The self-proclaimed “Pride of the Fox,” this scenic riverfront community exudes historic charm, while also boasting a vibrant downtown and a wide range of recreational amenities
Pictured here from left to right are Pottawatomie Park, The Arcada Theatre, and the riverwalk and St. Charles Municipal Building.
Drive along roads that wind along the Fox River and past tracts of land that look out over the waterfront, and you can see how St. Charles was once a vacation spot for Chicagoans. That same “wish you were here” postcard kind of charm is evident today when you turn a corner into the downtown area, with streets lined with historic buildings, a stately hotel and throwback theater marquee.
St. Charles isn’t the vacation playland it once was, when the barons of industrial late 19th and early 20th century Chicago took extended getaways at their summer cottages. Yet this Fox Valley suburb — which calls itself the “Pride of the Fox” — remains a destination for day trips and weekend jaunts while also being home to more than 33,000 residents.
As a testament to its scenic charm, St. Charles made headlines last summer as the site of a celebrity wedding of Chicago-area native Jenny McCarthy and actor Donnie Wahlberg at Hotel Baker.
Among its many accolades, the title #1 City in America for Families bestowed in 2011 by Family Circle Magazine, “is testimony to the fact that St. Charles is simply a wonderful community to live, work and play,” maintains mayor and 40-year resident Raymond Rogina.
Rogina underscores the point that this river town continues to forge ahead while maintaining the assets that have served the community well for the last 180 years. Indeed, the balance between hip hot spot and historic hamlet is the focus of the new “City Side” campaign for promoting the downtown area as an urban oasis.
The new campaign is based on market research, which includes a focus on current amenities, trends and the direction of downtown St. Charles as outlined in the city’s Comprehensive Plan, explains Lynne Schwartz, executive director of the Downtown St. Charles Partnership. “Having opportunities for people to engage in a variety of activities in a well-preserved setting, led us to this approach,” she adds.
On the streets of St. Charles on any given day, that notion can be seen in action. Whether it’s a crowd surging into or out of the historic, restored Arcada Theatre, a paddlewheel riverboat gently whirring up the river on a warm, sunny day, a performer strumming a guitar at a local independent coffee shop, or group of friends browsing an upscale boutique, St. Charles remains, in many ways a place to get away and have fun.
The inherent charm and modern appeal continues to attract visitors to the area for all kinds of outings, from recreational to cultural to educational. “St. Charles has a recognized brand as a leisure tourist destination,” says Amy Egolf, executive director of the Greater St. Charles Convention and Visitors Bureau, pointing to the more than 16,000 information requests received last year, 30 percent of which came from within Illinois.
Those who live in and near St. Charles agree that it’s as great of a place to call home as it is to visit. “We love St. Charles because it’s rural, yet urban. We have trendy restaurants, beautiful parks, and family-friendly festivals,” says Lynn Nickel, an area resident for more than a decade.
“It’s absolutely a great place to raise a family,” agrees Karol Weyman, who has lived in St. Charles for 12 years and started a family there with her husband.
For leisure, business or everyday life, there is certainly a lot to do and see in St. Charles, especially as winter thaws and more people head outdoors.
Adjacent to the Fox River, Hotel Baker is an iconic landmark in downtown and a veritable institution since it opened in 1928.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the hotel boasts more than 50 guest rooms and suites, the ROX City Grill with live entertainment, and a vintage ballroom that has a light-up floor — one of only three in the world. The outdoor patio and garden area includes a colorful rose garden and old-fashioned boathouse.
In addition to Hotel Baker, there are plenty of options for those who are visiting St. Charles overnight or for an extended stay, including several inns and hotels as well as the Pheasant Run Resort.
What does the golden age of silver screen and vaudeville have in common with comedian Andrew Dice Clay? Answer: the Arcada Theatre.
Nearly 90 years after it was built, the Arcada Theatre is known for its diverse lineup of performances spanning music, theater, dance and comedy, among other art forms.
The theatre was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1994. About a decade ago, it was bought by Ron Onesti who invested in renovations and kept original touches like the signature pipe organ. Many national performers have taken to the Arcada stage, including comedians Dana Carvey, Martin Short and the aforementioned Clay, in addition to musical acts like the B-52s and Dionne Warwick, and actors Shirley MacLaine and the late Mickey Rooney, among others.
Upcoming shows include performances by The Smithereens, Charlie Daniels Band and Scotty McCreery. Onesti is also throwing a 10th anniversary show on May 2 to commemorate that milestone.
