Harley Clarke mansion, 2603 Sheridan Road2014 RoundTable photo

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By a 5-3 vote so late on July 23 it was  nearly the next day, aldermen decided to authorize the City Manager to craft a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Evanston Lighthouse Dunes, an ad-hoc citizens group. The group has pledged $400,000 to demolish the Harley Clarke mansion and an additional $100,000 for landscaping and site restoration.

A memo from Assistant City Manager Erika Storlie and Corporation Counsel Michelle Masoncup said the cost estimates for demolition and site restoration are based on those provided to the City Council at the June 18 City Council meeting and that they felt this amount would adequately cover the costs associated with the project.

As aldermen picked apart the procedures involved and their likely costs, however, they decided the Dunes group’s offer might not cover the entire cost of the project.

Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, made a motion to amend the MOU to have Evanston Lighthouse Dunes demolish the mansion and coach house and provide the landscaping at no cost whatsoever to the City. The motion passed, but it is unclear whether the Dunes group will agree to the new terms.

The “no cost to the City” phrase is somewhat amorphous. It is not clear whether the intention is for the Dunes group to cover incidental damage, and permitting, review and litigation costs – should they arise in the course of tearing down the mansion and coach house – and possibly deconstruction rather than outright demolition.

Council Discussion

Aldermen Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, Tom Suffredin, 6th Ward, and Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, voted against the memorandum of understanding to demolish the mansion. Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, was absent, as was Mayor Stephen Hagerty.

“Yes” Votes

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, said he weighed possible costs to the City of not demolishing the mansion against the coming City budget crisis and the need to provide services to Evanston residents. He encouraged residents – who were so many that the City had to set up two additional rooms so they could view the meeting on television – to return when Council discussed the 2019 budget.

Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, said her vote reflected what she felt was best for the City.

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said her vote was to protect the lakefront against the possibility of commercial activity. She also said the point of the City’s acquiring the mansion property in the 1960s was to create more parkland, which demolishing the mansion would do. 

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said she felt the City has missed an opportunity by not allowing Jennifer Pritzker to construct a 57-room boutique hotel there. “I find us in a very difficult situation. Those who want to support the lakefront will not support commercial enterprise. She also said, echoing what longtime Evanston resident and civic leader Dick Peach said previously, that it is not necessary to have the mansion to educate children about the lake and ecology. “You don’t have to stuff little children in there,” she said, since classes are held in the fog houses near the lighthouse.

Referring to an advisory referendum question that will be on November ballot (see sidebar), Ald. Rainey said, “I think it should be on the ballot. That election is going to take place way before the demolition is complete. Let’s get this to the Preservation Commission.”

Although there was discussion of deconstructing the mansion – taking it down carefully and piecemeal, salvaging and diverting from landfills as much material as possible – it was not clear whether or on what scale that would be done.

Nicole Kustok of the Dunes group said the construction company they had talked with had offered a lower price than others on the condition his company would have “control” of the materials once the building was razed.

Ald. Rainey said she thought the Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse, which specializes in deconstruction, should be allowed to “have access to smaller things like doorknobs, mirrors and chandeliers” but the City would not pay to have the nonprofit do that.

“No” Votes

Ald. Revelle gave several reasons she would not support the demolition proposal. “The estimated costs are woefully inadequate,” she said. Demolition could include abating asbestos and dealing with radon, mold, toxic dust and an underground storage tank. She also said it was “outrageous” that a City that prides itself on sustainability would demolish a City asset when there are organizations offering to help find another adaptive re-use of the building. “I think it’s important to wait to hear directly from our constituents before we vote.”

Ald. Wynne said, “I, too, am deeply, deeply opposed to demolishing the building. … The idea that we would send a bulldozer to this building is shameful.”

Ald. Suffredin, said he did not support demolition. He added he did not support the Lake House and Gardens group, another group of residents, this one hoping to turn the mansion into an education center.

Public Comment

Sixty-seven people signed up to speak during the citizen comment period. Ald. Fiske, who served as mayor pro tem for the night’s meetings, allowed each person to speak for a minute. Of the speakers who opposed the demolition proposal, some objected to the process, some offered other concerns. Those who said they favored demolition said they felt it was a clean and clear solution to a six-year – or decades-old – problem.

Nicole Kustok, a spokesperson for the Dunes group, said, “We recognize this is a difficult decision. We believe it is the right one.”

Tom Hodgman, president of Evanston Lakehouse and Gardens, said the group “remains committed to our vision.” He asked for another year for the group to raise $1 million.

Carlis Sutton, who opposed demolition, said he felt the Lakehouse group offered hope for the future. “My question is, ‘Do you support hope, or do you support fear?’”

Bennett Johnson, longtime activist and former head of the Evanston/North Shore NAACP, said in his experience, there are two primary reasons politicians make decisions: race and money. “This [Lakehouse and Gardens] is a plan to bring kids from all over the City, some of whom will look like me.”

Bonnie McDonald, President and CEO of Landmarks Illinois, offered to “do a free adaptive-reuse survey” for the City to help find alternatives to demolition.

Local attorney George Galland copied the RoundTable on a letter he wrote to the aldermen and the mayor, saying they should be “alarmed at the precedent you are setting when you take a controversial action that depends on accepting an offer of money most of which comes from wealthy persons who stand to gain privately from the course of action they’re offering to fund … Do you want Evanston to be known as the place where the rich can fund government action that benefits them so directly?”

Attorney Anthony Borich of the Chicago law firm Jenner & Block, who represents the Lakehouse group, read a letter he had sent to the City, cautioning that the City would likely incur costs during the review processes, which, he predicted, would “ultimately stop any demolition effort.” He also said, “were the City to move forward as proposed by the Dunes group, the City may face varied legal claims by citizens, including but not limited to claims that the City is misappropriating Evanston’s public property to serve the purposes of a private group” and said the MOU constituted a contract and that its language and terms are legally deficient.

In response, Corporation Counsel Michelle Masoncup said she believed “the Jenner & Block analysis is incorrect. The MOU is not a binding contract. It outlines the process.”

Next Steps

The City will have two years from the effective date of the memorandum of understanding to obtain necessary approval to tear down the mansion and coach house. Layers of review are ahead, because the Harley Clarke mansion is a contributing structure to the Northeast Evanston Historic District.

The first stop will be the City’s Preservation Commission, where the City Manager will file an application for a certificate of appropriateness to demolish the mansion. 

Advisory Referendum on the Clarke Mansion

Evanston residents uniting around a move to save the Harley Clarke mansion from demolition plan to present petitions to the City Clerk to place an advisory referendum question on the Nov. 6 ballot. So far the group, SaveHarleyClarke.org,  has collected about 3,293 signatures, about 50% more than the 1,986 signatures they believe are required to place the question on the November ballot.    

Because the question originates from citizens rather than elected officials, the results will be advisory, not binding on City Council. The referendum offers a simple solution to the question of how much support there is to preserve the mansion, said Allie Harned, a social worker at School District 65 who is spearheading the referendum effort.

 City Clerk Devon Reid said Aug. 6 is the last day to file referendum questions; Aug. 11 is the last day to file objections; and Aug. 30 is the last day for referendum questions to be certified by the Clerk’s office.

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...