St. Charles Town Focus
There’s no shortage of fun things to see and do in this historic and scenic Fox River town
Photo by Daniel Ploesser
A lot of towns have catch phrases and slogans, many of which are emblazoned on banners and signs around their respective communities. One term associated with west suburban St. Charles stands out, because it is as apt as it is creative.
“We believe in ‘sight doing’ rather than sightseeing in our hometown,” says Lula Cassidy, executive director for the Greater St. Charles Convention and Visitors Bureau. The phrase is a take on the bureau’s new promotional campaign — See It. Do It. Live It. “St. Charles is the place to get out, explore and try new things.”
To be sure, there are plenty of things to see and do in this Fox Valley community, whether one is among the city’s nearly 33,000 residents or just visiting for a day. It’s a decidedly scenic place. A wide swath of the Fox River runs through the town that also features rolling hills and tree-lined streets. Vintage homes and barns hold steadfast amid the decades-long encroachment of new residences and commercial areas.
The downtown area looks like something out of a greeting card or, for that matter, a Hallmark channel movie set in a small Midwest town. Beyond strolling, shopping, dining and being entertained, St. Charles visitors and residents can take part in a number of activities, whether those pursuits tend toward recreation, sport, relaxation or learning.
Just ask some residents, civic leaders or business folks who have put down stakes in St. Charles. Take, for example, high-profile couple Jenny McCarthy and Donnie Wahlberg, both celebrated for their work in entertainment and acting.
A few years ago, they were a family looking for a place to call their new home. “The reason I moved here, initially, after living in LA for 20 years, was the Facebook photos my Geneva best friend would post of her and her kids,” says McCarthy. “They looked like Norman Rockwell photos. The neighborhoods, with people smiling and enjoying life, seemed too good to be true. So I took a chance and committed to moving back to Illinois. It was one of the best decisions I ever made, along with saying “yes” to my husband, who fell in love with Fox Valley so much he bought us a house to make it official.
“Usually our imaginations of how things might turn out in our lives don’t live up to our own expectations,” adds McCarthy. “This community has surpassed anything I could have possibly dreamt of. The warm, kind-hearted people of our city don’t feel like strangers. We are blessed they have welcomed us and proud to call St. Charles our home sweet home.”
Wahlberg has been equally smitten by St. Charles. “Being a city boy, something I dreamed of my whole life was putting down roots in a small town,” he says. “Ironically, I don’t miss any of the big city amenities. Everything I need is here, or close enough that I can get to it with ease.
“My wish now,” says Wahlberg, “is to open a Wahlburgers on or close to Main St. It would be a dream to fly our own Wahlburgers ‘W’ sign alongside the Arcada Theater marquee, Hotel Baker’s awning, and the many ‘W’ flags flying in support of the Cubs.”
A Place for Heritage and Opportunity
To get the gist of all there is to do in St. Charles, one need only ask the mayor, Raymond Rogina, who has lived in town for the better part of three decades and knows it as well as anyone. “Our mission statement has four words and two of them are ‘opportunity’ and ‘heritage,’” he says, noting that the city and its leaders strive to balance both. “We have to grow and provide opportunities for businesses and residents, particularly in spaces where we can generate tax revenue. But we are also very aggressive in protecting our heritage here. In the not-too-distant future, we’ll be 200 years old.”
Anne Chambers, director of the St. Charles Chamber of Commerce, shares that assessment. “St. Charles has a cosmopolitan feel with a deep-rooted, historical sense of community, both from our business partners and residents,” she says.
Cassidy paints a picture of the myriad options of things to do. “Imagine living like a local with us, waking up to a walk or bike ride overlooking the Fox River Valley or a leisurely breakfast at one of our new restaurants like Brunch Café. Take a class or two, or learn a new form of art at the Fine Line Art Studio. Visit one of many active organic farms to pick out what’s fresh today. See what’s on offer on the dinner menus at our ‘farm to fork’ restaurants. After dinner, take in a 70s or 80s rock band playing at the Arcada Theatre.”
