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Dole Manison: An Old Friend

If walls could talk – and some believe that, in this case, they do – the Dole Mansion would have quite a tale to tell.

The Dole Mansion has stood for nearly a century and a half. Yet, just a few years ago, this storied McHenry County icon was nearly lost to the wrecking ball. Saved by a grassroots fundraising campaign, this local landmark is now being restored room by room, and its annex is home to the Lakeside Legacy Arts Park.

A Mansion is Built …

In the early 1860s, a wealthy Chicagoan named Charles S. Dole purchased 1,000 acres in sparsely settled Crystal Lake. Dole, a grain baron and early member of the Chicago Board of Trade, spent lavishly to build his three-story Italianate mansion. Perched above the southeastern shore of the lake later advertised by the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad as, “one of the most beautiful sheets of water near Chicago,” Dole’s new family home was designed to entertain and impress. He was, after all, compelled to keep pace with his friends of the Astor, Pullman and Vanderbilt families.

Construction costs topped $100,000, equal to several million dollars today. Dole employed skilled artisans from Germany and Italy to complete much of the craftwork. Resident black walnut trees were used to fashion elaborately carved interior trim and arched entryways. Marble fireplaces adorned several rooms. Servants’ passageways snaked hidden throughout the mansion, and a small foot-bell placed in the dining room’s parquet floor allowed Mrs. Dole to call for the next course. Crowning it all was Dole’s tower, a narrow stairway leading up to his private, fourth-floor cupola where the eccentric benefactor liked to sit and survey his grounds. He called the estate Lakeland Farms.

Pastimes Pursued …

Dole, a man of peculiar character, pursued a number of interests at Lakeland Farms. He built an oval half-mile horse-racing track, along with a barn and stables for thoroughbreds that became the equestrian envy of northern Illinois. Breeding services were offered and auctions on a grand scale attracted as many as 500 bidders. Also, Dole began harvesting ice from Crystal Lake in 1873. He and his brother, James, built 12 ice houses with the combined storage capacity for 100,000 tons of the frozen lake water. Employing idle McHenry County farm hands in the summer, Dole shipped ice via rail to demanding customers in Chicago, St. Louis and as far off as New Orleans.

For the 1883 marriage of his daughter, Mary Florence, the father of the bride reached new heights of Victorian ostentation. Dole chartered two special trains, one bound for Chicago and the other Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, so mayors and millionaires would be sure to attend. A 1.4-mile spur line (Dole Avenue) brought the distinguished guests from the C&NW depot (downtown Crystal Lake’s Metra stop) directly to Lakeland Farms. A carpeted and canopied walkway, lit by gaslight in the evening, escorted them the final 750 feet to the mansion’s front doors and the extravagant party within.

Dole’s generosity extended to his neighbors as well. He often sent roses from his garden to local churches or allowed area residents to use his beachfront for picnics, providing rowboats for their recreation. In 1877, the Dole Mansion hosted an encampment for the Grand Army of the Republic. These Civil War veterans were granted use of Dole’s yacht with fishing privileges.

A Circus Lady Remodels …

Dole, in ailing health and with mild financial setbacks, sold Lakeland Farms to another ice harvesting venture in the mid-1890s and retired to his daughter’s home in Kansas City, MO. The estate entered a long era of relative use, abuse and neglect under several successive owners. The ice com-panies faltered with the advent of refrigeration and had abandoned their Dole Mansion offices by 1917. Even by then this “old wreck” was considered an “anti-quated ruin.”

In 1922, a group led by Eliza “Lou” Ringling, widow of circus legend Al Ringling and heiress to a fortune, bought the property and converted it into the first Crystal Lake Country Club. Once a snake charmer, trapeze walker and mind reader’s assistant, this former side-show act conveyed all her personal showmanship into rejuvenating the Dole Mansion. Lou built a four-level annex off the mansion’s southern “lost side” in 1925, featuring a magnificent ballroom.

Boasting two 18-hole golf courses, tennis courts and a newly built beach house, the CLCC enjoyed great popularity throughout the Roaring Twenties. Membership suffered in the lean Depression years, however, and the club finally closed its doors in 1938.

The Franciscan Order of Lake Forest acquired the property in 1944. The mansion’s first floor parlor became a chapel. Dole’s water-damaged cupola tower was removed.Priests lived upstairs, and the annex served as a seminary for high school boys. In 1972, after low enrollment had forced the Gray Friars to close the school, the site was virtually abandoned.

The First Congressional Church of Crystal Lake purchased the property in 1976. Two years later, the annex re-opened as Lakeside Center. Every summer, Lakeside Center sponsored the week-long Lakeside Festival, which originated as an ice-cream social and evolved into the much larger event we recognize today with carnival rides, games, food and music.

Time had taken its toll on the Dole Mansion. Crystal Lake sat on the cusp of suburban sprawl, and historic preservation became more important than ever. The church worked with local preservationists, and the Dole Mansion Preservation Society was born. Thousands of hours were devoted to restoration over the next 25 years. Nonetheless, church members voted in 2000 to sell the historic site, a practical but difficult decision leaving the Dole Mansion’s future in doubt.

… And a Community Comes Together

The price tag was $1.6 million. In 2001, the Crystal Lake Park District held a referendum asking the city to buy the property, which tax-weary voters rejected. Private prospectors eyed the estate and proposed building a full-time wedding facility, a seniors’ home or an upscale spa and fitness center. There were, of course, whispers of more housing. Area residents thought otherwise and rallied together to save this historic gem. They formed the Lakeside Legacy Foundation and, facing a 60-day injunction before the property would be sold to a Chicago developer, issued a bold challenge to the community: Who will raise the most cash to save the Dole?

Thousands responded in an unprecedented groundswell of support. Enough money to purchase the estate was raised in just 42 days, sending the big city developers duly packing. The Dole Mansion was awarded historic landmark status by the Crystal Lake City Council in 2007. Nobody can touch it now.

The Lakeside Legacy Arts Park is abuzz with life today. The old annex houses some 18 tenants, ranging from a recording studio, to a ceramics workshop, to several fine arts studios. The newest addition will be the Lakeside Culinary Arts School, slated to open in October 2007. The country club’s old ballroom is now the Sage Gallery, a showplace for local talent, and the annual Lakeside Festival has been revived.

The Dole is being meticulously renovated under the guidance of Virginia Howley, Director of Interior Design. “It has been a rewarding experience to work with the historic colors, style and stately elegance of the Victorian Era and to know that we are preserving it for our children to experience,” said Howley. The original black walnut trim throughout the mansion has been uncovered and decades of paint peeled away by a volunteer ladies group called the “Dole Strippers.” But, the first major project was Dole’s favored cupola tower, unveiled at the park’s opening in May 2005, fully restored to its 1865 glory.

Any surviving Civil War-era residence is bound to have its share of ghost stories. When asked about signs of the supernatural at the Dole, Christin Kruse, Director of Community Development for Lakeside Legacy Arts Park, answers unwaveringly, “There is no doubt in my mind that there is a spirit here; it is a spirit that wants to provide magic and art to the community.”

The Crystal Lake Historical Society shared their knowledge and resources for the writing of this article. The purpose of the Crystal Lake Historical Society is to identify, preserve, present and promote through education, the history of Crystal Lake, Illinois. Contact Diana Kenney at 815-455-1151 for more information, or visit them online at www.cl-hs.org. Also written in cooperation with the Lakeside Legacy Arts Park. The Park’s mission is to preserve and protect the Dole Mansion and Lakeside Legacy property for community use in a natural and historic setting. Contact them at (815) 455-8000 for more information, or visit online at www.dolemansion.com.

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