'It was going to happen': Pheasant Run's fall from ritzy resort to fire-ravaged ruins
Pheasant Run Resort came into existence in the golden age of road travel.
In its prime, the St. Charles resort was the only game in town for miles, a ritzy retreat and four-season playground surrounded by farmland and not a whole lot else.
"Everybody sort of found their way to Pheasant Run, and it was special," former St. Charles Mayor Fred Norris said.
As the city grew from a rural hamlet, as a shopping mall and industrial parks sprang up around it, the novelty faded, and eventually, so did Pheasant Run. The resort had been closed for more than two years when a fire last weekend left much of the campus in ruins.
But Pheasant Run had become a hollow shell of its former self even before the North Avenue landmark went up in flames.
"I'm sorry to see what happened, but you could almost say that it was going to happen when you saw the broken windows and the abandonment," Norris said.
There are no development plans for the resort complex, current St. Charles Mayor Lora Vitek said. Right now, the focus is on securing the site. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
"It's unfortunate this property had to end this way, but we move ahead and hopefully honor what was once there," Vitek said.
In honor of that history, here's a look back at Pheasant Run through the decades:
1950s: Before the property along Route 64 became a resort, it was a dairy farm owned by Col. Edward Baker, who built his namesake Hotel Baker, the grand dame of downtown St. Charles. His sister married John "Bet a Million" Gates, a turn-of-the-century St. Charles resident who made his fortune selling barbed wire to farmers. Gates later helped organize the predecessor company to Texaco. Col. Baker inherited some of his wealth. "He had the best of everything out there, the best cows, the best milking equipment," Norris said.
When he was a kid, Norris and his junior conservation club visited Baker's farm to collect ears of corn to feed to ducks down on the Fox River.
"Colonel Baker was probably the kindest gentleman I've ever met," Norris said.
1959: After Baker died in 1959 at 90, developer Edward McArdle bought the 175-acre Airport Farm with the intention of building a steakhouse and hotel in the middle of cornfields far west of Chicago.
"When McArdle came to town, he had an idea, and he had a heck of a time selling that idea. He had to raise money for it," Norris said.
1962: The main Baker barn was converted into McArdle's new restaurant, according to the 2005 book "St. Charles: Culture and Leisure in an All-American Town." The barn and silo -- the first buildings of the resort complex -- remained intact after last weekend's fire.
"We all bought into the concept once it was started, but taking a barn and making it over into a restaurant, it was just unheard of," said Norris, mayor from 1977 to 1997.
1963: Pheasant Run Resort opened and quickly developed into a weekend getaway destination.
1960s: A black-and-white promotional video from the era gives a glimpse into the heyday of the resort and provides a time capsule of the swinging '60s.
Well-to-do guests arrived via helicopter for lunch at one of four resort restaurants. Whole lobsters were flown in from Maine daily at another restaurant where a Caesar salad for two cost only $2.75.
"Practically a city in itself," the resort boasted 325 overnight guest rooms, 35 meeting rooms for conventions, a theater and a two-block, cobblestone replica "Bourbon Street" lined with boutiques and French Quarter-style balconies. All rooms were equipped with "convenient" bathroom telephones.
Pheasant Run also opened the first indoor-outdoor swimming pool in the United States, making it a "resort for all seasons."
1964: The resort's first theater, the Pheasant Run Playhouse, debuted. The first star to take the stage was Mimi Hines, a regular on "The Tonight Show." Other celebrity guest appearances followed over the years: Phyllis Diller, Betty Grable, Bob Denver, Dionne Warwick, Stefanie Powers and "Dallas" star Larry Hagman.
"All the entertainment going out there, of course, that was big time for our little community," Norris said.
1981: A 14-story guest room tower was built as part of a resort expansion.
1989: Zanies Comedy Club opened, eventually becoming the longest-running comedy club in the suburbs.
2011: The property fell into foreclosure.
2014: An investment group purchased the resort campus, and for the first time in its 50-year history, Pheasant Run had no ties to the McArdle family that created the eastern getaway to St. Charles. Hostmark Hospitality Group took over management of the resort.
2016: The DuPage Airport Authority filed a condemnation lawsuit to block what officials said was an "incompatible" residential development proposed for Pheasant Run's golf course. As part of a settlement agreement, the airport paid $8.9 million to purchase the golf course, which continued to be operated by Pheasant Run.
November 2019: Resort management announced plans to lay off 150 employees -- more than 75% of its staff -- amid what company leaders called a "restructuring of operations."
March 1, 2020: The resort officially shut down about a month after a failed attempt to auction off the property. At the time, the resort complex contained 293 hotel rooms, seven restaurants, banquet and meeting space, the comedy club and an 18-hole golf course that it leased from the adjacent DuPage Airport Authority.
"My eyes are watering. It's like losing my best friend," said West Chicago resident Barb Zumpano, one of the last guests. "I know all the people who work here. I think they're more upset about how it was handled. They didn't recognize the employees at the end."
March 2021: Industrial developers bought the former Pheasant Run golf course property -- nearly 85 acres of land owned by the DuPage Airport Authority -- for about $11.3 million.
May 21, 2022: A massive fire scorched large swaths of the shuttered resort. The blaze burned into the night, sending huge plumes of smoke into the sky, drawing dozens of onlookers and sealing the resort's fate.
The future: For some time, St. Charles officials have been focused on luring developers to the east side of the city. Immediately adjacent to the resort property, a new car dealership will take over the old Pheasant Run Mega Center, and an industrial complex is slated to replace the Pheasant Run golf course.
Not far from the old resort, more than 200 residential units have been approved for a property near the largely vacant Charlestowne Mall. Those new units may help lure additional retail developments to the area, the St. Charles mayor said.
"When you have more residents, that brings more opportunities for new retail or restaurants to come," Vitek said. "Without more people, those things can't happen."
• Daily Herald staff writer Alicia Fabbre contributed to this report.