March 4, 2024

Reviving The Big White Store: OSF HealthCare's Transformation of a Peoria Icon

OSF Healthcare Ministry Headquarters is a 2023 recipient of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Awards, the highest national recognition bestowed upon a preservation project by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Award recipients represent the best of the best in historic preservation, adaptive reuse, and the re-imagining of historic buildings for the future.

In the heart of downtown Peoria, Illinois stood the former Block and Kuhl building, also known as “The Big White Store” for its seven radiant stories of white glazed terra cotta. Since opening in 1905, the city’s first steel-framed structure weathered decades of neglect and disrepair—until OSF HealthCare intervened in 2018.

For the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, the owners of OSF HealthCare, restoring the dilapidated building into a new headquarters that could accommodate more than 700 employees also meant revitalizing the downtown economy. Thus began a $150 million transformation project, led by preservation architects JLK and architecture firm Dewberry, to redevelop the 275,865-square-foot space.

The following Q&A is with Meg Kindelin, president of JLK Architects, the preservation consultants who helped oversee the preservation efforts and tax credit process. Learn more about the full slate of 2023 awardees here.

Twilight OSF

photo by:

OSF Ministry Headquarters at Twilight.

What is the history behind this site, from the founding of the Sisters of the Order of St. Francis to their acquisition of the building that would become the OSF HealthCare Ministry headquarters?

The story of the Sisters and this project spans 150 years. The Order of St. Francis was one of the founding organizations in Peoria. The Sisters came to the area in the early 1870s and the Order was established in 1874 with the founding of their original hospital, which was a mere seven blocks from their current headquarters. Over the past 150 years, the Order of St. Francis HealthCare Ministry has grown from a 13-bed hospital to one of the largest healthcare organizations in the Midwest. When it came time for the Order of St. Francis Healthcare to build a new headquarters, they chose downtown Peoria.

What inspired the Sisters of the Order of St. Francis to renovate instead of building anew?

The Sisters’ wonderful and targeted mission is giving service to community through healthcare – in this case applied to the region of Illinois and the area around Peoria. Their new headquarters is an extension of their original mission.

Before this building was built, OSF offices and departments were scattered around the Peoria area. This project would bring all executive and office workers to one central place. The great opportunity of this HQ building was that it provided a moment where the Sisters could really invest in their downtown and say We believe in Peoria. We believe that this building and the site can really make a difference in the people of Peoria's lives - not only in their employees lives or in their corporation, but in all of Peoria -- altogether.

The downtown parcel consisted of the 1904-1918 historic Schipper and Block department store, its 1951 addition, a 1930’s A&P supermarket, and a 1947 parking garage, as well as some areas that had already been cleared. This is quite a large parcel. Caterpillar tractor had wanted to level everything on the site and build a brand-new headquarters, but Caterpillar was so kind as to recognize the possibility of the site. They offered the building for $1 to the Sisters, and also donated the money that was earmarked for the demolition of all the buildings to the sisters’ building effort.

There was a concerted effort to put the community at the forefront of this project. Can you talk about some of the deliberate design decisions that were made to support the community?

This building for 700 employees does not have in-house cafeteria. That means everyday 700 people are arriving at the building looking for their morning cup of coffee. They're looking for a meal at lunchtime. There is a lunchroom inside the building where people can bring their lunch and enjoy a restful lunch hour, but chances are they might be looking to go out and grab a bite to eat. Then even after work, they're looking for a place to have a meal with friends or go out with colleagues. Bringing that many people to downtown is a gamechanger: this is 700 employees, but it's also 700 customers who will be a part of the downtown of Peoria.

Interestingly, there is a small retail coffee shop in the OSF storefront, but the lobby points outward to the street. Even with the small coffee area, they're inviting the public into the building as a part of the community, not shutting them out.

Exterior of a restored white building that has been converted into a healthcare center in Illinois.

photo by: OSF HealthCare Ministry

OSF Ministry Headquarters at Twilight.

The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Award celebrates cutting-edge preservation approaches and technologies. Could you explain the innovative methods that set your project apart from others?

Because of the scale of this project, we simply had to innovate. This building was built in a series of stages from 1905, 1918, and 1920 with an addition in the mid-century. The core building was steel with brick sprung arch construction. The first addition to the building was reinforced concrete, and the second was a mixture of steel and concrete. Unlike a building with a single method of construction, there was the potential for many unexpected conditions.

The building was built at the very early stages of electrification, so it relied on natural light, huge Chicago-style windows, and operable sash. It's unusual to think of going into a department store and having fresh air circulating, but indeed that was the case here with the Block & Kuhl building. It became a Carson Pirie Scott in the 1960s and was renovated according to the tenets of a new modern sensibility, which meant closing off the exterior and making the shopping experience more inward-looking. Our challenge was to work with the building as it was designed but improve it to meet historic criteria while improving details to meet modern code and energy efficiency standards.

Interior OSF

photo by:

Interior of the OSF Ministry.

OSF Detail

photo by:

Detail of the OSF Ministry Headquarters.

Another innovation was the use of glass reinforced concrete panels on the facade. The Big White Store was known for its gleaming white terra cotta. The original terra cotta was cleaned and repaired or replaced in kind, and we captured the profiles via molds and had new units made and installed. In some areas however, there were large spandrel panels of white glazed brick that were lost and had to be replicated. The team chose to use GFRC panels rather than the glazed brick. It helped the project meet schedule and budget goals as well as historic criteria. It was lighter, less costly, easier to install but was designed and detailed to match the historic panels.

What advice would you offer to fellow preservationists looking to replicate a similar project in their town?

My watch words are to be flexible, but, like the Sisters, keep your eye on the long-term mission that you have. When a city looks at the potential of their downtown, they have to commit to the longest term and highest ideal, which is revitalization. Real community change is possible because of the reuse of a building like this. All projects have challenges – and here there were some pitfalls. But the entire team was committed to that final vision and understood the benefit that would come from this project. That shared goal engendered a spirit of cooperation and a spirit of flexibility among the team.

OSF HealthCare Ministry Headquarters Award Video

It is also incredibly important to work hand-in-hand with the client, particularly when using the tax credits. The whole team must understand the how and why of the credits. The credits are the main conduit to fund and enable continued use of the building, which in turn helps nurture the spirit of the downtown and the historic district. This project was fortunate enough to receive 45% of its hard and soft costs from historic tax credits.

It absolutely gives me chills to think about what the Sisters from 150 years ago would think about this project. The story of this project is a testament to what believing in your mission can do and how doing the work will get you there.

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Catherine Killough is the manager of grants and awards at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.”

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