Seemingly thrust into the midst of the debate about the future of the Harley Clarke mansion – its home for more than 40 years – the Evanston Art Center (EAC) is staying out of the fray and simply looking for a new home. EAC’s executive director Nora Diedrich made that clear at a press conference held on July 15 at the Library.

Ms. Diedrich outlined several points of “clarification,” she said, to dispel ideas and rumors that the Art Center is being tossed out of its home and to make clear that letters, phone calls and emails to the Mayor, the City Manager and aldermen from present or former EAC board members were neither instigated nor authorized by the full board of the Art Center.

EAC staff has been instructed to toss out all flyers and remove yard signs having to do with the future of the mansion, Ms. Diedrich said.

EAC’s lease with the City of the Harley Clarke mansion is set to expire in 2021, and either party can terminate it with 280 days’ notice, Ms. Diedrich said. “In 2007, EAC board members and key staff began serious discussions about the need for a larger, more updated facility,” she said. Relations between the City and the EAC have always been amicable, she said, and “EAC staff and trustees are working in conjunction with City of Evanston officials in an attempt to identify a suitable building(s) or site for the organization’s future home.”  That home would have to be about 35,000 square feet. Ideally, she said, there would be an area for Mom-&-Tots classes, an area for teens, a wood-working studio and a studio or area for 3-D printing, she said.

Asked by Eighth Ward Alderman Ann Rainey whether EAC is considering new construction or adaptive re-use of an existing building, Ms. Diedrich said, “We would consider new construction; sometimes rehabbing a building can be more expensive than building from the ground up.” She also said they have met with officials from Northwestern University “in terms of space identification.”

EAC was founded in 1929 and was incorporated as a 501(c)3 organization in 1947. Nineteen people serve on the board of trustees, and the annual operating budget is about $1.2 million. “It is time to move on,” said Ms. Diedrich. “It has been great to serve the community from this site.”

Seventh Ward Alderman Jane Grover also attended the press conference. She told the RoundTable she has not yet decided on how to vote on the proposed sale of the Harley Clarke mansion to developer and hotel heir Col. James Pritzker. She said her “non-negotiables” are that the City receive a fair market price for the property, that there be free and expanded parking for residents and that there would be unfettered access to the beach.

Ald. Grover appeared to favor the development of the property, even though it is on prime lakefront public land. Col. Pritzker has said he anticipated spending $22 million to develop the mansion as a 57-room boutique hotel with underground parking.  Ald. Grover told the RoundTable she thought the potential for rehabbing the mansion and for restoring the Jens Jensen gardens made the proposal attractive.  “I don’t know that the scale of this proposal comports with the community’s vision of the highest and best use of the land,” she said.

Ald. Rainey was more direct about her desire to see the lakefront developed. She told the RoundTable she felt the “first” development on the lakefront had to be classy. She also said she thought the proposed price – $1.2 million for the building and  much of the surrounding property – was fair because “the return on investment is going to be tremendous. … The hotel will be fabulous. Nobody’s selling the beach; nobody’s selling the park,” she said – “and there will be a 200-space underground garage.

“To take a jewel like Col. Pritzker who in 2011 won a preservation award and to lose his interest in this property would be a crime. I have no interest in letting that happen. … He has a passion, and I am going to help him realize his passion,” Ald. Rainey said.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...