The City’s shuttered Harley Clarke Mansion is back in the spotlight with four groups proposing uses for the building at 2603 Sheridan Road.

Representatives of four community groups presented their distinct visions for reuse of the City’s shuttered lakefront Harley Clarke mansion and coach house.

But even after the three-hour-plus special City Council meeting Sept. 21 – which including renderings , photographs and videos of an awakened building – City officials still had questions about the groups’ abilities to deliver on their proposals, directing staff to come back with an analysis of their plan’s viability, particularly on the financial side.

Representatives of the groups – The Artist Book House, Community Lakehouse & Gardens, Evanston Conservancy and ONECommunity Museum – took turns at the Sept. 21 meeting presenting their plans for the building, which has been shuttered since the Evanston Art Center moved out in June, 2015.

Council members had initially been scheduled to hear from the groups earlier in the year, but pushed back the meeting because of COVID-19 virus crisis.

Aldermen agreed to restart the process to find a user for the mansion last year in light of a citizens-led advisory referendum in November 2017, in which more than 80% of the voters said the building, should be saved from demolition.

Representatives of each of the four groups that have stepped forward shared their vision for proposed use of the building, their financial capability as well as the renovation plan and budget they plan to make it fully operational.

Here is a breakdown of the proposals. 

Artists Book House 

The proposal: Artists Book House is teaming with Eifler & Associates and Teska Associates to convert Harley Clarke into a center for the book arts – including the teaching of writing, the printing of books, production of paper and bookbinding.

The offer: Artists Book House seeks to enter into a 40-year lease for the mansion with the City. The group expressed willingness to renovate the Harley Clarke Mansion “in the manner appropriate to its historic character.”

Because of the building’s extensive needs, the group is proposing a “gradually increasing but minimal rent,” estimating that $8 to $10 million will be spent eventually on the mansion renovation.

The group’s “main source of donation and pledges so far has been from the literary and book arts communities.”

Of special consideration: “The donors who care about our mission know that if we are not chosen for the Harley Clarke House, we will find another building and establish our new book arts center elsewhere, so they are glad to donate,” the group said in its proposal.

Quote:  “A book is kind of a small thing and most people think of it as something that you can hold in your hands,” said Audrey Niffenegger, Artists Book House president and founder, as well as the author of the best-selling “The Time Traveler’s Wife.”  

“But we think of it as a world that you can hold in your hands – you can find almost anything in a book. And we think that because of this because a book can contain almost anything that you would think to look for that it’s an appropriate thing to do with Harley Clarke, because we can connect our passion for books with just about anything that anybody might like to pursue.

“In addition to our own expertise in, in all things bookish, we would like to partner with two other groups, one, a garden group that would occupy the coach  house, and would be in charge of the daily goings on of the garden and also all things, educational, in the garden. We also plan to create a group that would oversee the fundraising for the house. As I said before, we’re very eager to be part of it instantly.”

Evanston Community Lakehouse & Gardens

The Proposal: The group described itself as a “grassroots, broadly-based and diverse organization, dedicated to saving the Harley Clarke mansion and coach house.  The group’s mission “is to preserve and renovate Evanston’s public lakefront estate to create a welcoming and inclusive community space with events and programming generated by input from the community at three meetings in the spring of 2019.”

Community members expressed interest in a wide range of activities at the meetings, including the mansion, which sits just off the lake, providing environmental education such as a Great Lakes Coastal Ecosystem exhibit.

Other activities included guest lectures, language and literary education, cooking classes, space for community and neighborhood group meetings.

Funding: Upon the group’s securing a lease with the City, ECLG “will be able to realize major capital gifts.”

“One of the most powerful parts of our plan is the revenue plan,” said Patrick Donnelly, the group’s vice president. “We have all kinds of opportunities to generate revenue to self-sustain here. For instance, the events could bring in several hundred thousand dollars if managed correctly.”

He said several case studies exist to support that idea, including an Evanston Art Center winter crafts expo which generated $75,000.

The group has identified donor capacity at over $4 million.

Quote: Elliott Dudnik, one of the architects on the project, said, “I think the sense of having a multiplicity of uses is a reflection of Evanston. Everybody thinks of Evanston, not as a homogeneous community, but as a community with varying interests, various groups, available for everyone. And that by providing spaces, and the potential for activities in this building, we would address those needs for the greatest number of people in the community, rather than treated as a single tenant, or a single purpose building that would not be seen by the community or the public as being their building, but rather, someone else’s building.”

The Evanston Conservancy Benefit Corporation

Proposal: The group’s model calls for “partnering with the best-in-class organizations,” allowing Evanston Conservancy to house a diverse tenant base and programming use to serve the interests of the broad Evanston community and beyond. 

“The Evanston Conservancy will house a nature-based preschool, community co-working and conference spaces,” the group said in its proposal, “mindfulness and movement programming, maker and performing arts spaces, a farm-to-table light fare café (with potential dinners, classes and events of this type), utilization of the greenhouse and conservatory for classes by a local farm, and a “ride-up” bicycle shop located in a portion of the coach house to service cyclists utilizing the recently-completed bike paths on Sheridan Road.”

Funding: The group is headed by Trish Stieglitz, a longtime Evanston resident, and licensed general contractor with 30 years’ experience, overseeing projects valuing $500 million in that time.

She is partnering with Richard Murray, also Evanston based.

Funding: Evanston Conservancy maintains that, unlike previous concepts for the Harley Clarke renovation that relied heavily on fundraising, the Evanston Conservancy business plan “emphasizes financial sustainability.

“Our capital budget of $4.9 million is funded through investments, federal and state tax benefits, grants, bank financing and donations and will provide for historical restoration, new building systems, compliance with all relevant ADA requirements, refurbished Jens Jensen gardens and grounds, and complete tenant space renovations,” the group said in its proposal. “Our project will remain financially sustainable through tenant revenue, events and conferences.”

Quote: Ms. Stieglitz: “While we were unsure what their response might be to the changing landscape, the pandemic has caused our tenants to become even more encouraged about the possibility of operating in this historic space.”

Of special consideration: Mr. Murray’s past projects include the 60-acre Loyola Academy campus and the Baker Demonstration School. He has a current project under construction at a charter K-8 school located in the lowest income zip code in Detroit.

OneCommunity Museum 

The proposal: Allison Lavigne, from Evanston and CEO AJ Goehle head up what they term a “Sustainability Museum,” with themes to include history, nature, culture, and social justice.

“We really thought about a holistic visitor experience and how to maximize the space that we’re given and the footprint that this building sits on to really be a great value add to the community,” Ms. Lavigne said. “And as we think about it a couple different things came to mind – just think about education and engagement and excitement.”

The museum “needs to be a place or destination to educate and give families, young children and even adults their own opportunities to come and learn and be inspired and walk away as engaged and informed citizens,” she said.

Quote: Ms. Goehle: “Museum experiences really engage ignite and challenge, a visitor and their senses. They inspire people to make conscious choices, and we’ve done this around the country and have proven experience in showing you how by telling a story and creating a space that allows people to come together and share that story, participate in the story.”

Funding: The museum is fully funded for phase one, which is to include virtual and outdoor exhibitions, the start of garden restoration, and the planting and harvesting and bringing to market of produce grown on site,” the group said in its proposal.

After the presentation, Mayor Stephen Hagerty suggested that staff next review the proposals, “review these really closely,” then bring their recommendations to a follow up meeting. 

Ultimately, if the Council decides to move forward on one, then the City can put together an ordinance, setting out terms of an agreement.

In discussion, Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, requested staff “to really focus on the numbers and the timeline.”

Also, for the different proposers, “how much money do they have to put up front? What is the work that’s associated with that upfront money? When is the first occupancy date of the building?

“And how sustainable is the building what sort of assurance can they give us that if we give them a 99 year lease or 40 year lease or whatever it is that they’re going to be successful without having to come back to the City because that’s the most important thing for the City to determine,” she said.

The full presentations can be viewed on the City’s YouTube channel. Visit


Bob Seidenberg

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.