Feelings run deep about the Harley Clarke mansion at 2603 Sheridan Road. It seems few Evanstonians are neutral about this mansion, built in 1927 by businessman Harley Clarke. Jens Jensen created the gardens.

 The City purchased the property in 1963 and leased it to the Evanston Art Center. Neither the City nor the Art Center took the trouble to maintain this asset, however, and now it remains along the dunes of Lighthouse Beach, to some an icon, to others, an eyesore.

After the Evanston Art Center left, City Council agreed in 2013 not to sell the 2.5-acre property to Tawani Enterprises for a boutique hotel, and Evanstonians took up the challenge of the future of the mansion. Two groups have emerged, each promising a future for the site that theoretically would cost the City no money.

One group, Evanston Lighthouse Dunes, would like to demolish the mansion and keep the site as open space, for which the property is zoned. The other, Evanston Lakehouse and Gardens, would like to preserve the mansion, restore it and use it for education purposes. Each has its merits and flaws. Regrettably, the flaws of each threaten to blur the message.

Voices to preserve the mansion, whether associated with the Lakehouse group or not, have allowed their passion to promote divisiveness, foment suspicion and devolve into vicious attacks, many of them personal and unwarranted. Such vitriol has turned many against a project that, without such baggage, is worthwhile and would benefit the community. Alas, they do not at present have sufficient funding to carry out their wishes.

Voices for demolition appear to have money. The process by which their proposal came to the City has caused concern in the community. Although the group says it has donors in each of the City’s nine ward, it looks to some as though rich people who live along the lake would like to have a better view and a limited number of visitors to the area.

Whether the perceptions about either group are accurate, they are poisoning the atmosphere of the community.

The future of the mansion is on parallel tracks now. Residents will be able to vote on an advisory referendum on Nov. 6 on whether or not to preserve the mansion. At the same time, the City is pursuing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Evanston Lighthouse Dunes to demolish the mansion. The Dunes group’s proposal of $500,000 – $400,000   for demolition and $100,000 for site restoration – is understandably limited to that amount, since there are fewer than 50 donors.

Even so, it is imperative that the MOU state clearly the will of the Council. On July 23, the eight aldermen at the meeting – Fourth Ward Alderman Don Wilson being absent – unanimously approved an amendment to the resolution that authorizes the City Manager to execute an MOU to demolish the mansion and coach houses and restore the site, but only if it would cost the City nothing. “Nothing. Period,” as Fifth Ward Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, who made the motion, put it.

As proposed in an MOU proffered to the City and signed by several members of the Dunes group, that group would pay for “demolition and restoration of the treescape,” capped at $500,000.  The group says they are relying on an estimate from a company from which the City requested an estimate earlier this year, and the group believes this amount will cover the costs.

At that same July 23 meeting, Seventh Ward Alderman Eleanor Revelle said she believed the amount offered by the Dunes group is “woefully inadequate.” She noted several things that have to be addressed in the demolition, and “several unknowns.”

Citing a 2013 report prepared when Tawani wished to build a hotel there, she said there is an elevated radon level, lead in the paint, mold and possibly a storage tank under the coach house, in addition to the known asbestos. Utility work would include moving water, sewer and fiber optic lines, two of which lead from the mansion to the washrooms at the beach.

In addition to the costs of the physical demolition, the City is likely to incur legal costs in securing a certificate to raze the mansion.

We understand that the City is in the process of crafting an MOU that will incorporate the will of the City Council. To do that, the MOU must clearly state that Evanston Lakehouse Dunes must cover all costs, including these possible additional ones.

Before the City Manager signs an MOU with Evanston Lakehouse Dunes, it must be sent to City Council for approval.

If Evanston were the set of a horror movie – and some fear that is becoming the case – the star, the monster that keeps returning, would be the Harley Clarke mansion. But the real monster, the one that sneaks up and threatens to devour everything and everyone is the new Robert Crown Center. While many in the community are absorbed by the mansion, the City is moving ahead with that $53 million project to replace the Robert Crown Center. There has been virtually no discussion about how the costs for that center have ballooned from $30 million in August 2016 to the present $53 million.