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On June 26, the Civic Center filled once again with dozens of residents all demanding their particular vision for the fate of the Harley Clarke mansion. The mansion, built in 1927 by businessman Harley Clarke, became the national headquarters for the Sigma Chi fraternity in 1950.
According to Sigma Chi’s historical initiative website, the City of Evanston “approached the fraternity” seeking “to acquire the beach in the property – by condemnation if necessary.” The fraternity decided to sell the entire property, including the mansion, to the City.
The City has owned the property since about 1963. Shortly thereafter, the City leased the mansion to the Evanston Arts Center for $1 per year with the understanding the EAC would maintain the interior while the City maintained the exterior.
By January 1973, Evanston’s City Council was voting to waive the $3,000 (about $17,000 in today’s dollars) maintenance fee charged the EAC. Deferred maintenance, or no maintenance, eventually catches up.
In July 2011, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz suggested the City sell three troubled city-owned buildings. The upkeep of Harley Clarke and the Noyes Cultural Arts Center were too expensive to maintain, and the Chandler Newberger Center would be attractive for other uses. Of the three, Harley Clarke had the fewest friends at the time. “Current deferred capital projects for the building exceed $400,000,” wrote Mr., Bobkiewicz in a memo to Council.
“In addition, there could be interest by other parties in the Mansion for other uses. I believe it makes sense to continue discussions with the EAC as well as evaluate other potential uses for the Mansion,” the memo concluded.
At the July 11 City Council meeting, Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl told Council “she had shown the building to a potential buyer recently,” according to a RoundTable article. It is believed that buyer was Colonel Pritzker.
In August 2011, the EAC announced plans to move. Efforts were underway to find a new home and vacate both Harley Clarke and space used in Noyes. No reference was made to maintenance.
In February 2012, City Council gave Mr. Bobkiewicz the “green light” to find a buyer. By May, a “request for interest” issued. Mayor Tisdahl proclaimed “not one blade of grass” would be sold – just the building.
The RoundTable, in the first of a series of Harley Clarke editorials, urged Council to sell the building but retain title to the land and the gardens. All the momentum pointed toward a sale.
Four proposals appeared in August 2012, including one from Beacon Academy, the private school now occupying the former Pivot Point Academy space connected to the Rotary Tower, and two seeking to convert the building into a boutique hotel. One of the two came from Col. Pritzker’s Tawani Enterprises.
Council invited each of the four respondents to provide formal proposals, and only Tawani responded. The terms of Tawani’s bid were not released, but kept in executive session. Keeping discussion in executive session would prove controversial.
In March, the RoundTable called for the release of closed session minutes and audio tape. Illinois law permits negotiations concerning price to be kept private, but all other discussions should be open under the Open Meetings Act.
Sadly, the City had accidentally destroyed the audio tape containing the closed session discussions. The minutes, however, revealed details of the Tawani bid, which included the Mansion, greenhouse, coach house, and 2.5 acres of land. The public beach would remain, but the buildings and gardens would be converted into a 57-room boutique hotel.
Then came No Park Sale, an organization founded to preserve the Mansion and grounds for public use. The RoundTable opined the City should “scrap the Tawani deal.” Central Street Neighbors proclaimed, “We oppose any sale of public park land.” Signs were everywhere and Council Chambers filled.
On July 22, 2013, the Tawani proposal came before council. “I do not believe we should sell park land,” said Mayor Tisdhal before the vote. “Blame me that there is a proposal before” City Council. “I love the yard signs,” she added later. Aldermen Delores Holmes, Colleen Burrus, and Ann Rainey voted for Tawani, but the six other aldermen voted no.
Council shifted toward other ideas, seeking input from an angry and distrusting public. “If residents and City officials – elected or appointed – cannot get past their anger and mistrust, the Battle of the Clarke Mansion will continue, fruitlessly, to be fought,” wrote the RoundTable.
Though “no committees [were] contemplated at this time” according to Mr. Bobkiewicz, No Park Sale invited the public to a community meeting in the Parasol Room.
Meanwhile, maintenance continued to be deferred. The EAC continued to occupy the premises, even though they sought another home. And the cost to “mitigate major life safety concerns” within the Mansion stood at $170,000, according to Mr. Bobkiewicz, with another $100,000 required for a “more comprehensive site evaluation.”
