, the Donmeyer Association nearly sold the building to Shell Oil, which planned to demolish the building for a gas station, but the public interfered. Later, Isaac, Ellen and their daughter Rose Donmeyer’s ashes were interred in the building until it was sold in 1987 to be used for banquets and weddings, at which time the moniker, the Cornerstone Building, began. The Cornerstone Building was vacant for a period and, in 2014, the building was listed for $350,000.

When a local architect first invited Karen Conn, CEO of Conn’s Hospitality Group, and her husband, Court, to visit Peoria to potentially renovate some of its older buildings, the couple was given a tour of downtown buildings but nothing struck them. It wasn’t until the two went on a second visit on their own, “a reconnaissance mission,” Karen calls it, that she spotted the church. She wanted a space that was unique and cozy that could fit a second Obed & Isaac’s. “It’s all about an experience to us and none of the buildings that they showed us had that vibe to it,” she says.

Upon entering the Cornerstone Building, Karen says her jaw dropped. She recalls “it was virtually untouched,” when her family purchased the Cornerstone Building in October 2015. Notably, the church included more than 30 stained-glass windows and stunning hammerbeam roof trusses in the sanctuary, which became the dining room.

Conn’s Hospitality Group entered into a design-build contract with Springfield-based O’Shea Builders, a partner on its Springfield projects, which include a bed and breakfast, coffee shop, and the first Obed & Isaac’s.

A parking lot was removed to put in the beer garden and bocce court, as well as the brewhouse facility.
A parking lot was removed to put in the beer garden and bocce court, as well as the brewhouse facility.

Becoming a Brewpub

The existing church is 12,000 square feet, transforming into the main restaurant, and then a covered patio (2,300 square feet) and brewhouse (2,300 square feet) were added, complementing the look of the church. The brewhouse carries serving tanks and refrigerated kegs that flow 24 lines of beer underground through refrigerated pipes into the basement of the church and up a center post in the bar, as well as 24 lines outside to the beer garden.

The main challenge of the project was converting the sanctuary into a cozy restaurant. The pews already had been removed and the concrete floors were covered with low-pile carpet. The existing broadloom carpet was replaced with carpet tiles that match the colors—a rich blue and gold—and characteristics of the Obed & Isaac’s logo.

A unique stained-oak circular bar anchors the middle of the dining room and was designed to complement the existing beams above. Seating in the dining room includes long tables and highwalled quads, as well as double banquettes that accentuate the cozy feel of the restaurant and are laced with fabric to absorb sound. Half walls with fabric were placed at the entrance of the restaurant near the hostess stand to absorb sound, as well.

Chandeliers extend off the banquettes and hang above the tables. Original brass lighting fixtures on the old beams were rewired and given LED lights under the watch of a historic-preservation team. The more than 30 stained-glass windows are being treated over time. Fortunately, none were broken or severely damaged and some have been removed, cleaned and treated with storm windows; it proved too costly to complete all the windows at once. Natural lighting through the stained-glass windows changes the ambiance of the restaurant from morning to noon to night, Karen says.

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