This is a revised version of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in May 2014 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.
Prehistory and history of the Schipper and Block building
By Jared Olar
In the files of the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room is a newspaper clipping from the Jan. 13, 1994 Peoria Journal Star – an article written by Valari Hyatt, entitled, “Old stores haunt memories of downtown Pekin.”
The subject of the article is the old Schipper and Block building, which stands at the corner of Court and Capitol streets. “Rich in history, the building’s legacy dates back before its birth,” Hyatt wrote.
Once the location of a popular and successful clothing store, the Schipper and Block building’s history and “prehistory” reaches back to the period of the Civil War.
The business began in 1863 or 1864 as C. Bonk and Co., which ran a dry goods store with John H. Schipper as Bonk’s partner. After Bonk’s death, Henry C. Block joined the company, which became the Schipper and Block Co., located at 304 Margaret St., a block north of the corner of Court and Capitol which later would become its location. The 300 block of Margaret Street was then known as Smith’s Row, because that is where Dietrich and Teis Smith had their business operations, including their well-known Wagon Works.
In 1874, Schipper and Block moved their store to the corner of Court and Third streets – at 302 Court St., next to the post office. As their business thrived, they opened a second shop at 332 Court St., the corner of Court and Capitol streets, on Oct. 12, 1879. Some years later they opened a store in Peoria which soon after became the largest dry goods operation in Illinois outside of Chicago. The Peoria store became a Carson Pirie Scott in 1961.
Schipper died Sept. 25, 1893, in Louisville, Ky., while on his way home from Block Island near Rhode Island, where he had gone for a rest due to his ill health. Block continued to operate the business until the turn of the century, when the Pekin store operations consolidated at the corner of Court and Capitol streets.
That came about as the result of a fire in 1898 that destroyed the Schipper and Block store at the corner of Court and Capitol streets. A new structure was erected in its place. Then around 1900, Block sold a considerable amount of his holdings in the Pekin operation to George Ehrlicher, who had been Block’s right-hand man for many years. It was about that time that the decision was made to close the store at 302 Court St. and consolidate in the newer building at 332 Court St.
The company’s name was changed to Block and Kuhl Co. on Jan. 1, 1914, when Theodore Kuhl became president – but the “Schipper & Block Co.” sign remained, so everyone continued to call it the Schipper and Block building. Another fire in Feb. 1922 destroyed the “new” building, but by December of that year the company had rebuilt at the same location. That’s the structure one can see at that corner today.
George Ehrlicher’s sons George Jr. and Arthur took over the business after their father, and they kept the business going until May 1962, when business reverses made it necessary for them to sell the store. George Jr. died in Sept. 1962, just four months after the sale. The new owners, Harold Whaley of Ottawa and William T. Malloy of Peoria, were unable to return the business to profitability, however, and the store went bankrupt in 1964, when a receiver was appointed. The store limped along for another four years, finally going out of business in March 1968. The Schipper and Block building would then remain vacant for 26 years.
“Though much of the glamour has faded,” Hyatt wrote in 1994, “the old Schipper and Block building – as it has been called for over a hundred years, no matter who owned it – still stands on solid ground. In fact, the city recently sold the property at 332 Court St. to Tobin Brothers, with a developer’s agreement. According to Lee Williams, city marketing director, the transfer of ownership occurred Jan. 4.
“‘The Schipper and Block building is dear to the hearts of the mayor and (all of those on) the City Council. They had decided that the Schipper and Block building was definitely not going to be torn down . . . because of the historic background,’ Williams said, noting that Tobin Brothers is remodeling the three-story brick building for about $350,000.
“Their goal is to put the building back to its original state, then lease the building to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and several other businesses.”
More recently, the State of Illinois’ budget crunch led to the closing of the Pekin DCFS office. The old building once again went vacant and is for sale.