Until recently, demolition of the Harley Clarke mansion seemed an unlikely answer to the question of what to do with this City-owned property. But when the City Council on April 9 turned down a request from the nonprofit Evanston Lakehouse & Gardens organization for a lease, demolition of the mansion became more of a possibility.

At the May 29 City Council meeting, Eighth Ward Alderman Ann Rainey asked that City Council consider a proposal from Evanston Lighthouse Dunes to pay for the demolition of the mansion. City Council members will discuss the Dunes proposal at their June 18 meeting.

Evanston Lighthouse Dunes, led by Evanston residents Nicole Kustok and Jeff Coney, is a citizens group whose members have been working for nearly a year on a plan to “restore the natural dunes, beach and parkland as part of a new public space with the iconic Grosse Point Lighthouse, a national historic landmark, as its centerpiece,” Mr. Coney told City Council members.

The offer from the Lighthouse Dunes group, however, appears a limited-time offer of cash. The group would pay the cost of demolition – and possibly deconstruction – of the mansion, and let the City take it from there.

That means the City would absorb costs associated with regular maintenance and additional landscaping after the demolition, but those have not yet been determined. The Dunes group does not at present have a landscaping plan.

“We have a vision and an earmarked donation, enabling the City to [demolish the mansion] now,” Ms. Kustok told the RoundTable in an interview on June 8.

The council ring, the Jens Jensen-designed grotto and the low wall in front of the building would not be razed, she said.

The possibility of demolition raises questions about feasibility, finances and the future.

Feasibility of Demolishing the Mansion

The City has owned the Harley Clarke mansion, 2603 Sheridan Road, since 1965. The mansion is both an Evanston landmark – one of 858 – and a contributing structure to the federally designated Northeast Evanston Historic District. As such, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, said Bonnie McDonald, President and CEO of the advocacy group Landmarks Illinois.

These landmark designations offer some, but not absolute, protection against demolition. What they offer absolutely is an opportunity for the public to be involved in the process to obtain approval for demolition. 

 “Landmarks Illinois can help mitigate and look for alternatives – e.g., see if a better program could be put in place. That does not mean that the demolition will not happen. [Obtaining permission to demolish a structure] is a lengthy process, and it allows for public input,” Ms. McDonald told the RoundTable. In 2016, Landmarks Illinois listed Harley Clarke fourth on its list of the “most endangered historic places” in the state.

An application to demolish a landmark sets in motion certain review mechanisms to ensure that demolition will not deprive the public of a valuable historic asset.

By City ordinance, anyone, including the City, wishing to demolish or significantly change a landmark must apply for a demolition permit. City Preservation Coordinator Carlos Ruiz described the process: The application for a demolition permit triggers review by the Evanston Preservation Commission, which would include input from the public at public meetings.

The Preservation Commission will evaluate the request against its standards of review. Among those standards are whether the structure’s  “historic, cultural, architectural or archaeological significance,” whether demolition would be “detrimental to the public interest and contrary to the general welfare of the people of the City and the State” and whether demolition “would be contrary to … the objectives of the historic preservation for the applicable district.”

The Commission needs to be convinced that structure is “beyond repair,” Mr. Ruiz said. In his almost 27 years with the City, applications for demolition of historic structures have been rare.

To clear the way for the renovation of downtown, the City allowed the demolition of the Commonwealth Edison building on Clark Street because the City Council said it felt the benefit of the subsequent use (the movie theater complex) outweighed the benefit of keeping the building.

If the Preservation Commission denies the request, that is, refuses to issue a certificate of appropriateness,” the City still has two other avenues: It can overrule the Preservation Commission and approve its own application for demolition, or it can apply for a “certificate of special merit” from the Preservation Commission. Applying for a certificate of special merit would require additional public hearings. 

The fact that the property is on the National Register of Historic Places brings additional scrutiny, said Ms. McDonald. “In the case where there is an undertaking that could jeopardize the integrity of the property – such as a proposed demolition or a proposed addition or change to the building) or jeopardize the historic integrity – this triggers review through Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act,” she said.

The administrator of state historical preservation, though the state historic preservation office, conducts these administrative reviews.

Cost of Demolition, Value of Deconstruction

There are no current cost estimates for demolishing the 37,700-square-foot mansion, either alone or with its coach house.

Estimates from 2012 put the cost of demolition, combined with other related costs, close to $200,000. City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz told the RoundTable, “Staff is attempting to update information we have previously gathered.  We hope to have that information on the agenda for the June 18 City Council meeting.” .

Since the offer from the Dunes group appears to be hands-off except for the offer to pay the demolition costs, it would be up to the City to manage the demolition and the restoration, landscaping and maintenance of the property – which it owns – afterward.

The mansion’s grounds were designed by Prairie School landscape architect Jens Jensen, and it is assumed that the restoration would be in keeping with his original design. The City would be responsible for those costs.

Asked by the RoundTable whether the Dunes group would be willing to foot the bill for deconstruction – often a costlier process than straight demolition – Ms. Kustok said the group had not considered that possibility but she did not think it was out of the question.

Deconstruction is the careful removal of building elements for resale. Deconstruction typically costs more than demolition, but some costs can be offset by the reuse or resale of those elements.

Lou Dickson, director of workforce training for the Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse, says that a building of this size and built with such sought after materials as limestone; copper gutters, collector boxes and downspouts and clay tile roofing would be a logical candidate for deconstruction.

The Future of 2603 Sheridan Road

This English Tudor mansion has changed hands and functions since it was built in 1927 as a private residence for a Chicago business magnate. The Sigma Chi fraternity used the building as its national headquarters from 1951 to 1965. After the City purchased it in 1965 as part of the development of Lighthouse Landing Park, the Evanston Art Center leased it for some 40 years.

The City has been trying to find a new use for the building, including private uses, for the past few years. It appears that most current aldermen would stand by the decision made a few years ago to sell the land to a developer for private use but to keep the property for public use.

The Evanston Lakehouse & Garden group and the Evanston Lighthouse Dunes groups are now competing for the right to determine the future of the mansion.

At the June 18 City Council meeting, Aldermen will vote on how to proceed with the offer from Evanston Lighthouse Dunes.

Council has the ultimate authority to decide, and by the time of that meeting, aldermen may have yet another option.

One alderman told the RoundTable he is considering asking his colleagues to put the question of the future of the mansion back to the residents of Evanston by placing the question as a referendum on the ballot in the November election.

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...