To provide a vision for the future to those who live in, visit and work in the community, business leaders and residents regularly collaborate with the city of St. Charles and not-for-profit civic organizations like the Downtown St. Charles Partnership, Greater St. Charles Convention and Visitors Bureau and St. Charles Chamber of Commerce. The purpose it to make good things happen.
Dining and Shopping on the Banks of the Fox
Situated about 40 miles due west of Chicago, St. Charles straddles DuPage County and neighboring Kane County. It covers terrain that includes historic neighborhoods, new residential developments, shopping centers along busy road ways, open land and forest preserves and a few remaining farm fields. But the center of town — and, arguably, the center of attention — remains the historic downtown that was built up along both banks of the Fox River.
Here, past meets present in scores of shops, eateries and service businesses. “What makes downtown St. Charles the perfect day trip or weekend destination is the mix of unique
establishments, along with beautiful scenic parks,” says Alyssa Feulner, events and marketing coordinator for the Downtown St. Charles Partnership. “From spas, theaters and cafés and restaurants for every palate to trendy boutiques and vintage shops, we have something for everyone. You can take a stroll or bike ride along our gorgeous waterfront parks and take in the many art sculptures or even kayak in the Fox River.”
Supporting the something-for-everyone notion, the downtown area is a classic juxtaposition of history and progress, marked by buildings on the National Register of Historic Places as well as construction areas signaling new condos and businesses. There are dozens of stores, ranging from longtime businesses like Swaby Flower Shop that first opened in 1908 to new stores like Wool & Company, a vendor of fine yarns. Blue Goose Market isn’t just a place to pick up groceries, but has unique offerings that have made it thrive for more than 80 years.
Restaurants in and near downtown St. Charles run the gamut of cuisines and formats, from A (Alexander’s Café) to Z (La Za’Za’ Trattoria). Eateries include veritable St. Charles institutions like the Colonial Café Restaurant & Creamery (with its famous Kitchen Sink sundae) and newer spots, like The Finery & Blacksmith Restaurant and the newly opened Eden on the River (see article on page 63).
Mayor Rogina calls out the dining scene as a point of pride. “We’ve become a serious restaurant town, and we have had some great ones that have been added to great places that have been here. People have a number of choices here,” he says.
Whether dining or shopping, one can easily hop from vintage to modern within moments. For example, stroll into the gallery at Mixology Salon to check out artworks inside the hip salon, then walk or drive a few blocks to the Century Corners district of St. Charles, with various unique antique shops and the quaint Town House Books & Cafe, where you can order a tasty sandwich or pastry after browsing the store’s laden book stacks.
While some of the village administrative offices are located in an art deco-style municipal building right at the edge of the bridge that links one side of town to the other, a new self-serve Visitors Info Center has been set up inside one of the newer developments along First Street, not far from the local Starbucks and adjacent to some new restaurants.
A visitor could also try out some trendy cuisine at Puebla Modern Mexican, then head for a nightcap and live entertainment in the Rox City Grill, inside the historic Hotel Baker across the street. In addition to offering a wine and martini lounge, Rox City serves up its own fare, including steaks, chops, seafood and salads.
Built in 1928 by “Colonel” Edward Baker, recently restored and marking its 90th anniversary this year, Hotel Baker has become an icon, both for overnight or longer stays and as the site for special events and weddings, including the nuptials of McCarthy and Wahlberg.
The boutique hotel is also home to the famous Rainbow Room, where many legendary entertainers played in years past, including Louis Armstrong and Guy Lombardo.
A West Suburban Entertainment Mecca
St. Charles is rich in culture. “Downtown St. Charles is a hub for live music,” says Feulner. “The most well-known attraction is the historic Arcada Theatre, which has entertained residents and visitors for more than 90 years. But you can take a stroll throughout downtown Thursday through Sunday and most likely run into five or six locations with amazing live music,” she says, pointing to spots like Vintage 53, Rox City Grill, McNally’s Irish Pub, The House Pub and The Filling Station Pub & Grill.
To Feulner’s point, Arcada Theatre is indeed a hub for music and other types of entertainment. With a historic facade that lights up Main Street, Arcada features acts ranging from comedians — Dennis Miller recently performed a stand-up routine there — to upcoming shows by Gary Puckett & The Union Gap (Feb. 11), The BoDeans (Mar. 3) and Michael Bolton (May 4).
