On a warm starry night, when streetlights illuminate the graceful low masonry bridge on which Main Street crosses the Fox River, this is one of America’s prettiest town-center scenes.
Thirty-five miles west of Chicago, St. Charles was a summer-cottage resort for Windy City business tycoons a century ago. Today, this small city of about 33,000 is a thriving year-round community with excellent schools, attractive parks and a handsome, prospering downtown — all of which helped convince Family Circle to give St. Charles number-one ranking in its annual “Best Towns for Families” survey in 2011.
The scenic Fox River is an emblem of St. Charles. If you cross it on Main Street any day from May through October, among the kayaks and canoes, you’re likely to see one of the St. Charles Paddlewheel Riverboats, which have been giving tours on the river for decades. The riverboats dock just below Main Street at Pottawatomie Park, the best-known of the city’s wealth of well-tended green spaces.
There’s much more to see and do along Main Street, in this town that celebrates its “balance between hip hot spot and historic hamlet,” according to the region’s West Suburban Living magazine. The recently restored Hotel Baker has been a local riverside landmark since 1928 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Recently the site of the wedding of celebrities Jennie McCarthy and Donnie Wahlberg, the Baker boasts a vintage ballroom, a classic boathouse and live entertainment in the ROX City Grill.
Just across Main is the Steel Beam Theatre, a venue for live professional shows in a building built of river stones that was reclaimed after years of decline. Cross the river on Main and you’ll come to the 1926-vintage Arcada Theatre. Originally a vaudeville venue decades ago, the Arcada hosted touring performers from George Burns and Gracie Allen to Maria Von Trapp. Today, its distinctive marquee proclaims shows that range from top rock acts to student music concerts.
If you’d like to learn more about this award-winning city, the St. Charles History Museum on Main Street houses more than 10,000 historic photos and 15,000 artifacts. From 1928 to 1990, the museum’s building was a gas station — well-befitting a community that once was a resort for millionaires and now is a destination for families, visitors … and maybe even you.
All photos courtesy of Downtown St. Charles Partnership.