Meeting planners looking for unique places to hold events will find plenty in Illinois.
From a museum celebrating the life and legacy of President Abraham Lincoln to beautiful gardens, historical mansions and an extensive railway museum with artifacts and buildings dating back before the Civil War, these unique Illinois sites are not only fun and educational but also wonderful places to host meetings or special events.
Allerton Park and Retreat Center
The historic Allerton mansion and grounds in Monticello were donated to the University of Illinois by the artist and philanthropist Robert Henry Allerton in 1946. The property encompasses Allerton’s mansion, gatehouse and a cottage that served as home to his chef and kitchen staff, as well as 1,500 acres of woodlands and prairie.
There are four hotel buildings on property with a total of 36 guest rooms that can host 90 to 100 people on-site if every bed is occupied. Meeting groups can rent out the entire mansion, which has 2,642 square feet of meeting space.
Allerton, which was built in 1900, is known for its 14 formal gardens and the more than 100 ornaments and sculptures collected by Allerton and his son, John Gregg, that are placed throughout. The library is the largest meeting space, with enough room to seat 90 people theater-style. Three smaller rooms in the mansion can accommodate groups of 10 to 40 people. The repurposed greenhouse is now a visitor center with meeting space for 40, set in the middle of the site’s formal gardens. Groups renting out the entire mansion for their events can also utilize the common areas and lobby.
Meeting planners are encouraged to use the outdoor spaces, including a terrace with a firepit, gardens and vast lawn. The facility provides lawn games for groups to enjoy during their free time and will organize guided tours, hikes or scavenger hunts around the property for team building. Allerton’s sweet spot for a meeting is 30 to 50 people, but the property has hosted groups of up to 300.
“We get very creative with our space,” said Jordan Zech, retreat center manager at Allerton. With 300 guests, meals are held in a tent pitched on the flat bowling lawn adjacent to the mansion.
Pine Manor Estates
Pine Manor Estates is a vacation rental resort in Carbondale on the shore of a private lake in the heart of Shawnee National Forest. Its 10 guest houses, including Pine Manor Mansion, are within a few feet of each other and can accommodate up to 80 guests for events ranging from corporate training and group retreats to weddings and family reunions.
All of the rentals are high-end luxury properties featuring things like heated floors, chandeliers and beautiful sunrooms. The property’s conference center can host smaller groups up to 50 people. An expansive deck spans the entire length of the conference center and is accessed via sliding glass doors. When groups want to take a break from their meeting, the deck provides a nice, private area to relax and enjoy the scenic vistas.
Pine Manor doesn’t feel like a typical conference center. It is constructed in the style of a log cabin, with a stone fireplace and comfortable seating area inside.
Groups also can host events outside. The property has extensive grounds where groups can set up tents. The property works with a list of approved caterers, and the facility has organized team-building activities such as cook-offs or will take attendees off-site to Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour for ziplines and ropes courses or rock climbing at Touch of Nature Outdoor Education Center.
Guests can spend a leisurely afternoon paddleboating on the lake or take advantage of the resort’s basketball and tennis courts. Visitors can rent golf carts to ride around the property, and Pine Manor is building new walking and golf cart trails across the property.
The estate is a five-minute drive from town, giving meeting attendees the feeling they are far from a typical urban setting. The area is wooded with lots of beautiful landscaping.
Anderson Japanese Gardens
Anderson Japanese Gardens was built as a private garden in the original owner’s backyard in Rockford. It was designed by Hoichi Kurisu, the same garden designer who oversaw construction of Portland Japanese Garden. Incorporating elements of stone, water and plants throughout, the gardens are a place of tranquility, peace and meditation.
Groups renting the gardens for events — or hosting meetings or dinners at Fresco at the Gardens restaurant, which is in the visitor center — get access to the gardens. Fresco can host groups of 125. It has large windows giving attendees stellar views of the Japanese gardens outside. There are additional meeting spaces downstairs on the lower level of the visitor center. The gallery holds about 60 people and does have access to a projector, audiovisual equipment and a microphone. The site’s staff are available for event set-up and tear-down.
Many visiting groups choose the site because of its natural beauty so they include a guided tour of the gardens or participate in the Frank Lloyd Wright 16th Century Japan architectural tour, which takes guests between the nearby Frank Lloyd Wright house and Anderson’s guest house. Others have organized scavenger hunts with things hidden throughout the gardens.
The gardens host a summer concert series where guests seat themselves on three different decks, two attached to the visitor center and one in the gardens by the reflection pond. Corporate groups can reserve those decks for team building or networking events after 5 p.m. With that rental, they also get access to the gardens, and the facility can arrange bar service and catering from Fresco.
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
One of the most elegant venues in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield gives groups a one-of-a-kind experience that not only details the life and times of the 16th president of the United States but also offers an elegant location for meetings, dinners, conferences or receptions.
As part of their facility rental, groups can tour the 200,000-square-foot museum, learning more about Lincoln’s early life, his law practice and presidency through interactive exhibits. When groups first enter the building, they are met with replicas of the White House and Lincoln’s boyhood cabin in Kentucky. The Treasures Gallery hosts some of the most significant artifacts from Lincoln’s life, and the Illinois Gallery features important traveling exhibits. Meeting groups can host a breakfast and guided tour of the museum before it opens to the public or rent out the library’s beautiful glassed-in rotunda for a meal or reception up to 100 guests.
After hours, groups can rent out the museum and add on a variety of extras, like taking a behind-the-scenes tour, watching “Ghosts of the Library” in the Holavision theater or visiting the museum’s top exhibits. Larger groups may want to bring in Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln reenactors to greet attendees and hold question-and-answer sessions. The museum and library have many smaller venue spaces for meetings or events. The Union Theater, which can hold 250 guests, is perfect for lectures, annual meetings and awards ceremonies, and Museum Plaza can host 300 guests for dinner or 500 for a reception.
Illinois Railway Museum
Union’s Illinois Railway Museum is a museum in motion. Not only does it have the largest collection of historic railway equipment in the country, but it also offers rides on train cars pulled by steam and diesel engines.
The Main Line ride is a 45-minute journey that takes visitors either east or west into the countryside, where they will see some of the best-preserved prairie in Illinois adjacent to the railroad tracks. The second ride offers a 15-minute loop around the property on an electric streetcar or trolley.
The property features several historic diesel and steam locomotives, streetcars and trolleys, freight and passenger cars, including Pullman coaches. It also displays railroad signs, signals, stonework and other rail infrastructure and a model railroad exhibit.
There are several historic structures on property, including a pre-Civil War 1851 East Union Depot and a 1910 Chicago “L” station.
Groups wanting to host events at the museum can rent out the central pavilion, which is covered and seats about 75 people. Groups can bring in catering and have easy access to board a train or trolley from that location.
The museum has a large outdoor property with plenty of grassy areas that are perfect for larger tented events such as banquets or receptions. Groups can add on admission to the exhibits and train rides as part of their rental.
Smaller groups can rent private diner and passenger cars for a Main Line train ride for up to 75 people. Food service is provided by approved outside caterers. Groups also can organize a docent-led tour of the property that highlights aspects of the museum’s transportation technology.