The venue, the acts and the setting in St. Charles come together in a memorable way for guests, says Onesti. “It’s very experiential. I try to make it a place where you feel as if the entertainer is giving you a private concert.”
Downtown Dining and Shopping
In addition to its bustling downtown, St. Charles boasts several shopping and dining locales for a broad range of tastes and styles, including First Street, Century Corners, Fox Island Square and Old St. Charles.
As its name denotes, Century Corners is comprised of stores, restaurants and other businesses housed in historic structures. Town House Books is an independent bookstore where you can get a cup of coffee or even breakfast, lunch and Sunday brunch while checking out the best in literary works. Visitors can browse a host of other spots in Century Corners, such as Panache, Directions in Clothing, Stonehouse on Cedar, The Warehouse Antique Shoppe and Confectionary, Lil’ Red Schoolhouse Antiques and the Tranquility Spa and Wellness Center.
Shops of many different kinds also line the First Street shopping district and the Fox Island Square and Old St. Charles centers. Whether you’re looking to start a new hobby at the Home Brew Shop, scouring for upcycled elements at Red Foxes Boutique, or browsing for a new outfit at Jeans and a Cute Top Shop, you can find pretty much anything at the various retail outlets within St. Charles.
The dining scene in St. Charles is just as diverse. You can dine at an Italian restaurant, Nuova Italia — housed in a former church from the 1850s — hang out with friends at the Filling Station Bar and Grill, or sip on an espresso at the Arcedium Coffeehouse, among many other eateries and food merchants.
Norris Cultural Arts Center
One reason that St. Charles is getting a new “City Side” promotion is that recent research conducted for the city found that many people are visiting the area for cultural and entertainment attractions. On that note — literally, and figuratively — St. Charles offers entertainment choices for all ages.
The Dellora A. Norris Cultural Arts Center, for example, includes a 1,000-seat theater with cutting-edge features like a hydraulically-operated orchestra pit and a free-floating floor for dancers.
Performances run the gamut of genres, from community bands and theater troupes to national headline acts. Upcoming shows include jazz musician Andy Schlinder (April 12), the Fox Valley concert Band (May 3) and jazz musician Chris Madsen (May 24).
The Norris Center also includes an art gallery that’s free and open to the public from Wednesdays through Sundays. The Watercolor 2015 exhibit is open at the gallery until April 12, featuring more than 80 works from seven Chicago-area artists.
Given St. Charles’ growing reputation as an arts and entertainment hub, there are several other cultural institutions in town. The Steel Beam Theatre, for example, stages several productions a year in an intimate space. And the Fine Line Creative Arts Center features a wide range of crafts and artworks as well as classes on all types of art media.
The Fox River
With a slogan like “Pride of the Fox,” it’s no surprise that the Fox River is a destination in its own right.
“The Fox River that meanders through our historic downtown is a bold accent and a wonderful natural asset,” notes Mayor Rogina.
The picturesque waterfront has drawn legions of Chicagoans to the area for vacation and summer homes, and it continues to hold a certain sway.
Weyman and her husband chose St. Charles as a place to raise their family, moving west from Evanston to be closer to his job near Rockford. “He grew up around water, and that is what drew us here. And it’s still pretty cool. When I drive across the river on my way home from work some days, I feel like I’m going on a retreat,” she says. Another bonus: in the summer, the family enjoys kayaking just steps from home.
Indeed, during the warmer months one can spot kayaks, canoes, stand-up paddle boards and fishing boats up and down the Fox River. Another longtime attraction is the St. Charles Paddlewheel Riverboats that cruise along the Fox from May through October.
The river is also the site of many special events. In June, the annual Mid-American Canoe and Kayak Race will push off from Mt. St. Mary Park along the river.
On the topic of special events, there are a lot of them in St. Charles. The big one, and the event that has practically become synonymous with St. Charles, is the annual Scarecrow Fest in the fall.
That event has become so popular that St. Charles dubbed 2015 the “Year of the Scarecrow.” This marks the 30th year since the inaugural Scarecrow Fest, and to mark that occasion, the theme will be part of other festivals, parades, art shows and concerts this year. In addition, local hotels are offering Year of the Scarecrow promotions and special rates.
Before Scarecrow Fest happens, there are literally dozens of other events in the community including the very popular City of St. Charles RiverFest — three days of non-stop entertainment including Dragon Boat Races, music, food and massive sand sculptures — this year set for June 12-14.
