There is too much stuff along the lakefront. We do not mean the debris left by careless visitors – most of that is cleared regularly through the Adopt-a-Beach and other volunteer programs – but the man-made structures that have been appearing along the shore since Aaron Montgomery Ward won the battle to keep the Chicago lakeshore free of buildings, losing ground to the Art Institute of Chicago while the case slogged through the courts.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago describes the fight and the results: “During the seven years that it took Ward’s case to reach the State Supreme Court, from 1890 to 1897, two more buildings were constructed on the space, a wigwam for the 1892 Democratic National Convention and the Art Institute erected in 1891 as part of the World’s Columbian Exposition. In 1897 the Supreme Court ruled that the city had accepted the land with the dedication and therefore held the land in trust as public grounds and were bound to enforce its restrictions. The Illinois Central Railroad Company tracks and the Art Institute were the only exceptions to the dedication allowed to remain.”

Most readers will have followed the saga of the Star Wars museum that director George Lucas proposed to build on Chicago’s lakefront. Whether the public trust doctrine would suffice to prevent the museum had that proposal run its course through the courts is difficult to say, but difficulties do arise when there is a move to privatize public land.

And this brings us to the City-owned property at 2603 Sheridan Road. The Harley Clarke mansion, shuttered since the Art Center moved more than a year ago, will be open for public inspection and tours next week. 

While we think this is a positive move to generate interest in the mansion, we caution the City not to repeat its one-time willingness to privatize that land. There is very little long-term gain to be had from selling a major City asset.

We know not everyone will have the same starting point for the recent history of the mansion: Some will begin with the secret meetings at which a private hotel was discussed; some will begin with the Council’s decision not to sell the property; others may wish to begin with the recommendations of the Mayoral-appointed citizen committee: “The Blind Men and the Elephant.”

The Clarke mansion is an attractive piece of property. We expect that various organizations will submit proposals, some for private and some for public use. Whatever organization is willing to shell out a few million dollars will be enriched all the more. The beachfront property, the dunes, the incomparable gardens, the proximity to the Grosse Point light station and to Noah’s Playground for Everyone all point to the necessity of keeping this spot open for public use.

The Evanston Lakehouse group has taken the initiative, and we feel the group is headed in the direction of keeping the interest of the residents of Evanston at the forefront. Other groups may have similar ideas to keep the property open for public use.

We hope there will be follow-up ideas, synergies and partnerships to keep this part of Lake Michigan’s shoreline for the public.

Some might feel that revisiting the Clarke mansion is a Sisyphean effort, and in some ways, it is. But we feel that the stone will be lighter if residents and elected officials can shed the dreams about obtaining ephemeral cash from the one-time sale of an irreplaceable asset and keep their eyes on a public use of a lakefront community asset.