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City Council on June 18 voted to authorize the City Manager to meet with the organization that offered to pay for the demolition of the Harley Clarke Mansion to explore costs and the parameters of an agreement. The vote makes real the possibility the City will accept the offer put forth by the group, the Evanston Lighthouse Dunes, to pay for demolition or possibly deconstruction and restoration of the natural landscape.
Many steps remain before any wrecking balls will swing, but the 6-3 vote represented a shift from the singular focus on another group, the Evanston Lakehouse and Gardens (ELHG), who dominated discussion of the future of Harley Clarke since roughly October of last year. Now, there are at least two options on the table with perhaps more in the offing as the months continue to roll by.
As with every meeting in which the vacant building appears on a Council agenda, the chambers were packed. Many observers sported newly minted blue “Save the Mansion” t-shirts, and at least one television camera whirred, taking the story to a broader Chicago audience. “I see a lot of blue out there,” said Mayor Stephen Hagerty as the meeting began.
At public comment, speaker after speaker rose to deliver impassioned pleas, urging preservation of the mansion, most pushing only the Lakehouse and Gardens proposal. Several others spoke in favor of demolition, however, with very little middle ground between the two competing factions. Some heavy hitters were among the restoration supporters: Novelist Audrey Niffenger, who called the building “inspiring” and said she wanted to “inspire more people,” and the granddaughter of Harley Clarke himself, who wrote of fond memories sliding down the mansion’s bannisters, and for the first time, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky who sent a late afternoon letter to all aldermen urging preservation of the building.
When it came time for debate, Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said, “It was my understanding that we were going to request that the Lighthouse Dunes people make a presentation.” Mayor Hagerty agreed, saying Council gave ELHG several opportunities to present as well.
Nicole Kustok and others provided some details of the plan and addressed some criticism of it. The Dunes group was “excluded from the RFP [request for proposals] process last fall,” she said. At that time, the City issued a narrowly worded RFP seeking proposal to preserve the structure for educational or related non-commercial purposes – an RFP essentially offering ELHG and ELGH only the chance to make a proposal.
“When the land was acquired in 1965,” continued Ms. Kustok, the specific intent of the City was “to expand the parkland and dunes.” Removing the mansion would further the “recreation, education, and sustainability” uses of the park in a way that “stays accessible for all.” The recently renovated fog houses would remain and would be able to offer added programming with the mansion gone. “You don’t need a 20,000 square foot building to get kids outside,” she said.
The Council packet contained three estimates of the cost of demolition or deconstruction, and Ms. Kustok said the Dunes group was committed to meeting the cost of the middle estimate — $450,000 – and had currently obtained about $300,000 in pledges.
Addressing one of the attacks on the Dunes plan circulating in letters and on social media – that supporters of demolition wanted better views, unobstructed by the Harley Clarke building – Ms. Kustok said, “Our view does not change or improve in the slightest” if the mansion is gone.
Noreen Edwards Metz, also speaking for the Dunes group, called for a community design process for the natural areas once restored. Dick Peach called himself a firm believer in “no child left indoors” while touting the expanded environmental education opportunities an expanded natural space would offer.
Ald. Rainey dispelled another social media attack on the Dunes proposal. There has been “some discussion,” she said, that the City’s “process of going through Preservation [Committee] would not be followed – but it would be followed.” Council will send the City Manager to the Dunes group with authority to negotiate terms, then the matter would proceed to the Preservation Commission then back to Council, she said.
Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, spoke at length about the history of the site, ultimately arguing in favor of demolition. “I don’t want anyone to think [demolition] is not historic preservation – because it is,” she said. Preserving the building itself simply is not “financially feasible” without uses that would have a significant “impact on the lakefront” she added.
Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said it was “unfortunate there is a very long list of misunderstandings.” One such is the oft-mentioned Colonel Pritzker plans for the restoration of the building. A 15-room bed and breakfast was “not economically feasible,” he said, citing a proposal from Col. Pritzker’s Tawani Enterprises. To make the project work, the mansion would have been converted into a 57-room boutique hotel with 200 parking spaces underground. “I think they also asked for a tax waiver,” he said.
“We have been struggling to find solutions,” said Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward. She recalled being on record saying she would rather “deconstruct the building” than agree to a 57-room hotel. But she argued against the Dune group’s proposal, saying “I still think there’s a possibility of reaching an agreement” with ELHG. “I believe we should give [ELHG] one year” to raise $1 million, provided they cover the cost of maintenance – about $15,000.
Long a supporter of ELHG, Alderman Eleanor Revelle, whose Seventh Ward includes the mansion and Lighthouse Landing park, agreed that the intention in 1965 was to add parkland. The mansion, she said, has acquired import and impact since then, though. “Many years of City and Arts [Center] neglect” have unfortunately resulted in the need for large rehabilitation costs. She urged Council to vote to give ELHG one more year to raise funds.
Ald. Fiske turned to the tenor of the debate, saying “the emails, petitions, the rallies, have been very difficult for all of us. The name calling, the attacks,” she said, have been devastating. “Anger and misrepresentation – when I get emails saying I am taking bribes or I am corrupt” just for disagreeing with a resident’s position – “we’re people just like you… [given the] vitriol” in recent public debates, “I don’t’ see anyone wanting to run for public office.” It was “a very hard experience this past weekend,” she said, describing a particularly nasty email exchange. As a result, she said she felt ELGH was “not a particularly good partner for the City… somehow or another, this needs to get repaired.
“No house is worth this, folks. We need to fix this,” said Ald. Fiske.
Alderman Tom Suffredin, 6th Ward, said, “Ald. Fiske is correct. The tone of this has been bad. We are doing a disservice” to the City “using a 2015 [online] survey” to promote preservation, pointing to the assertion by several speakers that a large percentage of residents favored preservation. He called it “irresponsible” to “cover my eyes and close my ears and not listen to the other side.” He then called for a ballot referendum, in November, to put the matter on the ballot and let the people decide.
In the meantime, however, he said, “We need to explore” other options.
Ald. Suffredin, along with five others, voted in favor of negotiating the cost of demolition. Alds. Wilson, Revelle and Wynne voted no, all pushing for another year for ELHG.
The matter, already covering seven years of debate, is likely not over. More rallies, more emails, more public comment – though hopefully less vitriol – can be expected. For now, demolition is most definitely on the table.