Other upcoming events include the St. Charles Fine Art Show in downtown St. Charles on May 23 and 24, and the Fine Line Arts Festival at the Fine Line Creative Arts Center on May 29 and 30.
A new event is the April 12 Amazing Race, based on the television show of the same name. Teams of two will compete in a variety of challenges in locales around St. Charles. “Teams will go around to eight different businesses in the community and perform tasks that require brainstorming, communications, strategy and teamwork. It’s a footrace that starts at the Baker Community Center,” explains Erika Young, marketing manager for the St. Charles Park District, adding that some scarecrow components will be part of the event.
Pheasant Run Resort
St. Charles history as a vacation spot is evident in the development of other leisure-oriented destinations in this Fox River town. The Pheasant Run Resort, built in 1963, encompasses 250 acres and lives up to its resort billing with nearly 500 rooms and suites, a spa, lush golf course, indoor and outdoor pools, tennis courts, six on-site bars and restaurants, and ample space for special events like weddings and meetings.
Purchased last year by the Saint Charles Resort, LLC Group, the new owners and management team have updated and improved several areas, most recently the convention center site.
Pheasant Run has also become known over the years for its entertainment offerings. Several productions are held during the course of a year in its main theater. The Fox Valley Repertory is the home production company, performing musicals, comedies and shows for all ages. Also on site is a Zanies Comedy Club, keeping guests laughing with an ever-rotating cast of visiting comedians.
The Kane County Flea Market/Kane County Fairgrounds
A variety of events are held at the Kane County Fairgrounds. In addition to the namesake Kane County Fair in the summertime — set for July 15-19 this year — the fairgrounds are home to the popular Kane County Flea Market, which opened for the season in March and runs on the first Sunday of the month and the preceding Saturday through December.
Known for its good finds in antiques, collectibles and other various and sundry items, the flea market is an experience in its own right. In addition to haggling over a truly wide array of items for sale, visitors can sample all kinds of fare from food vendors.
The fairgrounds are bustling many other days of the year as well. The Kane County Sportsmen Show is coming up on April 19, followed by the Chicago Toy Show and Antique Collectible Toy and Doll Show on April 26, and the Chicago Drum Show May 15 to 17.
Parks and Other Green Spaces
St. Charles has earned its postcard-perfect reputation in large part because of the beauty of its surroundings. Dozens of parks, farms and open spaces underscore the fusion of an urban vibe in a pretty natural setting.
The riverside Pottawatomie Park is one of the main parklands in town, with picnic areas, playgrounds, pools, sand volleyball, a 9-hole golf course, mini-golf, and seasonal canoe and pedal boat rentals. The park is run by the St. Charles Park District, as is Mt. St. Mary Park along the Fox River Trail, which includes picnic areas, fishing, a tennis court, basketball court, skate park, playground, arboretum and a canoe launch.
They are among the more than 60 parks, two aquatics facilities, a golf course and mini golf, nature center, farm and two athletic complexes on the east and west side of town run by the park district. “We’re very fortunate in our town to have all of this, and a lot of green space,” says Young. Also under the organization’s purview is a public boat launch at Boy Scout Island and the Baker Community Center housed in an historic home that once belonged to the same Baker family for whom the hotel is named.
There are also multiple nature havens in St. Charles, too, including Primrose Farm, Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, Creek Bend Nature Center and Healing Gardens at Stone Hill Farm. Additionally, Andersen Woods, Brewster Creek, Ferson Creek, Fox River Bluff and Tekakwitha Woods are within the St. Charles portion of the Kane County Forest Preserve.
Heritage and History
The past is very much a part of the future of this far western suburb, whether it is historic landmarks that continue on as popular attractions, vintage buildings and homes, or third- or fourth-generation businesses.
The rich history of St. Charles is captured and celebrated at the St. Charles Heritage Center, which includes two museums in historical buildings. The Heritage Center features regular exhibits highlighting the history of the community, from its Pottawatomie tribe roots, to the Civil War era, to 20th century living. History also comes alive at the Durant House Museum at the LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve. The circa-1843 home is a living history museum representing prairie life in that era and is run by the Preservation Partners of the Fox Valley. The Beith House Museum, located in a restored 1850s-era Greek revival style home, is another historical site in St. Charles.
Likewise, people can see how this area’s early settlers lived at the Pioneer Sholes School, a one-room school house dating to 1872 that has been restored for public and school tours. The school is also located within the LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve.Edit Module