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.

Audrey Niffenegger at the Harley Clarke mansion.

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.”

Halloween events

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 info@artistsbookhouse.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.

Les Jacobson

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently three consecutive Northern...

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  1. A grow house will add to the wildly popular topics already on board – book binding and paper making to note a couple of them. While I would describe the first comment as over the top, when will the community wake up to the fact that this is a Northshore dream. I would b all in favor if this plan had any chance of happening but 400 k raised in what – almost a year? My suggestion for fund raising – ring the doorbell of everyone who had a “don’t privatize our parkland, please” and ask for $500. Then step back so their door doesn’t hit u in the face.

  2. She wasn’t paying much attention when she learned her group had been chosen to take over the mansion?! This entire situation is, as this woman says herself, just laughable. Another example in a long line of just how horribly managed Evanston is. This entire situation is a farce just like with the fountain downtown. Our unaccountable leaders here in Evanston decided this project was the most feasible out of all proposals? Councilperson Revelle is looking forward to this project coming to fruition? When? In 25 years? That’s when this group might have the funding for renovations at the pace they’re raising money. No mention of how they plan to pay for upkeep of the structure beyond that. Is this person required to repair the boarded up windows on the mansion within a specific timeframe? If this project doesn’t happen, which let’s face it it won’t, is this person required to turn the building back over in a certain number of years and pay the city for the time and resources wasted on this farce? Why is none of this info included in the article? Just another example of why this town and its “leaders” are seen as a laughing stock. This supposedly well-connected author is admitting they’ve been unable to raise funds to renovate let alone maintain this eyesore of a building, at a time when we’ve had more free money floating around the economy than at any time in the country’s history. What will this person do during the impending recession? So we’ll be left with another blighted mess of a building, with broken and boarded up windows right on the lakefront, in one of the few otherwise stable neighborhoods in this dying mismanaged town. I hope this person issues a formal apology to the people of Evanston for wasting all of our time and resources and is forced to compensate us for this fiasco. But probably not since people aren’t held accountable here. Most likely we’ll be leaving our grandchildren with yet another eyesore since we elect leaders who aren’t capable of thinking about anything beyond next week and who are most concerned with backing their friend’s unfunded, unviable vanity projects.

  3. Bravo! Very exciting to see this happening, in the fabulous Harley Clark storied house!
    Wishing you the best of luck in your opening chapter.
    I hope you and the Board will consider adding a grow house portion, to teach children and/or adults how to grow micro greens, lettuces, have them make an educational hands on step by step book to go with the project, recipes, with a take home kit of seeds and items so they can do it again at home.
    Teaching, booking, and inspire while learning to eat well for a healthy mind. In addition, add miniature clay modeling, just in case those greens hold a forest fantasy play opportunity, before they are ready to consume.
    Stay magical!
    Kindest regards, FG

  4. This is wonderful news and will be a huge resource for all of us who love books and beautiful architecture.
    Is there still time to donate books for the Sept. 17 book sale? If so, when and where?