Art & History

Greenhut: Whisky Baron and Arts Patron

A recent Peoria Art Guild exhibit of Peoria artists and works from the Kottemann Collection prompts thoughts of Joseph Greenhut (1843-1918), the whisky baron whose generosity left an artistic legacy here.

Greenhut’s commitment made possible a number of Civil War memorials, including the Grand Army of the Republic building, a landmark at 416 Hamilton. Topping the edifice, its stone facade, sculpted by Peorian Joseph Petarde, has the designation “Greenhut Memorial.” Stained glass windows include the GAR badge, and there’s an auditorium with a stage still used by performing arts groups and for public performances. A lower level has sometimes housed various Civil War exhibits. Portraits of Greenhut and his wife, as well as a marble bust of Civil War General John Logan by Peoria-born sculptor Fritz Triebel are displayed in the hall, along with other Civil War-era personages and scenes.

Greenhut also covered the fundraising shortfall for erection of Triebel’s Civil War Soldiers and Sailors monument in Peoria’s Courthouse Square. When President McKinley came to Peoria for the 1899 dedication, the Greenhuts hosted the president at their High Street mansion. The two men had come to know each other during their Civil War service.

A Triebel marble sculpture, “Love Knows No Caste,” once graced Greenhut’s mansion. This romantic rendering of a couple not unlike Romeo and Juliet now stands in the rotunda of Peoria’s City Hall. Greenhut gifted this statue to Peoria, and it was once displayed at the conservatory in Glen Oak Park.

An Austrian immigrant at age nine, Greenhut had lived in Chicago and was among the first volunteers—actually the second person—to enlist there during the Civil War. He retired after being wounded in February 1862, but by August, he recruited a company of infantrymen. He was elected captain, and the company joined the 82nd Illinois Infantry, a German-speaking unit. Together, they served at Gettysburg and, later, in Tennessee. He was one of three commissioners appointed by Illinois Gov. Fifer to erect a monument at Gettysburg honoring Illinois soldiers. The speech he delivered at its 1891 dedication appears in the 1895 book The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen.

Trained as a copper-worker and tinsmith, Greenhut made his fortune in the distilling business, starting in Chicago. In the 1880s, he was president of the largest distillery in the world—the Great Western Distillery in Peoria. His numerous business interests included founding the Glucose Company of America, which became Corn Products Company. In 1887, he organized the Distillers’ and Cattle Feeders’ Co. and became its first president. Said to be modeled on Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, it was generally referred to as the “Whisky Trust.” Of the more than 80 distilleries that joined the trust, only 10 or 12 were kept in operation. Greenhut headed the trust until 1895, when it was reorganized as the American Spirits Manufacturing Company.

Greenhut’s mansion on High Street at Sheridan (today officially 802 Sheridan) once featured a tall tower, a turret, and a glassed conservatory. The carriage house, decorated with white-painted cast iron horse heads, testifies to the grandeur of the original red brick architecture of the house. Hewitt-Emerson architects directed the conversion of the home into three ultra-modern apartments with an elevator around 1916. The “W” on the chimney recalls Mrs. Greenhut’s brother’s family, the Wolfners. The apartments were built to house Mr. and Mrs. William F. Wolfner; their son, Ira, and his family; and a daughter and her husband.

By the late 1800s, Greenhut had become involved with the dry goods store, then known as Siegel–Cooper, in New York City, . His son, B.J., served as secretary and treasurer of the company. The Greenhut family reunited in New York City, and by 1914, the store became known as J.B. Greenhut Co. His New Jersey estate is now part of the Monmouth University campus there. In 1916, Greenhut loaned that mansion to President Woodrow Wilson, who used it as a summer home. Greenhut is buried in Brooklyn, although a son rests in Peoria’s Springdale Cemetery.

Fortunately, Peoria continues to be enriched by artistic contributions. Several works collected by the Kottemanns will remain in Peoria as important donations to Peoria’s cultural life. The Art Guild show also brought together many works owned by such groups as the Peoria Women’s Club, the Peoria Public Library, Peoria Historical Society, Lakeview Museum, the YWCA, Bradley University, and ICC, as well as private collectors and the Peoria women artists themselves. Curator Channy Lyons helped create significant awareness and continuing appreciation for Peoria artists. AA!