With its home closed to the public, the Evanston History Center is taking to the streets, said Marge Wold, president of the board of EHC. At the request of officials of Northwestern University, which owns the building, the Evanston fire department conducted a safety inspection earlier this spring and closed the Dawes House to the public. The fire inspection report recommended several safety upgrades, including improved exit signage, emergency lighting and removal of stored materials from the third floor.
Since the house, EHC’s home, has been closed, a battle has been joined on several fronts to work out a deal with Northwestern that would allow EHC to remain in the Dawes House.
Representatives from the ad hoc citizens group General Dawes Returns (GDR) advocate a somewhat confrontational approach with the University. The group hired an actor to impersonate General Charles Gates Dawes, who, many believe, donated his house and his papers to Northwestern University in trust for the citizens of Evanston. Some in that group have demonstrated against the University and have suggested suing Northwestern for the “return” of the building to the citizens of Evanston.
Mimi Peterson, spokesperson for and organizer of GDR, has said that Northwestern president Henry Bienen could improve his “legacy” to Evanston by returning the Dawes House “to the children of this community.” Ms. Peterson and several members of the General Dawes Returns group attended the June 18 EHC annual meeting. Some GDR members took issue with the Board’s actions and disclosures at that meeting. The group videotaped the meeting and say they plan to put excerpts of it on their website, www.generaldawesreturns.org.
The officers and directors of EHC, on the other hand, say they believe negotiating with Northwestern is preferable, and that the particulars of the negotiations are best kept confidential. “We had a confidentiality requirement,” Ms. Wold said, “and our board is comfortable with that.” Some persons at the meeting felt differently, one EHC member told the RoundTable. “They felt that something, some information, was being kept from them,” Ms. Wold said. “We disagree on how best to work with Northwestern.”
She said there have been “several productive meetings with Northwestern. … We are more hopeful now than we have been since this whole thing began.” She added she believes “things will be resolved by the end of the summer” and that EHC might reopen “hopefully, by next fall.”
Eugene Sunshine, vice president for business at Northwestern University, told the RoundTable, “We have had several potentially productive conversations with the EHC board-designated individuals, including [Ms. Wold]. We are all listening to each other. That is obvious.” He added, “More get-togethers are necessary,” and said he is “looking forward to them.”
In the meantime, said Ms. Wold, EHC outreach stretches to many parts of Evanston. “Since people can’t go to the Dawes House, we are going to other places in the community.” EHC plans an exhibit in the windows of First Bank & Trust, 820 Church St., next month, she said. In addition, EHC archivist Lori Osborne is making plans to take materials next year to Evanston Township High School so students can conduct research about their own houses – a popular research project with ETHS students. In addition, she said, each EHC member is entitled to have staff conduct research for “one small project,” since the center is closed to the public.