PEORIA — Three old homes in Peoria got national attention on a new HGTV show called “Cheap Old Houses.”
Hosts Elizabeth and Ethan Finkelstein visited Peoria as part of their ongoing effort to celebrate old homes and encourage people to restore them. The pair are the founders of the popular Instagram page @cheapoldhouses, which features architecturally intact homes all over the U.S. selling for less than $150,000.
Based in New York, the couple had heard a lot about Peoria from their followers, so when they began filming the TV show, Peoria was one of the first places they visited.
Filmed in January, the episode kicks off with an early morning view of the Illinois River and downtown Peoria sprinkled with snow. Elizabeth and Ethan are driving through downtown on the way to the first home on Callender Avenue. Along the way, they relate some Peoria history.
“Around the turn of the century, there was a lot of industry in Peoria. There was a bustling warehouse district, and whiskey was the main industry. … And people with means built extravagant mansions, and people with lesser means were building average American houses that we’re like, today: ‘Oh, my gosh, I would live here in a heartbeat,’” says Elizabeth.
As the two approach the house on Callender, Elizabeth explains that it’s in the West Bluff National Historic District and is priced at $82,900. As they park in front of the two-story white house, Ethan is less than impressed.
“This house is a little bit underwhelming,” he says. “It’s a bit plain for what we usually post.”
Elizabeth is not deterred.
“I’m gonna convince you,” she says. “Give me a minute.”
When the pair open the door and step onto the enclosed front porch, Ethan starts to warm up. He sees the original clapboard siding and the leaded glass window that would become a focal point if the porch were returned to its original, open state. As they talk, an artist’s rendering of the restored porch appears on the screen.
“Removing the front porch of this house would be everything,” says Elizabeth. “The curb appeal would increase tenfold.”
Ethan finds more good qualities as he steps into the home.
“Wow, this is really spacious. Walking into this house didn’t feel 1950s, it felt early 1900s, and it had a lot of great original woodwork. It was all oak, and it felt structurally sound,” he says.
The pair call up a friend, a preservation architect, who helps them identify what was missing — an oak colonnade dividing the two large rooms at the front of the house. The friend determines it would probably cost less than $1,000 to restore the colonnade with salvaged woodwork.
While the pair is less than enthusiastic about the home’s kitchen, they are pleased there is a kitchen at all. They frequently go into homes where the kitchen is gone.
“To have a kitchen in a cheap old house is actually a luxury because you can’t get a traditional mortgage in a house that doesn’t have a kitchen,” says Ethan.
On the way to the second home, Ethan and Elizabeth detour for a visit to Peoria Architectural Salvage, where they immediately find half of the oak colonnade missing from the Callender Avenue home.
“Within less than a mile of the house, we were able to find the element that went in that house,” says a beaming Elizabeth.
Ethan is impressed from the get-go by the second home on Hamilton Boulevard. Where most people would see peeling paint and (possibly) rotting wood, Ethan sees history.
“What I like is there is not that much you have to peel back. All its original siding is exposed,” he says.
The pair also love that the 3,682-square-foot house is a mishmash of architectural styles — a little bit Tudor, arts and crafts, and Dutch colonial – all for the bargain price of $99,900.
“This is an epic house,” says Elizabeth.
The pair are equally impressed when they step in the front door. While they determine that a set of pocket doors and a set of French doors are probably missing, further investigation reveals that both types of doors still inhabit other parts of the house.
“Back in the day, they were very into dividing their public and private spaces,” says Elizabeth.
The house has a simple, modern kitchen and some very spacious bedrooms. But what the pair like most on the upper levels is the finished attic with its peaked ceiling.
“This is the best room in the house,” says Elizabeth.
House number three is on Moss Avenue and is inhabited by Reagan Leslie and her daughter, Seven.
“Reagan has restored her 1908 Tudor in the most beautiful way. Of everyone in our old-house community, Reagan stands out to me because she shows us that there is not one way to restore a house,” says Elizabeth.
Reagan leads a tour of her home, complete with before photos showing beige walls and blue carpet throughout. Reagan kept all the old woodwork, but added modern touches like black ceilings and floral murals. She also spent many hours searching for a 6-foot length of marble baseboard to fill in a missing section in the home’s second-floor bathroom.
“If people have patience, you can do anything,” says Reagan.
The pair are impressed with what a first-time homebuyer was able to accomplish, and Elizabeth praises Reagan’s decorating style.
“What’s extra special about Reagan is, she took a house style that is based on ancient architecture and made it look so fresh and modern — she’s a complete old-house genius,” she says.
Elizabeth and Ethan wrap up the show over cocktails at Thyme Kitchen in the Peoria Warehouse District. They recap what they saw on their visit and agree that the house on Hamilton was the best of the bunch.
“I think for the size and price, you are getting a majorly-wonderful cheap old house,” says Elizabeth.
The show ends with the pair standing in the snow along Grandview Drive with the Illinois River providing a spectacular backdrop.
“Peoria, you have not disappointed,” says Ethan.
Leslie Renken can be reached at (309) 370-5087 or [email protected] Follow her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.