The theatre mirrors the St. Charles way of successfully combining beloved parts of the past with current interests, says Ron Onesti, president of Arcada Theatre Entertainment. “As much at it is a place to relive musical memories, it is also a contemporary destination,” explains Onesti. “Most people who are fans of the bands we have here have grown into fans of other styles of music and entertainment, and so we are bringing in more family entertainment, more comedy and more country, among other things.” The free parking, accessible location and proximity to the dining and shopping scene in St. Charles are great bonuses.
Upstairs from the theatre, the Club Arcada Speakeasy and Showroom that opened in 2017 has become a gathering spot for locals and visitors alike. “People have embraced it and love the experience. We have a variety of entertainers — on any night you could have an acoustic rock performance by Kip Winger to a rockabilly presentation from one of the Stray Cats to a Charlie Chaplin presentation,” says Onesti.
Another popular entertainment venue in downtown St. Charles is the Steel Beam Theatre, housed in a historic building on Main Street. Upcoming shows include Dry Powder through Feb. 4, Three the Hard Way from Feb. 23 to Mar. 18, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change from Apr. 4 to 29 and 4,000 Miles from May 18 to Jun. 10.
Also in town is the Dellora A. Norris Cultural Arts Center. The Norris Center, as it’s more casually known, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year with a slate of programs, including musical performances by the University of Michigan’s Men’s Glee Club on Feb. 16, the Northern Illinois University Steelband on Mar. 23 and classical guitar virtuoso Fareed Haque on May 6. Also appearing will be nationally syndicated classical music radio host Bill McGlaughlin on Mar. 3.
Downtown St. Charles attracts even more people during its many special seasonal events. Among them are the St. Patrick’s Day parade in March, Tri-City Brew Fest in June, St. Charles Cruise Nights on Thursday evenings in the summer, the City of St. Charles Festival in June, Jazz Weekend in September, Scarecrow Fest in September and Holiday Homecoming after Thanksgiving.
The Kane County Fairgrounds and Flea Market
Outside the downtown area, there are several other event venues along with a variety of businesses that serve and attract people from within and beyond St. Charles. The most notable of these is the Kane County Fairgrounds, home to the Kane County Flea Market. Held on the first Sunday of the month (and the preceding Saturday) from March through December, the flea market has been attracting antique and collectible buyers and sellers from throughout the area for more than 50 years. In recent years, a number of antique stores have sprung up in various parts of St. Charles, making the town somewhat of a mecca of for antique aficionados.
The fairgrounds is also home to the Kane County Fair each July, with old-fashioned fun that includes a carnival, livestock, food booths and a wide-ranging entertainment lineup. Other events held at the fairgrounds include the Chicago Home Show Mar. 17-18 and the Chicago Toy Show on Apr. 22. Popular in June is the Windy City Warbirds & Classics show for model airplane enthusiasts, put on by the Fox Valley Aero Club.
The ground may be blanketed with snow or frozen right now, but Pottawatomie Park, at the edge of the Fox River and in downtown St. Charles, is another place that involves as much doing as seeing in the warmer months.
“Pottawatomie Park is the hub of our park district,” says Erika Young, marketing manager for St. Charles Park District. “It’s our community center, where our rec classes take place for preschoolers through seniors. In March, our golf course opens; in May, mini-golf opens; and in June our pool opens. Also in summer, we offer rentals of kayaks and paddleboats and partner with Anderson Enterprises to offer paddlewheel riverboat cruises.”
The park also features trails, a picnic area, sand volleyball and playing fields. It is the site of various special events in town through the year, including the annual City of St. Charles Festival on the Fox in early June and the 4th of July Festival on Independence Day.
St. Charles Park District really puts the “park” in park district. In addition to the expansive Pottawatomie Park, it runs several other community and neighborhood parks. In fact, within walking distance of downtown, there are four parks: Pottawatomie Park to the north, Baker Memorial Park to the east, Mount St. Mary Park to the south, and Lincoln Park to the west. In total, there are almost 30 parks within the community, including historic sites like Boy Scout Island and revamped areas like Ferson Creek Park, with new shelters and kayak areas. The latter is a spot that is considered a prime place to the watch 4th of July fireworks.
