Photographer Bryan Smith is on a crusade to save Peoria, one house at a time.
The lifelong Peorian began photographing houses and posting the images online in mid-2016, shortly after Caterpillar executives announced that the corporate headquarters was leaving Peoria.
“It was a way of preserving Peoria before it disappeared,” Smith said during a phone interview with the Journal Star. “I had this sinking feeling that after the Caterpillar move, Peoria was kind of disappearing. I just wanted people to see the beauty of it, and the history, because people kind of got despondent or dismissive. Some were saying that Peoria is just another Detroit, another hopeless city.”
A cab driver for 15 years, Smith is well acquainted with the many neighborhoods that make up the city. He developed his love for old houses 30 years earlier as a paperboy delivering the Journal Star on the East Bluff. That’s when he first began naming houses.
“I just named the houses to remember them, to make it fun,” he said. “That’s Garry Moore’s mom’s house, that’s Dan Fogelberg’s mom’s house. … that’s the house that tipped me $5, that’s the house where I accidentally broke the window throwing the paper.”
The habit came back as Smith started cataloging houses with his phone camera. After posting his first set of photos on the Memories of Peoria Facebook page, he decided his photos needed captions.
“At first I just took pictures, but it just seemed so empty, so I thought I should put the names of the places or at least a little bit of a story or something that is recognizable about it,” said Smith.
Whimsical names like “Mushroom House” for a home with multiple gables, “Pacific Blue” for a painted house and “White Castle” for a home with a tower helped draw people into the posts. Soon people were commenting.
As people reminisce, they provide the history of the house. Sometimes people talk to Smith as he is photographing houses, giving him details he includes in his captions.
“I say, ‘Hi, my name is Bryan, and I’m on a journey, if you will, of capturing and cataloging things,’” Smith said. “People are really open with me — they tell me these wonderful stories. I learned the history of Avanti’s from one guy, and the whiskey barons from another guy. It just goes on and on.”
People also enjoy seeing their houses online, Smith said.
“People say, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s my house!’ and they feel so appreciated,” he said. “I’ve had people private message me, ‘Can you go and take a picture of my house?’ I had one guy invite me to take a picture at his house, and I had no idea there was a lake in the Wardcliffe area. This guy private messaged me. He said, ‘Only you can capture this, I need you to come over and take a picture of this lake.’ And that is one of my favorite pictures.”
The project is nowhere near complete. Though Smith slowed down when he stopped driving a cab he’s been working as a cook for about a year and a half the COVID-19 shutdown provided him with more time to make art. Smith is also an illustrator who creates Peoria-centric postcards he sells at Relics gift shop on Glen Avenue. And he’s working on a book about Springdale Cemetery, where many of the people who built Peoria’s historic houses are buried.
Smith loves his hometown, and he’s working hard to spread that love.
“That’s my goal, to help people appreciate it more, to help them see Peoria for what it is it’s a really beautiful city.”