Audrey Niffenegger wasn’t paying much attention when she learned her group, Artists Book House, had been chosen to take over the famous Harley Clarke mansion at 2603 Sheridan Rd.
She said she was listening “with half an ear” to the Zoom City Council meeting on March 21, 2021, when the city announced its decision.
“When I realized they had chosen us, I thought, ‘What? Great!’”
Since then, Niffenegger said, the group has made “amazing progress” putting together a solid board, working with award-winning architect John Eifler and launching attractive and exciting online campaigns.
The project includes a full spectrum of book arts – “writing, reading, printing, bookbinding, papermaking, typography, calligraphy, poetry, fiction, memoir, artist’s books, comics, zines, publishing, conservation, history and more,” according to ABH’s official proposal.
City Council member Eleanor Revelle, whose seventh ward includes the mansion, said she is excited about the project.
“I think it will be a great addition to the city,” she said. “The Artists Book House program has broad appeal, and people love the building.”
Nevertheless, Niffenegger acknowledged, it’s been a challenge to raise funds. For one thing, the pandemic has made fundraising get-togethers imprudent.
“It’s an interesting time to try to raise money,” said the best-selling author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, Her Fearful Symmetry, The Three Incestuous Sisters as well as a book of her short stories illustrated by her husband, Eddie Campbell; plus five books she wrote and illustrated and one catalogue of her artwork for a career retrospective.
“Arts groups are struggling. Social justice, health and food insecurity are the top priorities. We’ve been struggling to ask and get money. Nonetheless, we’re persevering,” she said.
Niffenegger estimated the cost to renovate the building, including install an elevator, make the many necessary maintenance repairs and launch classes, at $10 million. So far, the not-for-profit has raised $400,000. “Laughably small,” she said with only the trace of a smile.
“We have no paid staff,” she added. “I’m a visual artist with no experience in cultivating donors.” To rectify the situation, the board has made it a top priority to hire an executive director with experience in fundraising.
In the meantime, the Book House plans to hold a book sale at the mansion from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17. During the last hour there will be a “tote bag sale” at which donations of $25 will enable people to stuff their bags with books.
In addition to raising money, the book sale is meant to remind people that the organization is busy moving ahead. “It’s important to let the community know the mansion is occupied and that we have big plans,” Niffenegger said.
Those plans include “…a place for classes, a library, a book shop, studios, a cafe: we need a place to gather, to meet, to share ideas (and coffee),” according to the proposal. “We plan to offer non-credit, community education to adults, youth, and children. There will be internships and scholarships, to build community. We are excited to promote the work of local authors and artists, and to become a place where readers can discover books.”
The Evanston native, who graduated from Evanston Township High School in 1981, had spent hundreds of hours during her high school years taking printmaking and photography classes at the mansion, then the home of the Evanston Art Center.
After four years at the School of the Art Institute, where she received her bachelor’s degree in fine arts, she returned to Harley Clarke and from 1987 to 2002 taught print-making, photography and drawing.
“It was so impressive, I just loved it,” she recalled, particularly the interaction between artists of every discipline as well as the special events – the openings and the Christmas gala everyone attended. “It made the building magical.”
The historic English tudor building has a rich history. It was built in 1927 for the Clarke family by Boston architect Richard Powers. Clarke ran a successful utility company and was an early pioneer in educational films.
Famed landscape architect Jens Jensen designed the gardens. In 1949 the house was purchased by Sigma Chi Fraternity for its national headquarters. In 1963 the city purchased the mansion and grounds, including the beach, and leased it to the Evanston Art Center, which ran it from 1965 until 2015.
Many of Niffenegger’s later projects involved collaboration with other artists, such as the ballet based on her book Raven Girl with composer Gabriel Yared and choreographer Wayne McGregor for the Royal Ballet of London.
Some of the same opportunities to collaborate with other artists as well as administrators and funding organizations, seemed appealing about the Artists Book House.
‘The Harley Clarke house ‘is beautiful, unoccupied, and its future has been a worrisome puzzle. We have a vision for it to become a lively, warm, and interesting place once again, as a home for our Artists Book House,” the proposal said.
To which Niffenegger added: “This is a unique, beautiful place – every time I open the front door, I remember how great it feels to be here, and I imagine how wonderful it will be when we are open and everyone can be here together. All we have to do is raise the requisite sums, and we can create a bookish paradise.”
Last year, there was an online Halloween fundraiser called A House Haunted in which various artists provided paintings and drawings to display on the mansion’s street-facing windows.
This year’s A House Haunted takes the concept a step further with pop-up shops and self-guided tours at the mansion from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays in October. People can come any time during those hours.
Tours can be set up between 10 a.m. and noon on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in October. To reserve a tour spot visit www.artistsbookhouse.org. starting Sept. 24.
Tours in other time slots can be reserved by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org. also starting Sept. 24.
Niffenegger wasn’t totally surprised the group’s submission – one of four – was selected. “We had a terrific architect in John Eifler plus a great landscape architect in Nick Patera. And I knew the building from top to bottom, and knew what I wanted to achieve in every room and space,” she said.