Aldermen at the Oct. 8 City Council meeting approved one motion and rejected another made by their colleague Seventh Ward Alderman Eleanor Revelle to allow certain parties access to the Harley Clarke mansion, 2603 Sheridan Road, in anticipation of next week’s Preservation Commission meeting.

Alderman voted unanimously to allow Preservation Commission members to visit the mansion. By 5-4 vote, they denied access to Landmarks Illinois, a preservation advocacy group.

The City has applied for a certificate to demolish the mansion, the home for 40 years of the Evanston Art Center. During that period, the Art Center did not maintain the building, as provided in its lease with the City, and the City Council neither held the Art Center to terms of the lease nor provided upkeep on its own. Now vacant for several years with basic maintenance by the City, the building has been an increasingly hot topic. At least one group in town is pushing to save the building and grounds, but City Council has voted to demolish it.

One nonprofit group, Evanston Lakehouse and Gardens, was a few months ago approaching a meeting of the minds with the City to lease and upgrade the property. That deal having fallen through, some from the Lakehouse group, joined by others, formed the group Save Harley Clarke and mounted a campaign to save the building. A non-binding referendum to save the building “at little or no cost to the taxpayers,” is on the Nov 6 ballot.  

Several weeks ago, aldermen approved a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the group, Evanston Lighthouse Dunes, and the City, under which the Dunes group would donate up to $400,000 toward the cost of demolition.

In the meantime, several legislators have become involved in the effort to save the mansion. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky and State Representatives Robyn Gabel and Laura Fine have written to City officials asking them to reconsider demolishing the mansion.

In a Sept. 17 letter to City Council, Rep. Fine wrote, “I respectfully stand with many Evanstonians, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky and State Representative Robyn Gabel in asking the City to look at all possible options before making an irreversible decision.”

Rep. Gabel has suggested the possibility of turning the mansion and grounds into a State park. Christian Sorenson, a legislative aide to Rep. Gabel, told City Council on Oct. 8, “This is an entirely new, constituent-driven quest to examine the possibilities to take the financial responsibility off the hands of the City, knowing the situation that we’re in. In order for it to go forward, a Friends of Harley Clarke group would have to be formed. It would have to provide 10 years – up front and in cash – of the maintenance the City currently pays to give time for a use plan to be drawn up as a community.

“The use plan would be subject to public discussion through the [Rep. Gabel’s] office, as it is not meant to be behind closed doors but rather an inclusive situation. … The Friends of Harley Clarke that is coalescing around this is willing to investigate providing close to 100% if not over 100% of the funding. …”

Mr. Sorensen said Rep. Gabel’s staff is working with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Historic Preservation Agency and added he would return to Council with updates.   

The City will present its case before the Preservation Commission on Oct. 23.

This article was posted with the erroneous amount of $1.5 million as the amount the City would spend on maintaining the Harley Clarke mansion for 10 years. The City spends $15,000 per year in maintenance, so 10 years’ of maintenance would be $150,000, not $1.5 million.

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...