By Martha Rosenberg

The Harley Clarke seesaw has become a merry-go-round.

On July 23, City Council voted to accept private money to demolish the mansion, a local landmark building, one listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

On Oct. 23, the City’s Preservation Commission unanimously denied the City’s application for a certificate of appropriateness to demolish the mansion.

On Nov. 6, residents overwhelmingly approved a non-binding referendum question to preserve the mansion, 2603 Sheridan Road, “at little or no cost to the City.”

At the Dec. 10 City Council meeting, aldermen voted unanimously not to accept the City’s appeal of the Preservation Commission’s decision. Although there are other paths to demolition through the Preservation Commission, Council’s decision indicates that aldermen now wish to preserve the mansion.

Seventy-one people signed up to speak during the 45-minute citizen comment period at the Dec. 10 City Council meeting. Several of the speakers represented Evanston Lighthouse Dunes, the group of residents that pledged $400,000 to cover the cost of demolition of the mansion and coach houses and another $100,000 toward landscaping the area.

Other speakers said they favored preserving the mansion. Many of them read from cookie-cutter letters, each directed to an alderman from a constituent, asking that the alderman to join with the majority of voters in that ward who approved the referendum.

Council’s decision appeared to hinge on possible litigation costs of pursuing demolition. There was also a hint from Assistant City Manager Erika Storlie that other entities have expressed interest in the mansion.

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, who said she supported taking the City’s appeal, recounted a 50-year history of the property. The City purchased the building and grounds from Northwestern University in the 1960s, she said, with the intent of razing the mansion to increase open space and parkland for the residents of Evanston. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places, she said, but it is not in the Northeast Evanston Historic District.

“My feeling is that the Preservation Commission didn’t do their homework,” said Ald. Fiske. She suggested that Council pursue a dual track, keeping demolition as a possibility while investigating whether there are possibilities to sell the property or lease it to an organization that would operate it. “We have time,” she said. “One of the things I’m hesitant to do is say ‘No’ to the Dunes group until we know [the next steps].”

Ms. Storlie said, “I receive – sometimes daily, sometimes weekly – requests for updates on the status of the mansion. … People have ideas – there is a lot of interest out there but [it] has not been brought out because [demolition] is the track we’re on.”

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said, “We’re not here to reconsider the other decision. We’re here to decide whether to take the appeal. I don’t think we have any ambiguity here. We’re limited to the record.

“I don’t see any realistic way of getting around this.” He said he felt that, should the City take the appeal, the other side would appeal and the City would lose the case. “It’s a perfectly good building,” he said, “and there are a lot of perfectly good uses.

“We’ve got to get away from this win-at-any-cost mentality and get to collaboration. [There has been] a great groundswell of support. We’re going to work collaboratively.”

Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, said she agreed with Ald. Wilson. “The residents have spoken and have asked us to take more time. We have heard from a number of interested parties for adaptive re-use of the building. I believe we need time without the threat of demolition.” She added that some people had expressed concern that the community’s philanthropy is tapped out and said that, from her time at the Evanston Community Foundation she has “seen the philanthropic capacity of Evanston grow dramatically.”

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said, “I don’t believe there is anything that indicates we can overturn the decision of the Preservation Commission. I agree we need to dispose of the issue of demolition.”

Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, said she had been threatened if she did not support preserving the mansion. She also said she was “disappointed that so much Council time has been spent on the mansion and disappointed that  there is little support for [saving] the Family Focus building [from being sold].” She also said she did not know whether the mansion is an asset or a liability.

Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, said the issue of the future of the mansion showed that people love the building but “it has brought out ugliness in our City.” She said she was shocked at the anger displayed by some residents.  

Ald. Fiske asked, “If we vote not to accept the appeal, does that mean we have to give the money back to the Dunes group?”

Corporation Counsel Michelle Masoncup said the Council would have to return the money if it voted not to pursue demolition.

Ald. Fiske said, “It was my understanding that we were going to have a public discussion in January. I think it’s irresponsible for us to vote to give the money back. I think keeping all our options open is important.”

Ald. Wilson said, “If we take the appeal and grant the appeal, we’re going to end up in litigation. The [Preservation] Commission made a decision. Prolonging this doesn’t serve anybody’s purpose. It could cost money. We need to talk about where it goes with demolition off the table.”

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, said, “In our wards we have to deal with more serious issues. … The decision is clear what we have to do.”

After the Council’s unanimous vote to let the decision of the Preservation Commission – and the mansion itself – stand, Mayor Stephen Hagerty spoke.

“We’ve been dealing with this issue for seven years. … Everything we have considered for Harley Clarke has been rejected. We turned down the boutique hotel proposed by Taiwani. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources withdrew its proposal [to use the building for its coastal management program]. In the Harley Clarke Advisory Committee, which I chaired, we looked at all of the different options but there was no unanimous decision. Then we had the Evanston Lakehouse and Gardens and we turned down their lease. … I don’t know that you’re going to find anyone in the City who isn’t disappointed. I want you to try harder.  We have to work together to come up with a solution for this mansion. Let’s be respectful to everyone in this room.

“I just want everybody to know we have come full circle.”

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...