Harley Clarke Mansion Committee chair Steve Hagerty presents his committee’s report at the June 8 City Council meeting. Photo by Mary Mumbrue  

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Aldermen unanimously accepted the report of the Harley Clarke Committee on June 8, but not before 32 speakers had offered their opinion of what should become of the mansion.

Appointed in January by Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, the committee sought public input through its eight public meetings and one public workshop, through a survey that was both printed online and through a public email box. Committee Chair Steve Hagerty presented the report, which includes the committee’s objective, a summary of the options, a history of the mansion and the preferred option of each committee member.

Mr. Hagerty presented the five options the committee considered and then left the matter in the hands of the City Council. Although the committee members did not reach a consensus among themselves, Mr. Hagerty said, “The consensus is, ‘People love Evanston.’ There’s a general feeling that we want to transmit the City better than it was.”

Results of Survey and Emails

Competing interests were evident from the committee’s discussions, from the five options presented and from each committee member’s ranking of the options, as presented in the report: generating revenue for the City, preserving the building, restoring the Jens Jensen gardens, keeping the building public and demolishing it to create more parkland.

The committee members agreed at the outset that they would not consider any options that blocked access to the beach or removed the beach and dunes from public ownership.

Results from the survey, email and public comment showed that, of the 1,523 responses, more than 1,200 preferred options that would keep the property public – through continued City ownership (574 votes), by demolishing the building and creating parkland (188 votes) or by donating the property to an organization that would renovate it and preserve it for public use (441 votes). Option 3, that the City would sell or lease the building and land and allow it to be renovated for a commercial use, such as a hotel or event spaces, received 285 votes. The least preferred option, selling the land to be redeveloped under residential zoning, received only 35 votes.

Public Comment

Most speakers at the June 8 meeting said they preferred to keep the property public. Of those speakers, more speakers said they favored the option of gifting the property to an organization that would renovate the building and keep it for public cultural or educational use, or both. Some said they supported demolishing the building and restoring the Jens Jensen gardens or the dunes ecology, or both. Still others spoke of the need to consider the gardens and the building as a unit, saying both should be preserved.

Two speakers advised the City Council that residents would be watching and would remember, come re-election time, whether the Council would keep the mansion and property public.

A few said they felt that the City did not have sufficient money to cover the renovation costs and that a private, commercial use would provide income to the City both by returning the property to the tax rolls and by generating tax revenues on alcohol, events and the like.

Mike Vasilko, an Evanston resident and architect, said he felt the option of selling the building and allowing it to be renovated for commercial space is the optimal one.

Joe Flanagan, a local businessman and Evanston resident, said, “I fully agree that we should restore the mansion. … I am a huge believer in private/public enterprises. I encourage the City to seek out a partner with a long-term lease.”

Joe Matthews, who lives across the street from the property, presented a PhotoShopped picture of the site without the mansion. “Return the land to the people,” he said. “Let’s naturalize, not privatize.”

Barbara Janes, founder of the ad hoc group noparksale.org, referred to signs throughout the City opposing the sale of the property. “If you ask people if there is a choice between the building and the parkland, they say [they choose] the land.”

Diane Williams, chair of the Evanston Preservation Commission, said the commission agrees “that the building and the landscape should be preserved – and demolition should be removed as an option.”

Mary Rosinski of noparksale.org said, “We have this phenomenal opportunity to create a model for cultural education on the shores of Lake Michigan.”

Sheila Sullivan, president of the Southeast Evanston Association, said SEA supported having the City retain and rehab the building for public use but also felt that the organization could support the option of having a not-for-profit rehab the property for public use if the property were leased rather than sold or given to the not-for-profit.

Council Discussion

“On behalf of the community, thank you for working on this project,” Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl told members of the committee: Mr. Hagerty, Linda Damashek, Amina Dimarco, Garry Shumaker, Dawn Davis-Zeinemann and Aldermen Jane Grover, 7th Ward, and Ann Rainey, 8th Ward.

Ald. Grover chastised the residents who had put out signs objecting to a sale of the mansion or property; many of these same residents are members of noparksale.org.

“The new playbook is a ‘viable options’ playbook. Yard signs are overly simplistic,” said Ald. Grover. “’No, not, don’t’ doesn’t help us. … It’s hard to build a consensus with ‘No, not don’t.’ ‘No, not don’t’ has deterred meaningful engagements. I think the building is worth preserving and am willing to compromise to get it done.

“Ahead of us is to renovate the Robert Crown Center, and it pains me to think the Harley Clarke will compete with Robert Crown,” Ald. Grover added.

“Alderman Grover, I don’t think that scolding the folks who came here tonight really moves the conversation forward. … They really care. It doesn’t move the conversation forward to attack them,” said Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward. “There is a level of mistrust [of City Council]. … I think they deserve thanks for engaging the community – and that’s what makes Evanston strong.”

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said, “I think that the signs and the engagement are a reflection of frustration. I think a lot of people feel that they are not being heard. … We’ll give millions of dollars to a grocery store, to a developer for a private project – and there’s nobody here [to speak about it]. … In this situation there is a suggestion that something might be taken away.”

To the audience he said, “We’re accountable to you.” He said he had read a 1977 report about Lighthouse Landing, and “a lot of issues we’re talking about were there in 1977. … We have to make a decision on where the priorities lie.”

Next Steps

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, suggested that Council discuss the report at their second meeting in September, which at present is set for Sept. 28.

Members of the Harley Clarke Mansion showed their preferences in the same survey offered to residents.

Amina Dimarco preferred demolishing the building and developing it as parkway. Chair Steve Hagerty and Garry Shumaker opted for having the City sell the building and land and allowing it to be renovated for commercial use, such as a hotel or event space. Dawn Davis-Zeinemann preferred having the City sell the building and land and allowing the site to be developed under residential zoning, including senior housing. Linda Damashek’s preferred option was having the City sell or gift the building to an organization that would renovate and preserve it for public cultural and/or educational use.

Neither of the two alderman – Jane Grover, 7th Ward, and Ann Rainey, 8th Ward – revealed their preferences in the survey, but both have said they would like to see the building sold for commercial use.

Mansion Tidbits

Architect Richard Powers designed and built the mansion for Harley Clarke and his family in 1927. Two years later, the property was sold to the Sigma Chi Fraternity.

The City acquired the 4.7-acre parcel in 1965 for $750,000 and leased it to the Evanston Art Center for $1  a year, with the understanding that the Art Center would maintain the interior and the City, the exterior.

In 1990, the City rezoned the property OS, open space, from R-1, single-family residential.

In July 2013, City Council rejected a proposal from Col. Jennifer Pritzker to purchase the property and convert the mansion to a 57-room hotel.

The property, 2603 Sheridan Road, is one of four adjoining public lakefront parcels. Two – the mansion property and Lawson Park – are owned by the City; the other two, by the autonomous Lighthouse Park District.

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...