Harley Clarke House on slippery slope

Evanston City Council explores razing 'the people's mansion' without swinging the wrecking ball just yet

 Evanston has owned the Harley Clarke Mansion since 1965, but has found it difficult to maintain. (Wikimedia Commons/Teemu008)

Evanston has owned the Harley Clarke Mansion since 1965, but has found it difficult to maintain. (Wikimedia Commons/Teemu008)

By Ted Cox

A North Shore suburb of Chicago is anguishing over what to do with a beloved, but careworn public building popularly known as "the people's mansion."

The Evanston City Council voted Monday to authorize negotiations that could potentially lead to demolition of the Harley Clarke Mansion, over the objections of preservationists and other opponents who claim to have a majority of residents on their side.

The 6-3 vote reflected divisions in the larger community.

The massive Tudor mansion was built for Harley Clarke, a multimillionaire utilities magnate, by architect Richard Powers and completed in 1927. Located at 2603 Sheridan Road near Evanston's iconic lakeshore lighthouse, it had grounds designed by Jens Jensen, who'd already executed Chicago's Garfield Park Conservatory. Clarke, however, never really recovered from the Great Depression and sold the house to the Sigma Chi National Fraternity in 1949. Sigma Chi used it as its national headquarters until selling it in 1965 to Evanston, which wanted to expand its lakefront parkland.

The building, however, remained and became home to the Evanston Arts Center for 50 years. When maintenance became too costly, the center moved and the mansion was shuttered in 2015.

 Tom Hodgman, president of Evanston Lakehouse & Gardens, rallies support for preservation of the Harley Clarke Mansion before Monday's City Council meeting. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Tom Hodgman, president of Evanston Lakehouse & Gardens, rallies support for preservation of the Harley Clarke Mansion before Monday's City Council meeting. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

"Many, many, many Evanstonians have fallen in love with that building," said Alderman Eleanor Revelle of the 7th Ward. Saying that she'd heard one child call it "Harry Potter's castle," she added, "This old home is the only one that belongs to all of us in the community." Revelle called it "premature to consider the demolition of this building when there is an alternative."

Yet the council rejected that alternative in April by a 7-2 vote. According to Alderman Donald Wilson of the 4th Ward, Evanston Lakehouse & Gardens had agreed to a lease pact pledging to contribute $4.8 million to the building's restoration by 2020, but had only been able to pony up $500,000 when time came for approval — resulting in rejection.

On Monday, the council authorized the city manager to negotiate a deal with the competing Evanston Lighthouse Dunes Organization to potentially raze the building, restore "key elements of Jensen's historic 1920s garden" and convert the remaining grounds in a "restoration of the dunes to its natural state."

Nicole Kustok, of the Lighthouse Dunes Oganization, said that after "60 years of deferred maintenance and disrepair" rehabilitation of the building was "not fiscally viable." She said they'd been quoted a price of $450,000 to raze the building and had already raised $300,000, adding that she was confident the group would complete the funding.

Calling it "a once-in-a-generation opportunity to restore something to its natural state," Kustok added, "You don't need a 20,000-square-foot building to get kids outside."

Her Lighthouse colleague Jeff Coney said estimates were that it would cost more than $7.5 million to put the mansion back in good repair.

While insisting that she's an ardent preservationist, Alderman Judy Fiske of the 1st Ward heartily endorsed the Lighthouse proposal, saying, "We have an opportunity at this site to really restore the lakefront." She argued that too amounted to "historic preservation."

Yet that didn't wash with Lisa DiChiera, director of advocacy for Landmarks Illinois. Pointing also to how Evanston is mulling a cut in funding for historic preservation in its next budget, she said the shift from the Lakehouse plan to the Lighthouse proposal "has left this historic property vulnerable again and set up for demolition."

"There's broad public support for saving Harley Clarke," said Tom Hodgman, president of Evanston Lighthouse & Gardens and a member of the Nature Conservancy. Calling it "the only public lakefront building for use by everyone," he asked "a one-year option" on the original deal in order to raise $1 million to "demonstrate the viability of saving the house."

"It could be a home for all of us on the lakeshore," said Anna Roosevelt of the 3rd Ward.

Jeff Smith called the structure "the only lakefront mansion south of Lake Cook Road not owned by the 1 percent" and argued for preservation, saying, "a truly progressive city would be doing the same here." He called demolition "a bleak, dismal, and literally destructive proposal" and "a crime against culture."

IMG_0226.jpg

Harley Clarke is "the only lakefront mansion south of Lake Cook Road not owned by the 1 percent."

Evanston resident Jeff Smith (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

A statement from U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Evanston was read into the record urging "more time ... to reach a resolution to save this historic building."

Joe Matthews, however, lives across the street from the mansion and called it "a building sitting there, falling apart." He urged the council to "turn it into an amazing park," and others argued that would also clear sight lines to the city's signature lighthouse.

In the end, most aldermen voted to at least explore the notion of demolition. "We're not going to call in the wrecking ball tomorrow," said Alderman Ann Rainey of the 8th Ward.

"I'm not that excited about green space," said Alderman Cicely Fleming of the 9th Ward. "It's not my thing. But I am excited about being fiscally responsible." Adding, "I am one for not prolonging hard choices," she rejected a proposal by Alderman Thomas Suffredin of the 6th Ward to put an "advisory referendum" on the November ballot in the general election and get guidance from voters.

Yet Alderman Melissa Wynne of the 3rd Ward warned, "Once we step on this slope, we've slid to the bottom," adding, "Once the house is gone the house is gone." She bemoaned the loss of Evanston's historic Lincoln School in 1969 and urged preservation.

Wynne and Revelle voted against the Lighthouse proposal exploring demolition, joined by Wilson, who noted, "A lot of memories collectively in the community are tied up with that space."

The city manager is now authorized to pursue negotiations on demolition with the Lighthouse organization. While many on the council and in public comments pointed out demolition would still have to clear the city's Preservation Commission, DiChiera for one added that such projects, once initiated, gain a momentum of their own until a landmark is finally, irretrievably lost.