PEORIA — Peoria is about to be highlighted across the United States for its cheap old houses.
Three of Peoria’s bargain-priced, 100-year-old homes will be featured on HGTV’s brand-new series, “Cheap Old Houses,” at 8:30 p.m. Aug. 9.
While two of the houses were vacant and for sale when the show was filmed in January, one of them was occupied and in the process of being restored by Reagan Leslie. She was delighted to open up her Moss Avenue home to the show, an offshoot of the popular Instagram page she had been following for years.
“‘Cheap Old Houses’ asked if any followers knew anybody with old homes. And somebody tagged me in that post. That’s how we got connected,” said Leslie, the owner of Leslie Tyler Design, a firm dedicated to helping people restore old homes,.
The @cheapoldhouses Instagram page was created by a couple from New York. Elizabeth Finkelstein is a historic preservationist and her husband Ethan is a tech-savvy old-house enthusiast. With a following of more than 1.6 million people, their Instagram page features architecturally-intact historical homes from all over the U.S. priced at less than $150,000.
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Though homes in upstate New York will be featured in the first episode, the second episode takes viewers to Peoria — a community that has been on the Finkelsteins’ radar for quite some time.
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“Peoria probably pops up on our Instagram feed more often than any other city in America,” said Elizabeth Finkelstein. “The relatively-low housing prices combined with the incredible architecture make it the perfect city for someone looking for a beautiful historical home to restore. Ever since we started @cheapoldhouses on Instagram, people have been writing to us telling us that we had to visit Peoria. It’s been on our bucket list for years. So when we started thinking of places to visit for the show, we knew Peoria had to be on the top of the list. And we knew that Reagan — who’s restoring one of our favorite cheap old houses — lived there, so it was really a no-brainer.”
After touring two old homes for sale in Peoria — one on Hamilton Boulevard and another on Callender Avenue — the film crew paid a visit to Leslie’s Moss Avenue home, a Tudor revival built in 1908. She and her ex-husband purchased it for $119,000 five years ago.
“We looked for houses for about three years. One day, my mom called me and said, ‘There’s a house on Moss that’s for sale. It has French doors and a fireplace in the kitchen,’ and at that point it was sold,” said Leslie. “They described it as a French chateau. Immediately, when I walked in for the first time, I was like, ‘This is mine.'”
Though the house was structurally sound, it needed a lot of work. Leslie and her husband lived in one room while they ripped out tons of blue carpet, renovated the upstairs bathroom and completed essential electrical and plumbing work.
When “Cheap Old Houses” visited, Leslie explained how she spent months trying to find the right piece of marble baseboard for the upstairs bathroom.
“Because the marble that’s there is over 100 years old, it has some patina to it, so I had to go to a lot of salvage stores that are around here,” she said. “Over time, I found enough of it, and now we have marble baseboards all around. It took, like, two years of searching. It’s kind of a testament to the patience that it takes to really love on these homes,” said Leslie.
Leslie and “Cheap Old Houses” share the same philosophy about historical conservation.
“In our community, as we call it, we sincerely do get upset when a home is stripped of things that can’t be replaced. I equate it to an endangered species: If we keep hunting this way, fishing this way, we are going to lose this and we can’t bring it back,” said Leslie. “And I don’t see any path, in this modern world, where we won’t ever revert back to doing things like they did then: the moldings that were done by hand will never be done again. So, unless we hold on to what we have, we will never have anything to show our children.”
Leslie is not in a rush to get her home done. If it takes months to find the perfect salvaged sink, so be it. Using salvaged materials is also more eco-friendly. Slow and thoughtful home restoration is a philosophy she shares with her clients.
“You can love on your home and enjoy it even through the imperfections. While I obviously love making beautiful spaces, that is not the totality of its value. I think it aligns with what the old-home community is preaching — that these old homes need to be loved and cared for and mended over time, instead of just destroyed,” she said.
A Springfield native who lived in Bloomington before moving to Peoria, Leslie, 34, is awestruck by all the fabulous old houses in Peoria. She wants to have a hand in saving as many as possible. Leslie started the design business when the COVID shutdown halted the logistics management business she ran with her husband. As part of her marketing efforts, Leslie started doing a weekly video on Instagram where she interviews creative professionals on topics related to home design. In October, she featured the Finkelsteins, who talked about why people love looking at old homes.
“We absolutely feel that everyone, whether they are a preservationist or not, feels a certain magic when they walk into an old house,” said Elizabeth Finkelstein. “And I’ve known this since I was a little girl growing up in one — the secret corridors, the nooks and crannies, that is just fuel for a child’s imagination. … It’s shocking how many people follow (@cheapoldhouses on Instagram), but also not that surprising because I think people like to exercise their creative juices and look at before pictures and use their imagination and think about what they would like to do with the place.”
COVID and the related rise of remote work has led a few people to settle in some of Peoria’s old houses, a trend that may have legs if outsiders like the Finkelsteins continue to sing the praises of Peoria. The couple was struck by the tremendous potential in Peoria’s housing stock when they visited in January.
“The architecture blew us away,” said Elizabeth Finkelstein. “In many small cities, there are one or two streets of gorgeous historical homes. In Peoria, the beautiful homes seemed to go on and on for miles.”
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