The Evanston History Center (EHC) will soon hold the title to Dawes House, its home since 1960.
The 28-room, lakefront mansion once belonged to Charles G. Dawes – a World War I army general, United States vice president and Nobel Peace Prize winner – who gave it to Northwestern University in 1942.
In a surprise announcement May 27, the University said it planned to give the History Center the deed to Dawes House and its furnishings as soon as the transaction is legally approved. Eugene Sunshine, NU’s senior vice president for business and finance, later said that transfer could take place as early as July.
Northwestern will hold onto other gifts Gen. Dawes made in 1942, the valuable books and papers of the Dawes family, which include primary sources on the opening of the Northwest Territory in Ohio. NU and EHC will split the Dawes endowment fund of more than a million dollars, with 40 percent going to NU to maintain the Dawes collection at the University Library.
What a difference a year makes – just 14 months ago, EHC was facing eviction from Dawes House, its home for almost 50 years. On April 9, 2008, the Center received word that NU had decided it was prohibitively expensive to bring the venerable 1894 building up to code and planned to sell it, thus requiring EHC to close the building to the public for safety precautions and vacate the premises by the end of June 2009.
That deadline is now here, but instead of the gloomy prospect of moving out, EHC is digging in, preparing to own its own home for the first time since it was founded in 1898 as the Evanston Historical Society.
“It’s very exciting,” said Margaret Wold, EHC president. “We’ve been planning for a big fundraising campaign, of course, but also while we’ve been closed, the board, the staff, all of us, have been working to re-imagine ourselves. We want to make Dawes House more relevant and to develop programs that reach out to every corner of the Evanston community.”
Ms. Wold, who has admitted to many a sleepless night since EHC got its marching papers last April, said the Center was in no position to consider buying Dawes House at that time. She said back then, the University seemed to be “putting us out of business.”
It may have looked that way but, nonetheless, EHC began exploring other possibilities with the University. When asked, neither Ms. Wold nor Mr. Sunshine would explain what the turning point was in their negotiations – how NU agreed to give away property worth millions instead of selling it as previously announced – but by September, Ms. Wold said, the two institutions had hammered out the basic agreement.
Before implementation, the plan required approval by the Illinois Attorney General’s office, so while the office conducted its long investigation, EHC and NU agreed to keep things secret to “increase the ultimate chances of success,” Mr. Sunshine said. EHC took the time to begin addressing safety issues at Dawes House, following fire department specifications that would allow limited re-openings. In February EHC opened the research room to the public and in May offered house tours again.
In late May, the state Attorney General’s office okayed the transaction, which now awaits final approval by the Cook County Circuit Court. “We hope to have this wrapped up in July,” Ms. Wold said.
What really helped move things along was the EHC fundraising feasibility study, Mr. Sunshine said: “That study gave Marge the green light.”
The study clearly showed that most Evanston residents capable of making significant gifts to the Center would do so but only if EHC owned Dawes House.
Ms. Wold saluted Mr. Sunshine for his good efforts onmaking this agreement come about. She also credited the hard work – all pro bono, she pointed out – of EHC board member Jim Staples, a lawyer and former Evanston alderman. A year ago April when most of the board and staff were reeling with the news of NU’s decision, Ms. Wold said, “It was Jim Staples who told us we had room to negotiate. It was Jim who made the first call to Gene Sunshine.”
Mr. Sunshine said, “We wanted to do what was right for the University and the community. It was important to talk quietly and professionally, with intelligence and good will. I feel good about the results. These conversations were well worth the effort, enabling both the University and the History Center to better carry out our primary missions and preserve the legacy of General Dawes.”
Mr. Sunshine added, “I give a lot of credit to Marge for her leadership and patience.”
Both traits will be called upon as the History Center prepares for its first major fundraising campaign. Ms. Wold said a professional fundraising firm will be hired to plan and conduct the campaign, which will probably aim at $2-4 million dollars to upgrade the building, increase staff hours and add to the Center’s $1-million endowment.
This multi-million-dollar campaign will be nothing like the old days, when EHC fundraising at Dawes House consisted of annual flea markets held in the carriage house and basement.