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The Group Travel Leader Going on Faith Select Traveler

Historic Venues in the Heartland

The past is impressive in America’s Heartland.

Communities throughout the Midwest were settled by pioneers and entrepreneurs who came West to fulfill a dream or make a name for themselves. Many of them founded businesses and built lavish homes, some of which still exist today and are available to rent for meetings or events.

Here are a handful of noteworthy historic event venues that add a touch of elegance and class from bygone days.

Cuneo Mansion and Gardens

Vernon Hills, Illinois

Cuneo Mansion and Gardens in Vernon Hills, Illinois, was built for Samuel Insull, one of the original founders of the General Electric Company. Designed to look like an Italian villa with formal gardens, the home was completed in 1916. Insull sold the home and 100-acre property to John Cuneo Sr. in 1937, and his family lived in the home until his wife passed away in 1990. The home was run as a museum for 20 years before the Cuneo Foundation donated it to Loyola University Chicago in 2009. The donation included the museum’s extensive collection of art and furnishings from Europe, including pieces that date to the French Revolution and early 1800s.

The university added a 5,500-square-foot ballroom and a full catering kitchen that can accommodate up to 300 guests. The property doesn’t have its own catering on-site but contracts with four area caterers, and the formal dining room in the 30,000-square-foot mansion can be used for small events of up to 60 people.

Unfortunately, the mansion is not air-conditioned, so the property will only allow mansion rentals from April to May and from mid-September through mid-December when Cuneo closes for the season.

The ballroom is air-conditioned and has a terrace overlooking the formal gardens, which were originally designed by world-renowned landscape architect Jens Jensen. The gardens have been redone many times and now include sculptures and small fountains.

Hotel Julien Dubuque

Dubuque, Iowa

Hotel Julien Dubuque has a storied history that began in 1839, when the first hotel building, Waples House, was built at the intersection of Second and Main in Dubuque, Iowa. The hotel was enlarged and remodeled in 1854 and renamed Hotel Julien after the city’s namesake. Before a fire ravaged the original building in 1913, it attracted the rich and famous, including Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain. The hotel was rebuilt and reopened in 1915. The current owner’s grandfather purchased it in 1962 and extensively remodeled it.

The hotel’s decor incorporates many historic objects that the owner collected over the years, beautifully accenting the building’s turn-of-the-century architecture. Groups wanting to host events at the historic hotel have their choice of spaces that can accommodate six to 400 guests. The hotel has 133 guest rooms and more than 14,000 square feet of event space, including the Grande Ballroom, which can host groups of 215 guests and features 17-foot ceilings. The room is adjacent to The Atrium, a pre-function space that is ideal for exhibits or breakout sessions.

The River Room and River Terrace are next to the Riverboat Lounge and can seat 120 guests for a banquet. The terrace overlooks the Mississippi River and is a popular spot for receptions or outdoor gatherings. The Harbor Gallery features floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Port of Dubuque and the Mississippi River.

In their free time, attendees can book a treatment at Potosa Spa, use the indoor pool and fitness center, or enjoy a drink at Riverboat Lounge or a meal at Caroline’s Restaurant.

Historic Elgin Hotel

Marion, Kansas

The Historic Elgin Hotel was built in 1886 in the beautiful Flint Hills of Kansas. It originally had 42 rooms and a ballroom. The current owners have run the Elgin for seven years as a boutique hotel and say it has been a “labor of love.”

“We’re not next to Disney World or something that draws people here, so we have to be a destination,” said Tammy Ensey, who owns hotel with her husband, Jeremy.

The hotel has been completely redone and modernized. It now has 12 guest rooms, five living rooms, an outdoor veranda, a fitness center, a game lounge and a full-service restaurant. The 1,200-square-foot ballroom can host up to 75 guests for meetings or events. The facility is perfect for groups interested in an intimate event. There is a full-service kitchen attached to the ballroom, and groups can bring in their own food.

As part of their rental, groups can tour the property to learn about its rich history. Several properties in the community are on the National Register of Historic Places, and the hotel staff is happy to organize tours of them, including the Santa Fe Depot, which has been renovated into a library. Library staff double as tour guides, telling guests about the history of the train depot and a little bit about Marion’s past. The city also has a historic courthouse and a historic church that is now a museum.

Veraestau Historic Site

Aurora, Indiana

A big misconception about Veraestau, a historic site in Aurora, Indiana, is that its name is French. In fact, the historic property’s name is a nonsense word, a mashup of the Latin words for spring, summer, and fall. Jesse Holman, an early settler to the area and an Indiana Supreme Court justice, built the house in 1810 as a residence and law office. He decided to only use three seasons in the name because he never wanted winter to come to Veraestau.

The home sits on a 430-foot-high bluff overlooking a horseshoe bend in the Ohio River. Because the house is on 116 acres, it feels very secluded, even though it is only about 30 miles from Cincinnati.

Holman’s son-in-law Allen Hamilton added on to the house in 1838. Hamilton’s daughter Margaret Vance Hamilton enlarged the home again in 1913. Industrialist Cornelius O’Brien, an early preservationist, bought the estate in 1933 and expanded it in 1936. He also planted thousands of trees on the property. Visitors to Veraestau will enjoy the oak tree-lined driveway that leads to the house.

The property is now on the National Register of Historic Places and has been under the care of nonprofit Indiana Landmarks since 2004. The stately home can host large outdoor events for up to 200 guests. Even though the property has a lot of space, there isn’t enough parking to accommodate more visitors than that. Indiana Landmarks does offer limited interior access for smaller groups, but most events take place on the grounds. Groups can also schedule guided tours of the home.

Phelps House

Carthage, Missouri

Built in 1895 by Col. William Phelps, who was prominent in state politics, Phelps House in Carthage, Missouri, was the first private residence to be constructed from Carthage-mined gray marble. Phelps wanted his house to be comfortable to live in but fancy enough to host grand balls for prominent political figures and friends.

The 8,300-square-foot Victorian mansion has been owned and managed by the nonprofit Carthage Historic Preservation since 1988. The group lovingly restored the home to its original splendor after the property sat vacant for years. It features 10 fireplaces built with imported tile and marble, original hand-carved woodwork, hand-painted wallpaper, a hand-operated dumbwaiter and a heated coat closet.

Meeting groups can host events for up to 100 seated guests in the home’s third-floor ballroom. The main floor can accommodate 100 guests for receptions or other types of events. The grounds can be used for outdoor wedding ceremonies or parties.

Corporate groups can hold a catered tea or lunch on the main floor and adjourn to the third floor for their business meeting. With enough notice, catered events can be served by historically dressed servers who give short historical presentations on a variety of topics. Horse-drawn carriage rides can be arranged to take guests through the city’s historic neighborhoods and Carthage Square, which features a historic courthouse.