Supporters of Evanston Lakehouse & Gardens in the Fourth of July parade. Photo by Lynn Trautmann L/TPhoto Evanston

The group of residents proposing to keep the Harley Clarke mansion for public use is stepping up its fundraising and public relations efforts. The group, which has received 501(c)(3) status from the IRS, would like to see the historic mansion and its gardens, created by Jens Jensen, into a place “to connect and celebrate community through educational and recreational programming. Imagine a world-class setting for inspiring gatherings and events.”

The  hashtag is #OpenHarley. The website lists as the ELHG volunteer leaders Patrick L. Donnelly, John J. Walsh, Tom Hodgman, Alexander Block, Benjamin Iverson Lumpkin, Emily Guthrie, and Jeffrey P. Smith.

The Lakehouse group is “an all-volunteer team that keeps growing. As architects, landscapists, designers and community members continue to be impressed by our vision they’ve signed on to help us preserve and restore this Evanston treasure,” Mr. Block told the RoundTable. “We see this piece of property as a gem the Evanston community deserves to have,” he added.

“We want to create an inspiring place for all of Evanston that enhances education, recreation and cultural tourism opportunities in our City.  We believe the building should be saved and not demolished; we believe the new uses there should be inviting to everyone – both from a social and economic perspective; we believe the building and surrounding Jens Jensen gardens should remain open to the public.  We believe our plan is sensitive to the varied interests that have been expressed over the last few years regarding Harley Clarke. We will provide environmental education, outdoor recreation, cultural tourism, and community meeting space. The economic engine to support these public goods will come from renting the restored building out for events and meetings as well as renting space to a planned light-fare café,” Mr. Hodgman told the RoundTable. 

Last year the City shuttered the mansion after its 40-plus-year tenant, the Evanston Art Center, relocated to 1717 Central St. For most of the day on Aug. 3, the City is offering tours to private groups and individuals interested in the long-term use of the facility to view the interior. City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz told the RoundTable a few time slots are still open. Between 3 and 4 p.m. that day the mansion will be open to the public.

The Open Harley group says it sees the mansion and gardens as “the keystone of the four-part lakefront complex, which includes Noah’s Playground for Everyone, Lighthouse Beach, and the Grosse Point Lighthouse. This makes it an ideal location for cultural tourism in a model that has proven successful across the country and around the world. Evanston has an opportunity to embrace one of the crowning jewels of public lakefront property.”

The group has raised $5,000 from more than 50 people and has an immediate goal of raising $150,000 through grass-roots enthusiasm. “We always knew the $150,000 would be ambitious, but it well positions the organization to raise the capital necessary to fully restore and repurpose the building. We’ve been overcome by the amount of support the community has shown us and we’re excited to continue this important journey to protect one of Evanston’s lakefront treasures,” Mr. Block said.

Mr. Hodgman also said the Lakehouse model is one “that has been successful in not only the Chicago area (Cheney Mansion in Oak Park, Berger Mansion in Chicago, Glessner House in Chicago), but other parts of the country (Highfield Hall in Cape Cod), and around the world. We’re not re-inventing the wheel here. We’re taking a City-owned asset and giving it the support it needs to be a strong, sustainable and successful model for a public/not-for-profit partnership, while taking much the burden off of the City and the taxpayers.” 

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...