Things got very interesting in October-November 2013. First, EAC announced they had changed their mind and wanted to stay. The cost of moving would top $4 million, they said, well beyond their realistic fundraising capacity. The City agreed to take 60 days to negotiate a new lease, one in which EAC would maintain the building.
Within the 60-day window, though, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) came knocking. In November, IDNR asked to take over the building and turn it in to a coastal research and education center.
Finally, a deal everyone could get behind. Council voted to give EAC until January 2015 to vacate the building, and it turned full attention to IDNR’s proposal. For reasons that remain unclear, the process slowed to a crawl. Nothing happened – publicly – for months, until July 2014 when “plans for Harley Clarke solidified.” Renovations necessary to bring the building up to code were estimated at $5 million, but IDNR was on board.
Negotiations seemed to stall once more over ownership versus a lease. “It’s problematic for a state agency to spend that kind of money [over $5 million] on something they’re not going to own,” said an IDNR representative.
Finally, on Sept. 22, 2014, the full council voted 7-1 to enter negotiations to sell. Only Ald. Rainey voted no.
Then Bruce Rauner won his election over Pat Quinn, and it was over. The IDNR proposal was in jeopardy immediately after election day, and by December, Council publicly labeled the plan in jeopardy. At the same time, EAC asked for more time to stay in the Mansion, through May 2015, and asked for financial assistance to move to their new Central Street home. Council provided both.
In February, Mayor Tisdhal appointed the Harley Clarke committee chaired by current mayor Steve Hagerty, to study the issue and report back to Council. “Everything is on the table,” was the directive.
The report came in June and presented Council with five options – demolish the Mansion, renovate under City ownership and on the City’s $5 million dime, find a commercial use such as Col. Pritzker’s boutique hotel, sell to a private developer for a subdivision of seven or eight private homes, or find a non-profit and enter into a stewardship agreement.
By September 2015, a new not-for-profit, the Lakehouse & Gardens, had been formed, promising to “provide the money to restore the mansion, and then it will be self-sustaining,” according to spokesman Alex Block. Council began to deliberate options.
A guest essay by Mr. Hagerty published in the RoundTable suggested a path forward – issue a request for proposal seeking a not-for-profit to run the Mansion. If no qualified candidate emerges, issue an RFP to the for-profit, developer world. If no acceptable offer emerges, then demolish the building.
Competing solutions then emerged from Alderman Don Wilson, 4th ward, and Alderman Brian Miller, 9th ward. Ald. Miller proposed leasing to a qualified not-for-profit organization for less than two years and keeping rent collected in a capital fund. The $500,000 collected would go back into Mansion upkeep. Ald. Wilson proposed dedicating $500,000 to the Mansion to repair it, just enough to offer City programming.
Ald. Rainey derailed both in November 2015. She moved to table the matter “until such time as the State of Illinois has a budget.” Little did anyone know such a time would take years.
Tabled it was.
As July 2016 rolled around, a full five years after the matter first arose, it began to heat up again. “Keep Harley Clarke for Public Use,” the RoundTable wrote in another editorial. The City set an open house for Aug. 3, allowing visitors to assess the situation for themselves.
Council took the matter officially off the table in September 2016. Nearly a year after first proposing $500,000 for the Mansion, Ald. Wilson suggested $250,000 would be enough to fix up the place to the point the Ecology Center could use it for summer camps.
Not nearly enough, staff told the Parks and Recreation Board in December. Repairs looked to exceed $650,000, they learned, and suggested that the $250,000 shift from the Mansion to the fog houses, two small, one room, concrete-floored buildings just south of the main structure. The fog houses would cost $400,000 to renovate given historic status and the need for copper or slate roofing.
During the budget season, Council voted to do both – devote $400,000 to the fog houses and keep $250,000 in the budget for the main building.
Council and the rest of the City entered election mode, but took time to create a special committee, led by Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, to report back with a solution. Meanwhile, the fog house renovations were completed, coming in at about $354,000 instead of $400,000.
Ald. Revelle’s committee presented its recommendation on June 26; at the July 10 City Council meeting, aldermen again punted the issue, this time to July 24.