At Crystal Lake’s The Dole, Live Entertainment Returns in Style

As area arts venues spring back to life, this fixture in the arts scene is preparing to become a go-to venue for regular live performances.

Evening entertainment returns to Crystal Lake’s The Dole this fall, as the arts venue reopens The Listening Room. (The Dole photo)

If you ever find yourself passing through Crystal Lake near its namesake body of water, you’ll inevitably stumble upon the Dole Mansion, a 19th century Italianate residence and one of the city’s most historical landmarks.

In the early 1860s, a wealthy Chicago grain merchant named Charles Dole purchased roughly 1,000 acres of land in the newly settled Crystal Lake area. In 1865, Dole spent $100,000 to construct a three-story summertime mansion that would be the talk of the town for generations to come.

These days, Dole’s mansion and its annex are a thriving hot spot for the arts. Dozens of studios inside The Dole, 401 Country Club Road, provide a space for local artists to practice visual, performing and healing arts. Outdoors events bring live music during the summer. And soon, an intimate performance venue inside The Dole is reopening for community concerts.

“We’ve had the idea of reopening a concert venue for quite some while now, and I’m excited to finally get the whole plan in motion,” says Jayson Hemphill, manager of The Listening Room. “Our goal is to support local artists. Whether that’s sculptors, graphic designers, photographers or musicians, we want to help them out in any way possible.”

The Listening Room, located in the lower level of The Dole’s Ringling Annex, is expected to re-open sometime later this fall. Prior to the pandemic, it was a go-to venue for evening entertainment and a complement to The Dole’s monthly art openings.

“Right now, our goal is to open sometime between September and October,” Hemphill says.

He expects the venue will seat about 160 people, but capacity will ultimately depend upon COVID-19 guidelines and related protocols, which are still under discussion.

“At this time, we’re still not sure if there will be any restrictions when it comes to COVID-19, but it is something we talk about every day,” says Hemphill.

As for the performance lineup, Hemphill is still ironing out the details and says the sky’s the limit.

“We’re open to all different types of events such as comedians, bands or even magicians,” he adds. “We want to bring the community together, and we believe there are a lot of opportunities to do that here.”

As things come together, look for a continuing lineup all through the season.

“Right now, my vision is to have some type of entertainment in the venue every week,” says Hemphill. “We’re looking for quality entertainers who love to show off what they do, and our job is to make sure we’re supporting them every step of the way.”

The Listening Room has operated since 2012 and has racked up numerous accolades as a top destination for live music. This is the first time it’s been open since the pandemic, but it’s by no means the only way people have enjoyed live music here.

Music Under the Trees launched last year when the mansion was closed to the general public due to COVID-19. The regular concert series brought local music fans to The Dole’s sprawling lawn for an evening of food, drink and live entertainment provided by local musicians. This summer brought a return of Music Under the Trees and performers like Cassandra Vohs-Demann, Denny Diamond, and some of The Dole’s resident musicians. All proceeds support The Dole and its year-round arts, education, history and community programs.

The Dole also hosts Lakeside Festival around the July Fourth weekend. It’s four fun-filled days of live music, food and drink, carnival rides and plenty of other activities for the whole family to enjoy. Musical acts come from all over the country to perform.

Lakeside Festival is one of the longest-running summer festivals in McHenry County, and this summer’s first post-pandemic event marked the 41st annual gathering. This is also the largest fundraiser for The Dole.

On a smaller scale, this summer has also brought a new event, The Dole’s Open Air Farmers Market+, which runs every Sunday through October, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Each weekend, hundreds of people turn out for fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers, food trucks, arts and crafts, and lots of fun. Local artisans, children’s activities, food trucks and live, acoustic music keep the event lively.

The Dole has enjoyed a long and vibrant history. Not surprisingly, preservation of the historic property is an important part of the mission behind The Dole and its parent nonprofit, the Lakeside Legacy Foundation.

The Dole Mansion’s construction involved the work of skilled artisans from Germany and Italy who helped to fabricate the inside and outside designs of the ornate brick structure. Included inside were white marble fireplaces, pocket doors, arched entryways and interior designs made from black walnut wood.

When his health deteriorated, Dole sold his property, and in 1922 it was converted into the first Crystal Lake Country Club. Under the direction of Mrs. Lou Ringling, widow to the circus co-founder, an annex was added onto the mansion. Two 18-hole golf courses, tennis courts and a beach house sprawled across Dole’s former 1,000-acre property. The club enjoyed its fair share of success throughout the Roaring Twenties, but it eventually fell victim to the Great Depression and closed in 1938.

For the remainder of the 20th century, the Dole property was divided up, and its mansion and annex were used as a chapel and seminary for high school boys. A local church eventually bought the property, but it continued falling into disrepair. Church members came to the conclusion that it would be in their best interest to sell the historical property in 2000.

After news that the Dole Mansion’s future was in doubt, Crystal Lake community members had to act quickly, lest a developer buy the historical landmark and tear it down. Indeed, the community came together and formed a major fundraising effort called the Lakeside Legacy Project. In just 42 days, group members donated over $1 million to purchase the property.

Once the goal was obtained, the nonprofit Lakeside Legacy Foundation was formed for “preservation, protection and enhancement of the property.” The intervening two decades have seen many changes and improvements to the property. While the pandemic has added many challenges, The Dole continues to thrive as an attraction for the community.

Foundation board members are continually looking for ways to expand The Dole’s offerings, and the effort to reopen The Listening Room holds the promise of many good things to come.

“In addition to our annual Cornerstone Events, we enthusiastically look forward to the ‘re-emergence’ of The Listening Room,” says Patti Lutz, Lakeside Legacy Foundation Board President, “and we eagerly anticipate that it will quickly become the place to gather on a Friday or Saturday night to relax with friends, enjoy quality entertainment, raise a friendly glass and maybe even show off on the dance floor.”