According to Young, city leaders and park district officials have worked hard with others to ensure the yin and yang of parks and progress. “We partner with the city to ensure that developers dedicate 10 acres of park land for every 1,000 people.”
The park district also oversees a number of other attractions in the community, including a 9-hole disc golf course within Campton Hills Park, Otter Cove Aquatic Park during the summer months, the Norris Recreation Center, as well as a activities at Primrose Farm, where visitors can go back in time to see a restored farmyard and barn or take classes.
Nature and Nurture
St. Charles Park District and the Forest Preserve of Kane County also oversee several natural preserves, woods, and wetlands. Among those areas are Hickory Knolls Nature Area, the Norris Woods Nature Preserve and Otter Creek Bend Wetland Park, to name a few.
“We are very fortunate,” says Young, regarding St. Charles’ vast spaces and natural resources. “Our park board members have been very passionate about preserving open space in our community.”
While these areas are popular in the spring and summer, there are plenty of opportunities for winter outdoor recreation in St. Charles. “We have more than 25 miles of trails and in the winter, they often have snow on them so people can get out and use them for cross country skiing. We also have sledding hills and four outdoor ice rinks,” says Young.
Some of the nature centers are indoor attractions as well. “If people are looking for indoor winter fun, they can visit the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, which has some neat exhibits,” Young continues, citing exhibits of reptiles, rabbits, indigenous Blanding’s turtles and more.
In addition to nature areas operated by the Park District or Forest Preserve of Kane County, there are other places to enjoy or learn about the great outdoors. In the summer months, one can visit Healing Gardens at Stone Hill Farm to see its perennial gardens and wooded paths, view the Gallery of Nature at Wasco Nursery, or take part in a summertime tour of backyard gardens, ponds and water features through the annual Water & Garden Showcase from St. Charles-based Aquascape Construction.
Pheasant Run Resort
Though its name may connote a park or nature area, Pheasant Run is actually a resort and conference center. Set amid a sprawling, country-like 250 acres, for decades Pheasant Run has been a major Fox Valley attraction for vacations, overnight stays, conferences, special events or a morning or night out.
Pheasant Run offers a plethora of activities and services. “We have so many things to do here. We are not just a place to stay — we’re a great place to visit for a day or night out, too,” says general manager France Langan.
The 293-room resort features scenic views of the area and guests can choose to dine in any of four on-site restaurants. There is an in-house theater and entertainment stage with six plays and 65 shows scheduled this year. Zanies Comedy Club attracts national acts and up-and-coming comedians. Stand-up comic Bret Ernst, featured in the movie Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show, is the headliner on Valentine’s Day.
For those looking for pampering and rejuvenation, an on-site spa provides a variety of services for men and women. The pool area has been updated — it was actually the first indoor/outdoor pool in the nation to be built, back in the day — and features a new bar area. Other amenities have been added over time. Recently opened, for instance, are three iPanic escape rooms.
Pheasant Run offers a variety of packages and specials throughout the year, including packages for early spring, a time when residents are looking for “staycation” destinations. Seasonal packages and events also include children and family activities.
History, History, History
Befitting a city teeming with history — St. Charles was first inhabited by the Native American Pottawatomie tribe and was named Charleston, later St. Charles, by settlers in the 1830s — this western suburb keeps its legacy alive in a number of ways.
The St. Charles History Museum, located in the former McCornack Oil Company building on Main Street, features permanent and rotating exhibits, a photo archive and a research room. It also has a small gift shop, where customers can browse St. Charles-themed souvenirs and apparel, with proceeds benefiting the museum and its mission.
Other historical destinations include a pair of buildings within the LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve. The Durant Museum, built in 1842, is run by the Preservation Partners of Fox Valley
and is open to the public. The museum offers various educational programs, including a series for seniors that focuses on topics like hearth cooking and then-and-now technologies. Built in 1872, Pioneer Sholes School, is a former one-room school that has been fully restored and is open for tours and various activities.
Another historic site is the circa-1850 Beith House Museum that doubles as a preservation study house.Edit Module