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Harrison School demolition work begins on Peoria’s South Side

Crews began the full-scale demolition of the former Harrison School on Monday.

A small tear could be seen running down the cheek of retired longtime Harrison School principal Aurthur Mae Perkins as she observed the walls of the abandoned building on Peoria’s South Side crumbling to the ground.

“It’s a building of love. Love was there, and love is bringing it down,” said Perkins. “The emotions that I have, it’s not tears that I’m hurt or anything. It’s tears of joy, and I appreciate seeing it come down and it’s coming down before anybody got hurt in the building."

Crews began the full-scale demolition of the 122-year-old structure on the back side of the building on Monday, following the recent completion of demolition work at the vacant McKinley School.

“We've been out here for maybe a week or two doing the environmental abatement, getting some tires removed out of the property, but today kind of kicks off the actual building coming down,” said Joe Dulin, community development director for the City of Peoria. "They’ll be out here for the next month or so; a building this size will take some time.”

Perkins said her passion for the school and the neighborhood was universal, and reciprocal.

“I loved the teachers, I loved the students, I loved the parents, and we loved the community,” she said. “Love spilled out from the school into the community.”

Chicago-based Green Demolition is handling the $1.1 million project to tear down the building that’s been vacant since 2010. Dulin said after the building is completely down, grass will be planted on an empty field as they await any decisions on the next stage of development in the area.

“We've been talking to the (Peoria) Housing Authority about what their plans are for the old Harrison barracks-style housing that clearly needs to be replaced in the future, and what we can do as a planning effort in coordination with them to hopefully get some housing back on this area and create a better opportunity for a future neighborhood,” said Dulin.

Also on hand to observe the start of the demolition was Dick Greene, who served as Harrison’s principal from 1983-88. He said he always looks back fondly on the building that dates back to 1901.

“When I was here, great memories. It was the largest elementary school in Peoria at that time; also at that time Harrison Homes was full,” said Greene. “We had over 700 students here, and a great staff with excellent teachers.

“It’s a massive school for a grade school, but what it enabled us to do was to separate the grade levels in different segments of the building. So really we had a lot of little schools within one school here.”

Last year, the City of Peoria was awarded a $1 million federal Community Project Funding Grant to put toward the Harrison demolition. The city council authorized the use of American Rescue Plan Act funds to cover the remaining cost.

Dulin said the Peoria Historical Society salvaged some items from the building, such as the school sign and stage curtains.

Greene said he's eager to see the site turned into something that can benefit the neighborhood.

“This building has been sitting empty and has been vandalized for years. So, there’s good memories, but it’s time to move on and do whatever the city’s going to do with this area,” said Greene. “This area needs a shot in the arm and maybe this can lead to something. I hope so.”

Perkins echoed Greene’s desire to see the property become a driving point for neighborhood revitalization.

“I don’t know what they plan to put here, but symbolically I think it’s going to be great,” said Perkins. “I hoped that I’m around to be involved in whatever comes up next in this community. I hope that they put something great on there for children.”

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.