Just a few months ago, the Harley Clarke mansion, 2603 Sheridan Road, had only one suitor: J.N. Pritzker, who proposed a 57-room hotel for the site. A weak second at that time was the Evanston Art Center, which had leased the building from the City for more than 40 years and had been in talks with the City about relocating within a few years, even though its lease will not be up until 2021.

Now a third suitor, the Coastal Management Program of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, is knocking at the door. An Oct. 18 letter to City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz from Diane Tecic, director of IDNR’s Coastal Management Program, expressed interest about leasing the mansion, possibly the coach house for its offices and possibly a Lake Michigan Coastal Education Center open to the public. The letter said IDNR would maintain beach and lake access for the public, maintain a public meeting space, provide a “coastal science classroom” for regional schools, have “coastal and landscape restorations and opportunities for volunteering” and offer hands-on workshops and training. A memo to the committee from Mr. Bobkiewicz stated, “IDNR is aware of the condition of the building and believes that they have funds to address the facility concerns.”

Whither the Art Center?

At its Nov. 4 meeting, members of the Human Services Committee voted to refer the IDNR proposal to City Council and to continue discussions with the Evanston Art Center about its future.

Perhaps alerted to the City’s interest in the IDNR proposal, several residents spoke in support of keeping the Art Center in the mansion. Urging the City to make a “clear and unambiguous commitment to Art Center, Jerome Hausman said, “This is the City’s art center,” Jerome Hausman said, “Just as we maintain a police and a fire-fighting force, we have a responsibility for the art center’s well-being. … Together we should resist state or corporate interests that would use it as office space.”

Artist Diane Thodos spoke of the “far-reaching aspects of the Art Center. … We have to [let] communal values [prevail] over commercial values to keep who we are from becoming just [another] vanilla-flavored town …”

Junad Rizki asked, “Will the Coastal Management Program give us a fair market rent? Will they maintain the building or is the City going to fix it up?”

A memo to the committee members from City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said that at the Oct. 7 Human Services Committee, Art Center representatives were given a “60-day due diligence period … to establish the parameters satisfactory to the EAC and the City that will enable the continuing tenancy” of the mansion and the coach house” and  “to determine necessary repairs to the mansion and the likely costs of them.” At the Nov. 4 meeting, he gave an update of activity in the past few weeks, most of which involved electrical safety in the kiln room and a potential contract with IFF Real Estate Services to prepare a detailed cost estimate of needed improvement to the mansion.

Mr. Bobkiewicz also recapped conversations between the City and Coastal Management representatives and asked the Committee whether the proposal should be forwarded to City Council for discussion.

“I think it would be unwise for us not to … bring the matter to City Council and not to undertake formal discussion” said Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward.

‘Safe’ But Needing Repairs

Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, said, “I think this is a good idea to start talking with an agency that is willing to redo the site and will be taking over the maintenance of it. … I also remain extremely concerned about what’s happening in the building now.” She said that, on a capital tour sponsored by the City last month, she had seen basins half-full of water, trees growing in the gutters, lead paint in some areas and electric power strips connected to other electric power strips.

“I don’t think we want anyone to be in a place that’s unsafe, and I’m very concerned about that,” said Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward.

“Has the fire department maintained oversight of this building and declared it safe for current use?” asked Sixth Ward Alderman Mark Tendam.

“Yes,” Mr. Bobkiewicz responded. “As far as using the building, we are confident that it is workable.”

“Electrical [issues] can be fixed,” said Ald. Tendam. “I don’t want the opinion out there that this is somehow a dangerous place.”

“I would agree that we do not believe it is a dangerous place,” said Mr. Bobkiewicz. Referring to a list of needed repairs identified by the City several weeks before, he said, “The list remains.”

Ald. Grover cautioned against “undermining the future of the Art Center by this discussion. I think the Art Center has taken a hit in enrollment from these discussions. I want there to be an Evanston Art Center five years from now.”

‘Ambiguity’ and a ‘Hot Date’

“Ambiguity is something we do very well here at City Hall,” said Ald. Tendam. “We did send the Art Center in a direction and gave them a co-worker – that is, the City. So all of a sudden something else comes along – you know, you’ve got a hot date but someone else hotter comes along. Do you renege on the date or do you maintain the honorable thing to do – or date a couple of people at the same time?”

Picking up on the metaphor, Mr. Bobkiewicz said,“And since I serve as chaperone for many of those activities, I’m here asking the question [about referring the matter to City Council].”

Ald. Tendam continued, “My request is to give the Art Center the amount of time we agreed to give them to show what they can do. I realize the other thing is kind of sexy because it’s new. Has IDNR identified any other potential locations?”

Mr. Bobkiewicz said they had not.

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said she was “fascinated” by the proposal.

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, said he was concerned about “the need for repairs to the building … On the other hand, we have someone who is interested in the mansion. … Having learned our lesson [from how the City handled the  Taiwani proposal], my question is, ‘How will we go about keeping the community informed about these options?’”

Mr. Bobkiewicz said the City has created a list-serve from which emails are sent to parties interested in the mansion.

Near the end of the meeting, Evanston Art Center Executive Director Norah Diedrich that the Art Center’s legal counsel be allowed to respond to the “absolutely unfounded” and “extremely damaging comments” by Ald. Burrus.

Barack Echols of Kirkland & Ellis said, “We need for people to know that … they can send their children there; they can send their students there. It’s a wonderful, viable place that is … a boon to the community. … It’s safe; it’s been inspected by City inspectors. … I don’t want there to be a suggestion that the [mansion] is unsafe for operation.”

Next Steps

As it now stands, the Art Center will present its final report at the January meeting of the Human Services Committee. IDNR will schedule a community meeting early next year. Discussion of their proposal will be on the City Council agenda in January or February.

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...