Evanston moves to raze Harley Clarke Mansion

Preservationists urged the City Council to await the results of a public referendum

 Diane Thodos holds up a sign urging the Evanston City Council to save the Harley Clarke Mansion. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Diane Thodos holds up a sign urging the Evanston City Council to save the Harley Clarke Mansion. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

The Evanston City Council voted Monday night to "begin the process to demolish the Harley Clarke Mansion" following more than three hours of contentious public comment and debate.

Aldermen voted 5-3 to move toward a Memo of Understanding with the local Evanston Lighthouse Dunes group for "the restoration of the dunes and gardens and demolition of the Harley Clarke Mansion and coach house."

Dozens of speakers limited to one minute apiece urged the council to hold off on moving toward demolition of the city-owned landmark on Lake Michigan, which some call a civic treasure while others label it an albatross. A group calling itself Save Harley Clarke claimed to have gathered 3,245 signatures on a petition to place a referendum on preserving the mansion on the local ballot in November's general election.

In the end, the City Council moved to ignore that, but not before thrusting the entire cost of the project on Evanston Lighthouse Dunes, even as it insisted it was not prepared to write a "blank check" for the demolition.

Preservationists claimed to have the majority of the city behind them, but aldermen insisted they had heard from constituents favoring demolition as well.

The debate was sometimes emotional on both sides.

"For people to know who they are and where they're going, they need to know where they're from," said Evanston resident Frederick Weinstein. He called the mansion "a symbol of the soul of Evanston" and said razing the building would leave "a wound that will not heal and an absence we all would feel."

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"For people to know who they are and where they're going, they need to know where they're from."

Frederick Weinstein

"It's a beautiful building. It's a landmark," said Nate Kipnis, an Evanston architect. "If this building is torn down, there's no going back."

Jeff Smith said demolition would threaten to "destabilize the entire bluff," and others pointed out that Evanston Lighthouse Dunes had not presented any plans for "renaturalization" on the dunes.

Nicole Kustok, of the dunes group, explained that they'd seek public guidance after the demolition to plan the grounds. She said the group had already raised $400,000 for the demolition and pledged another $100,000 for restoration of the landscape.

That didn't mollify Julia Bachrach, an expert on the work of Jens Jensen, who designed the grounds around Richard Powers's 1927 Tudor mansion, as well as Chicago's Garfield Park Conservatory. "Jens Jensen's landscape was carefully designed in tandem with the house," Bachrach said.

While the vast majority of public speakers on the issue were in favor of preservation, 7th Ward resident Tony Dalrymple said he favored demolition to "solve the Harley Clarke problem forever."

The mansion passed from Harley Clarke, a local energy magnate and later movie executive buffeted by the Great Depression, to the Sigma Chi National Fraternity and then to the City of Evanston in 1965. For 50 years it was home to the Evanston Arts Center, but it has been shuttered since 2015.

 The Harley Clarke Mansion has been owned by Evanston since 1965, but was shuttered in 2015. (Wikimedia Commons/Teemu008)

The Harley Clarke Mansion has been owned by Evanston since 1965, but was shuttered in 2015. (Wikimedia Commons/Teemu008)

Resident Tom Petraitis railed at how Mayor Steve Hagerty had told him the council was suffering from "fatigue" after debating the issue for years. "It's not your job to sit back and say I'm tired of this," he said. "It's your job to seek creative solutions."

D.K. Schwartz asked aldermen if "you want your legacy to be 'there used to be a beautiful house there, and I got rid of it.'"

Tom Hodgman, president of Evanston Lakehouse & Gardens, rebuffed by the city in April in its bid to take over the building, said his group stood at the ready to resume their efforts. He said they had secured $200,000 in funding and asked another year to raise $1 million. He was joined by legal advisers who insisted the proposed deal with the dunes group was "a very bad contract."

Bonnie McDonald, president of Landmarks Illinois, said, "Our history and our heritage shouldn't be treated as a disposable nuisance." She repeated her offer to lead a study on reuse of the building.

Tim Franzen, who said he'd worked on the award-winning renovation of the Chicago Athletic Club, also offered his services.

Yet the council seemed determined to be done with it, even as some aldermen argued passionately for preservation.

Alderman Melissa Wynne of the 3rd Ward said she was "deeply, deeply opposed to demolishing the building." According to Wynne, "The $400,000 proposed by the dunes group does not begin to cover the costs," a position shared by Alderman Eleanor Revelle, whose 7th Ward includes the mansion.

Revelle said demolition would face problems from asbestos, lead paint, and radon. She added that careful deconstruction would be preferable to demolition, in which the building materials would simply go into a landfill. Revelle urged the council to wait for the results of the referendum in November, saying, "It's important for us to hear directly from our constituents."

"The idea that we would send a bulldozer into this building is just shameful," Wynne said. Pointing out that maintenance cost just $15,000 a year, she urged caution.

"We are rushing in haste to make a decision," Wynne said. She asked her colleagues to "take a timeout, mothball the building, and wait for a better idea."

First Ward Alderman Judy Fiske, who chaired the meeting with Hagerty on vacation, said that would be "kicking the can down the road." Emphasizing that Evanston originally bought the property for parkland, not the building, she argued that it came down to preserving the building or the lakefront, and she sided with the lakefront. "I am a preservationist," she insisted, a claim met by audible boos from the overflow gallery down the hall from the Council Chamber.

Alderman Ann Rainey of the 8th Ward was even more withering. "I think there's a lot of fantasizing going on with Harley Clarke," she said. "All of a sudden, this bundle of bricks is the most important thing in our city.

"I think it should be taken down," she added. "There is nothing so special, believe me, about this building."

"I think everything Alderman Rainey said — in reverse," responded 6th Ward Alderman Thomas Suffredin. An original proponent of a public referendum on the issue, he urged the council, "Let's all wait until that vote is taken."

Suffredin said, "Whatever we come up with needs to be funded," a position echoed by Alderman Robin Rue Simmons of the 5th Ward. She turned out to be the pivotal vote when she inserted an amendment calling on Evanston Lighthouse Dunes to assume all costs of the project.

"We're not prepared to offer a blank check," Kustok said, but when that amendment passed unanimously it set the stage for Rue Simmons to join the majority in a 5-3 vote to approve the Memo of Understanding and move toward demolition. Revelle, Wynne, and Suffredin voted against.

Rainey nonetheless predicted demolition would be a hard case for the city's Preservation Commission, and it would likely land back in the City Council's lap.

"There's a long process still ahead," said City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz.