Audrey Niffenegger stands in front of the Harley Clarke Mansion on March 11. Earlier in the week, the Evanston City Council selected. the proposal of Ms. Niffenegger’s group, the Artists Book House, for a book arts center at the mansion, 2603 Sheridan Road.

Council’s selection of Artists House concept opens up possibility of book arts center coming to the Chicago area

Book arts centers, places which focus on the various activities around bookmaking – including bookbinding, book design, papermaking and printing – come in different sizes and shapes and are scattered throughout the United States.

The Center for Book Arts, America’s first book arts center, is located in Manhattan’s Flatiron district. It’s tucked away in a 500-square foot loft, but has a large presence in the world of artistic books.

Closer to home, the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, in Minneapolis, on the other hand, is located in a 55,000-square-foot building, more than enough room for letterpress and screen-printing, papermaking and a bindery.

In addition, there are “a couple of indie publishers, there’s a big café with a gallery,” pointed out author Audrey Niffenegger. “It’s really, really nice.”

Next on the list? Evanston’s own Harley Clarke?

Evanston City Council members selected Ms. Niffenegger’s Artists Book House group’s proposal for a Book Arts center at the City-owned Harley Clarke mansion at their March 8 meeting over three other proposals for reuse of the mansion, grounds and Coach House, located off the lake at 2603 Sheridan Rd.

Ms. Niffenegger, the best-selling author of “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” and an Evanston Township High School graduate, was at home, watching the meeting on the City’s Youtube channel when the discussion turned in favor of the Artists Book House proposal.

“I was like, holy smokes, this thing is rocketing,” she said, describing her reaction.

The Artists Book House had scored highest according to a staff system grading the proposals based on criteria.

The criteria used included qualifications and expertise, financial capability to execute the proposal, benefit of the proposed use of the property, organization and completeness of the proposal, as well as meeting the City’s minority hiring goals.

In the Council discussion, a number of aldermen said they liked the Artists House proposal over others because of the lesser impact a book arts center would have on the surrounding area, which includes Lighthouse Beach.

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward though, added another reason: “This is a totally new thing for us. This is going to attract, I think, a lot of interest into Evanston.”

Began As a 14-Year-Old

Ms. Niffenegger, who grew up in the Evanston-Skokie area of the City, has been “paying attention to the fate of the house for a very long time,” she said in an interview after the Council’s action.

She first visited the house in 1977 at age 14, when the Evanston Art Center occupied the building, initially taking printmaking classes there.

“I walked into the building and I just really connected with it,” she recalled about the building, constructed in 1927 for a utilities magnate. “There’s something about being in beautiful spaces, and that home feels particularly warm because of all that lovely delicious wood work, and the high ceilings, and the view of the lake.”

 She returned to Harley Clarke after she graduated from the Art Institute at age 22 and a year later, at age 23, was asked to teach classes there.

“So that started in 1987 and I left there in 2002,” she said. “And so all that time, conversations were going on at their [The Art] Center about the condition of the building and, oh gosh, how are we going to get an elevator in here, and you know concerns about access. And so I knew that maybe they [the Evanston Art Center] wouldn’t stay there forever. And then I heard that they were moving [the Art Center moved out in 2015] and I thought, ‘Well, okay, that’s what I expected to eventually happen.’”

 After that, “I sort of watched proposals come and go [on what to do with the house], but I wasn’t involved. I was kind of a bystander,” she said.

Helped Found Columbia Book Arts Center

Meanwhile, Ms. Niffenegger had been one of the founders of Chicago’s last Book Arts centers, the Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts, located in Columbia College’s downtown campus.

The Book and Paper Center, which opened in 1994, “was considered a leader not only nationally, but internationally,” Ms. Niffenegger said. “We attracted scholars, graduate students, adult learners, and the public to our exhibits, classes, conferences, residencies, and master’s degree program. We sent teachers into the Chicago Public Schools to make bi-lingual books with kids; we brought kids from many schools into our paper studios with grants from the Illinois Arts Council.”

The College closed the Center in 2019.

At the time, Ms. Niffenegger said, “Columbia had suffered quite a lot from the recession in 2008. And so they were cost-cutting and closing a lot of their centers and merging departments and really kind of diminishing…”

When the Chicago center was closed, “that was very important to me,” she said. “And I thought, okay, ‘I’ve got a program that is just closed and doesn’t have a home. And over here [at Harley Clarke] there’s a home that doesn’t have anything in it. And these are two things in my life that just mattered to me immensely and I thought, ‘okay, fine, I will, I will try this [the Artists Book House] out.”

“My original idea back in 2017 was to start a bookshop,” she said. “I’ve always had this idea for doing a really unusual bookshop, full of all sorts of artists books and just cool things that you can’t find in Barnes and Noble.”

With “the stakes a lot higher, and the danger of the thing [Harley Clarke] being wiped off the earth, literally, it seemed more important to just roll up my sleeves and get in there,” she said, explaining the genesis of the Artist Book House proposal.

All Things Bookish

The proposal calls for converting the mansion into a place to promote the literary and book arts.

“We plan to use the Harley Clarke house as a place to teach classes for adults and children; to run a gallery, library, and a bookshop; to offer book-related events, and to house a cafe,” Ms. Niffenegger wrote in the group’s proposal.

“We intend to partner with a garden group, a cafe operator, and a local bookshop; we will create a friends group to sustain and fundraise for the Harley Clarke House itself.”

Though Artists Book House hopes to forge a connection with Northwestern University, which sits just to the south, the focus will be different than with Columbia University, where the book art center was part of the university, Niffenegger said.

 “Evanston has the right blend of the university and the town,” she said. “There are a lot of things that Northwestern offers to the public, but there are also a lot of things going on at Northwestern that are for Northwestern students, and one difference with us is that we are community-facing.

“Anybody can come and participate; we don’t have to admit you,” she said. “And because Evanston sits right there between Chicago and the North Shore, it’s sort of a lovely sweet spot in terms of who’s there. People talk on and on about diversity, but diversity comes when you open yourself up as an institution to a big cross-pollination of ideas and really work at making sure that people feel attracted and connected.”

During citizen comment at the March 8 City Council meeting, some representatives of other groups which had submitted proposals took issue with staff’s higher grade for Artists Book House’s financial capability to execute their project.

 W.B. Olson, the construction company Artists House has contracted with on the project, estimated construction costs of the mansion’s rehabilitation at anywhere between $8.2 and $10.4 million. The Coach House costs range between $1 and $1.4 million, the company estimated.

In Artists Book House proposal itself, group members acknowledge the project “will require some serious cash.”

To date, “there are people who care about the building and the gardens who want to contribute,” Ms. Niffenegger said. “There’s a chicken-or-the-egg effect. Some people are waiting to see how things go and will help when the future of the building has been decided.”

 “We are not the Ford Foundation,” Ms. Niffenegger said in the interview. “We are small, we are very, very smart, but we are new,” she said. “My hope all along is once a choice was made that people who have been quietly waiting to see what happened will step up. Some of them might donate because they really care about the house, some of them might like book arts, some literary things. Maybe some of them just want to have a cup of coffee along the lake.”

Hopes Others Will Join, Too 

She said she also hopes to work with members of the other groups which submitted proposals for reuse of the mansion and coach house.

Both Evanston Conservatory, built around a conservation theme, and Evanston Community Lakehouse & Gardens, which sought to create a community gathering place, drew on support from longtime members of the community, a number of them working for years on the issue.

“In the course of all this campaigning to save the house I’ve been so impressed by the people involved, their knowledge, their research. I mean they did a referendum,” said Ms. Niffenegger. “That house might not be there if not for their commitment to it. And so, I mean if we get the lease, if it all works out, I hope these people who have spent so much time, I hope they’ll want to work with us.”

More about Artists Book House can be found at

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.