A murder of crows on the main staircase of the Harley Clarke mansion. Credit: Gay Riseborough

Editor’s note: This story has updated to correct the description of the “secret“ closet installation – it is solely the work of artist Jamie Thome – and to remove an incorrect reference that the mansion’s dining and living rooms are available for private events; they are not.

Artists Book House (ABH) opened its third Halloween spectacular, “A House, Haunted,” at the Harley Clarke mansion on Oct. 1. Notice it’s not called “A Haunted House.” That’s because this is not your typical haunted house experience – with the sounds of chainsaws, screams and people jumping out to frighten you. 

This haunted house is meant to be “lighthearted, fun and engaging around the season. It is a Halloween destination, like Zoo Lights and the botanic gardens,”  said Jamie Thome, an Evanston artist and writer and ABH board member. Oct. 1 was the “soft launch,” with other “A House, Haunted” events going live on the ABH website at the same time. 

Halloween is rapidly becoming Americans’ favorite holiday for decorations, second only to Christmas, according to national surveys. It’s a not-too-serious holiday, giving children, and even adults, a chance to dress in imaginative costumes, join in silly games and practice prankish behavior. A tradition of, and an opportunity for, spooky storytelling.

The house at 2603 Sheridan Road will be open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday in October. There is no entry fee, though donations are welcome. Visitors may roam designated areas (excluding the basement) for a self-guided tour of installations and vignettes throughout the house. There may be projections and soft sound effects in some rooms.

The proprietor of the pop-up gift shop at Artists Book House? Credit: Gay Riseborough

A pop-up gift shop is already open, with founder Audrey Niffenegger’s books and other curious offerings. Windows will be decorated by artists and backlit, making for a fun evening walk-around. 

Spiritualism was very popular in the 19th century – the belief that spirits of the dead can communicate with the living, especially through a human medium at a seance. In the house this Halloween there is an interactive “Spirit Cabinet,” complete with spirit “trumpets” by artist Margot McMahon and artist/writer Ken Gerleve. 

Gerleve, who is the Treasurer on the ABH Board of Directors, has created another interactive installation, “The Wheel of Misfortune,” with artist Linda Scholly. It is based on a short story he wrote, available on the ABH website.

Evanston artist Jamie Thome is making a “secret“ closet installation. Vignettes are seen throughout the mansion, especially on the second and third floors. Melisssa Jay Craig has a whole room. There is even animated wallpaper. 

In addition to the self-guided tours on the weekends, during the month of October guided tours are offered, by appointment only, from 10 a.m. to noon on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. There is no fee, but donations are welcome. No walk-ins are accepted; appointments must be scheduled a minimum of 12 hours in advance using the calendar on the ABH website.

Three Artist Book House volunteers? Credit: Gay Riseborough

For a special tour request – for example, a tour at night – email a request to info@artistsbookhouse.org to make arrangements. The expected minimum donation for a special tour is $100.

On Halloween itself, consistent with published city trick-or-treating hours, there will be treats for children at the heavy carved front door – if they are courageous enough to climb the steps and ring the bell.

“Costumed revelry is encouraged … and candy will be handed out until we run out,” Gerleve said.    

The COVID-19 pandemic made fundraising get-togethers impossible, but ABH learned the power of online collaboration between artists and writers. Thome, now the ABH Programming Chair, said free collaborative workshops are available at the Evanston Public Library this October.

Megan Stielstra, an Evanston writer, is offering “Writing in the Face of Fear” at 6 p.m. Oct. 20. She is the author of three collections, including The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, honored with the 2017 Chicago Review of Books Award for best creative nonfiction.

Toya Wolfe. Credit: Wolfe photo by Leicester Mitchell

Novelist Toya Wolfe will lead “Write What Scares You: Kicking Off Your Novel” at 6 p.m. Oct. 24. Wolfe is the author of Last Summer on State Street, her debut novel about growing up in the Robert Taylor Homes and their ultimate teardown. “Her book is really about families and community,” Gerleve said.

The writing workshops are at the main library; register via the EPL website.

Other free seasonal ABH workshops are “Fun and Creepy Halloween Pop Up Cards” as well as “Treewhispers – Papermaking,” “Paper Mask Making” and “Book Making.” Check the EPL website for details, dates and times, and to register if required. (No registration is required for “Treewhispers,” which is a drop-in program.)

ABH is all-volunteer and has no staff yet, but Thome said ABH always pays artists for their artwork in and around the house and for programs they put on for the organization. “It’s very important,” she said. “Artists should not be expected to do their work for nothing!” 

A handy wall plaque at Artists Book House. Credit: Gay Riseborough

Docent-led small group tours of the mansion are always allowed, but according to its lease with the city of Evanston, ABH is not permitted to hold its classes in the house or open the mansion to large groups. There is no elevator yet and the three-story fire escape needs replacing. 

“When we open, we want the house to be safe, welcoming and easily accessible,” Thome said.

ABH recently asked the Evanston City Council for modifications to its lease. The continuing effects of the pandemic have slowed fundraising and caused “difficulties in meeting fundraising benchmarks and construction phasing outlined in the original lease,” said Dave Stonebeck, Deputy City Manager, in a summary to City Council. The request is up for a vote at the Oct. 10 council meeting.

The estimated cost of mansion renovations, required for the public opening of the mansion, has been raised from $8.5 million to $10 million. The promised public opening is now projected for 2027.

Some donors rushing to contribute to Artists Book House? Credit: Gay Riseborough

Donations to the Artists Book House are more than welcome – for tours, visits or just for love. A highly successful used book sale was held on the grounds last month, on a beautiful fall Saturday. ABH also was recently awarded a $2,000 gift from the Jackie Mack Commission Mission 2022, an Evanston real estate group that parcels out $10,000 among several nonprofits each year. Winners were chosen by online voting. 

Along with a contribution from the Evanston Arts Council, ABH’s monthlong “A House, Haunted” event is sponsored by a donation from Alison Aldrich and John Varones of Highland Park.

It appears ABH is already drawing interest from outside the immediate area. Its predecessor, the Columbia College Center for Book and Paper Arts (Chicago), was internationally recognized and ABH hopes to follow suit.

Gay Riseborough is an artist, has served the City of Evanston for 11 years on arts committees, and is now an arts writer at the Evanston RoundTable.

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