The Harley Clarke mansion would become “all things bookish” under author Audrey Niffenegger’s plan for the building. Bennett Johnson, right, chaired the meeting. Photo by Bob Seidenberg   

The City’s currently shuttered Harley Clarke Mansion would become “all things bookish” under a plan that best-selling author Audrey Niffenegger shared recently with members of citizens pushing for re-use of the building.

At a recent meeting with mansion-supporters, Ms. Niffenegger described her vision for a book, art center and other uses to operate out of the mansion, 2603 Sheridan Road.

Members of the Harley Clarke Community group and others gathered at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center May 1 to hear Ms. Niffenegger, the author of “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” discuss her proposal for the lakefront building.

The group members, active in last year’s successful referendum to save the building from demolition, are gathering material for a response to the City’s Request for Proposal, due out later this month.

 The City is inviting groups to propose ideas for re-use of the building, which has been vacant since the Evanston Art Center moved out in 2015.

The Harley Clarke Community group and others had sponsored workshops earlier this year, inviting citizens to propose ideas for the mansion.

Ms. Niffenegger had first proposed her idea for a book and art center last year, as debate swirled over what should be done with the building.

Chairing the May 1 meeting, civil rights activist Bennett Johnson said the evening’s purpose was to talk about Harley Clarke, “how can we work together – primarily, so we understand each other, so the whole thing will be done in a friendly manner. It can be competition, but it has to be friendly,” he said, introducing Ms. Niffenegger.

At the more-than-one hour session, Ms. Niffenegger spoke of her vision for Harley Clarke revolving around all things “bookish.”

Ms. Niffenegger told the approximately 20 group members that her association with Harley Clarke dated back to 1977.

“I was a student at the Art Center for a long time and then I taught there for 15 years,” she said. “And so I have a pretty comprehensive and intimate familiarity with the house itself.”

In discussing her ideas for the mansion, she stressed she was not intending to squelch those who might have other plans for the building. “I think it’s good that there be many different proposals,” she said.

 “I have wonderful ideas about ways we might go forward, and I’m very interested in knowing what your ideas are,” she told group members. She said she was hopeful members could get behind “something that we like and that will satisfy the need for community and public access and all those other good things that everybody’s been fighting for – rather than, heaven only knows, what’s out there with big money.”

On the request for proposals, City officials have expressed openness to receiving proposals from different groups for different aspects of  the project – the fundraising and ongoing maintenance, landscaping and upkeep of the Jens Jensen Garden and programming for the house.

“And that is fabulous,” she said, “because what I was thinking is there is so much to this, and that the group good at raising money for the house might not necessarily be the most genius gardeners of all time. And that the group that  has wonderful ideas about reviving Jens Jensen Gardens might not necessarily have enough programming to fill a 20,000-square-foot house.”

For the fundraising and ongoing upkeep, “the house needs a Friends group,” she declared. “I know that one has already been created, but let’s talk just generically right now. The house needs friends and, in other non-profits that I have been involved with, Friends [groups] have various degrees of authority over things.

“I’m involved with Highgate (in London) and the Friends of Highgate Cemetery own that cemetery,” she said. “They bought it for 50 quid (about $65 dollars in American money) back in 1982 – they made an amazing thing out of  it and they currently raise in excess of  300,000  pounds  a year to keep it running.”

Another Friends group with which Ms. Niffenegger is involved runs events and fundraisers “and they’re helpful to the house, especially when they’re doing some big improvement project,” she said. “So there’s obviously  a million different ways that one can be a friend to the Harley Clarke house … make sure it is kept responsibly.”

Another group needed should have as its focus restoring the Jens Jensen Gardens, and overseeing the environment around the house, she said.

“In my mind, that group would occupy the coach house,” Ms. Niffenegger said, “and that would be their home base and they would do education, they would be able to do creative things with the gardens.

“You’re never going to restore [the property] exactly, according to plan because of the circumstances that made that plan the right plan in 1927 – everything has moved on, the trees are different,” she said. The group’s function would be in “creatively managing and restoring the gardens,” she said.

Continuing her free-flowing analysis, Ms. Niffenegger said the third group would provide content and programming to the house.

“In my little scheme of things, that is a group that is centered around books and writing and arts,” she said. “There would be a bookshop, a library, gallery – there would be studios for papermaking, printing, bookbinding. There would be residency program for writers, calligraphers, illustrators, poets – all sorts of people somehow connected with books.”

In addition, there would be literacy programs, and there would be a café, she added, “because you obviously can’t do any of these things without a whole lot of coffee and sandwiches.

“So the house would be lived in by
‘all things bookish.’ Wrapping up, she said, “There would be spaces kept open for the many different kinds of things that could happen – poets could do poetry slams, authors could read to you from their new memoir –  there would be a lot of different things happening in  the house, and it would extend into the community of Evanston.

“There might, for example, be a Bookmobile,” she said, “so that even though the house is sitting in a corner of Evanston, there would be an effort to make sure that all wards are embraced, and that everyone feels welcome and included.”

If books are not the direction the groups go, “it should be something like books,” she told members. “A book is the container, so lots of different ideas can be in the house through the mechanism of books. If it doesn’t end up being a book center, [it should be] something else that touches a lot of different subjects and cultures and types of people.”

In discussion, longtime resident Mary Rosinski, noted that participants in the Harley groups’ workshops had expressed the need for ‘a third place that’s open to them, that’s on the lake, one in that everyone, in every ward, has a lake house.’”

She asked whether Ms. Niffenegger could envision devoting the first floor or third floor of the house to programming, “bringing people to the house for activities.”

“I can imagine doing programming all through the house,” responded Ms. Niffenegger. “Something I was toying with, I don’t know how would really work, but having something that absolutely everybody is interested in … like say the café, being generalized throughout the house. You might walk into one particular room to pick up your coffee and your sandwich, but then the tables are kind of all through. So you might be on the Conservatory one day and the next day be on the third floor looking out over the lake.”

Residents had floated a number of ideas for future use of the mansion in workshops sponsored by the Harley Clarke groups earlier this year, including conversion into a culinary center, maritime research center, gallery-museum, part community center for the Latino community.

Speaking at the May 1 meeting, resident Clare Kelly noted the strong sentiment at the earlier sessions about the need to open up the lakefront to all – and “a lot of that was about event space.”

A café running through the building is nice, she said, “but if we really are serious about making people feel welcome, [one way] is having  a beautiful space to enjoy  events, at a price that’s affordable. I think we need to do something where a whole community can go and enjoy the space.”

Allie Harned, founder of the Save Harley Clarke group, said, “Whatever we do, I really hope that the programming, the building, everything, is a place where every school child in Evanston ends up going to.”

Group members have not made a commitment to supporting any one plan for future use of the building at this point. Speaking at the meeting, Ms. Rosinski suggested that if group members feel that Ms. Niffenegger’s or other proposals should be considered as one of the “different foundation pieces, then I think we should solidify that, bringing in the general community at some point and say, ‘These are what we’re working on.’”

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.