America’s Best Downtowns: Crystal Lake, Illinois

Author: Alecia Pirulis  

Downtown Crystal Lake

A beautiful suburban city that includes two large lakes complete with lakeside beaches is enough to put it at the top of many “great cities” lists – and Crystal Lake is one of Illinois’ favorite suburbs. Crystal Lake is located about 50 miles north of downtown Chicago, and commuter rail takes residents directly into the city. The city’s sun-dappled neighborhoods and historic architecture, as well as its extensive parks system, could be enough to sway potential new residents to find Crystal Lake apartments – but add in an award-winning, historic downtown that is considered one of the best shopping destinations in the county and Crystal Lake’s appeal is tough to resist.

Downtown Crystal Lake has been named the Best Downtown Shopping District in McHenry County. It also won Best Farmers Market, and the city’s popular Johnny Appleseed Festival won one of the best festivals. It also received the Governor’s Hometown Award, and several downtown shops and restaurants are also award-winning – including Exclusively Napa, voted the Best Wine Bar, Georgio’s Chicago Pizzeria & Pub won Best Pizza, and even downtown’s pet groomer, Cut N Cuddle, was named the county’s best.

A great downtown must be a great shopping and dining destination, but it must also be attractive. Crystal Lake’s historic downtown dazzles with glazed terra cotta adorning its historic buildings, many designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan. The terra cotta came from the American Terra Cotta Tile and Ceramic Company, which was founded in Crystal Lake in 1881. The tiles designed here eventually led to the beautiful TECO pottery, which is displayed in museums nationwide. The beauty of the historic buildings is accentuated with downtown’s streetscapes and signage, which is designed to blend beautifully with the architecture.

The Raue House, built in 1901, is a Free Classic Queen Anne house located downtown. The house was built by Ben Raue, the founder of the Elgin National Watch Company. He opened a jewelry store in downtown Crystal Lake in 1892 – the store eventually became a hardware store, which Raue operated until he retired at age 89. Raue Hardware Store remained in operation until 1994, when the last of Raue’s descendants closed the doors for good. A 21-foot clock downtown, the Raue Memorial Clock, was built in Ben Raue’s honor.

The Raue family is also partly responsible for the impressive Raue Center for the Arts, which opened in 1929 as “El Tovar.” At the time, it hosted vaudeville theater, roving theater “troupers,” and the new and inspiring “talkies.” Over time, the theater fell into disrepair. Lucile Raue left a generous gift for the purchase of the building and an additional sum for renovation, bringing the impressive theater back to its former Art Deco glory. Today, this is one of Downtown Crystal Lake’s favorite destinations. The center includes two art galleries and an impressive schedule of live entertainment that includes everything from plays to standup comedy to music concerts.

Other famous Crystal Lake residents also left their mark on downtown. Charles S. Dole, a wealthy resident of Chicago, purchased 1,000 acres in Crystal Lake in the early 1860s. He built a three-story Italianate mansion along the southeast shore of the lake. When his health began to fail in the mid-1890s, Dole moved to Kansas City to live with his daughter and his mansion fell into disrepair.

Eliza Ringling, the widow of Al Ringling of circus fame, purchased the Dole property in 1922 and turned it into a country club. The stock market crash in 1929 forced Ringling to sell off much of the land, creating the Country Club Additions subdivision. Left once again, the mansion began to crumble and was nearly destroyed. In 2001, residents formed the Lakeside Legacy Foundation to save the Dole Mansion. Now, it is being restored and is the location of an annual festival.

Historic, award-winning, resilient, hip, beautiful, plenty of festivals and events – all of this combined make Crystal Lake one of America’s best downtowns. Are you ready to rent a Crystal Lake apartment? Start your search today and make this Chicago suburb your new home.