The Artists Book House informed the city it is leaving the Harley Clarke mansion, bringing an abrupt end to the group’s dream to create a book and literary center in the long-shuttered lakefront building, its founder said Thursday, Jan. 12.

Harley Clarke mansion, 2603 Sheridan Road

The decision was reached reluctantly, after consulting with four fundraising firms, who, while agreeing it was possible to raise the money required to restore the mansion, concluded that it would take eight to 10 years, far beyond what the group had committed to originally, said Audrey Niffenegger, the founder of the Artists Book House, confirming the decision.

Niffeneggar said the group informed the city of its decision today, Jan. 12.

The move came after a difficult meeting Monday where a city council committee recommended that a mediator be called in to resolve a dispute between the two nonprofits involved in the lakefront property, Artists Book House, which contracted to renovate and run the mansion and programs, and Jens Jenson Garden, charged with maintaining the gardens and other outside properties.

Niffenegger said the group was on the verge of making a decision to pull out of the project before the meeting “and it was like the meeting gave us a little shove.”

“We were taken by surprise,” she said. “We just thought it was a routine thing [concerning the lease restructuring] and a revision in benchmarks.”

The group said in its letter to the city that Harley Clarke as well as the Jens Jensen Garden are important and beloved by many. The letter also expresses hope that the next group which undertakes the project will be successful.

Audrey Niffenegger who headed up the Artists Book Harley Clarke mansion.

Artists Book House, led by Evanston Township High School alum and award-winning author Audrey Niffenegger, was originally awarded a 40-year contract for the Harley Clarke mansion, 2603 Sheridan Rd., in May, 2021. It was a competitive process that was decided via a City Council vote.

Talks were also underway to revise the lease after the group failed to reach fundraising benchmarks. After submitting its revised benchmarks, the nonprofit’s board “had a really intense discussion about how realistic it was that we could really do this,” said Niffenegger.

Rather than linger in the Book House with no prospect of fulfilling their vision, the Board submitted “to reality,” she said, and voted to “let the city get on with the process to fund the next group that can take this on.”

Artists Book House, meanwhile, is looking at moving to a more modest space, she said, and continue its work to create a book arts and literary center.

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.

Join the Conversation

39 Comments

The RoundTable will try to post comments within a few hours, but there may be a longer delay at times. Comments containing mean-spirited, libelous or ad hominem attacks will not be posted. Your full name and email is required. We do not post anonymous comments. Your e-mail will not be posted.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. I am excited. Another opportunity for our Evanston to showcase its history while providing a beautiful, inspiring mansion conversion to a learning, living community center.
    Naysayers, this is not an albatross. It is a gem, for there is no lakefront property available with protected views of the lake owned by the city.
    This mansion protected views of the greatest wonder of the midwest -Lake Michigan. From the texture from the brick laying to the hand carved priceless wood speaks to the rare crafts of trades people, designers who’s works dot the area and nation.
    The Clark’s story showcases the event of electricity, in utility and film. Isn’t electricity all the rage right now? Clark’s vision for the future, enthusiasm for what electrical opportunities lay ahead for folks, reveals the traps of fame and corruption, and lost, even though these “gifts” provide is with entertainment today. All during a difficult time in our countries history, the Great Depression.
    The promotion and revitalization of an original Jens Jensen gardens and trees will give a alternative natural course of garden space teaching, wandering and flow with this large house. This can compliment the large park Deering/Northeast and Lawson Park, situated north of the parking lot. A respite for the beach goer.
    Consider the renovation as a learning opportunity for those talented preservationist, teaching budding preservationist while it journeys into a community learning center, from start to ongoing maintenance.
    The green houses again be a useful healthy food production opportunity to grow smart, bodies of health. Natures way to relax the mind without smoking. A short distance from hospital where it can be a place of refuge for hospital workers or patient adocates can catch their sanity by just having a place to take in fresh air and expansive views.
    This can be done!
    Children can come and learn about aspects. Artist can showcase their works, a cafe can nourish the hungry.
    Enjoy the wildlife, wander the paths. Again, Lawson park, a wonderful ADA park, sits next to the house on north side. The lighthouse to the south side.
    Evanston – The right group can Be the teaching light. And, have monthly small celebratory events.

    Naysayers-The Levy center takes a while to get there, not close to northside. Is it? And, it isn’t on the Lake.
    The Dawes house is almost on the lake by is limited, by its well placed historical furniture, clothes books and items. It is near everybody.

    Our budget busting square, white Ice block, with acres of massive plastic turf, (85 million), night lit grounds, is only sports minded with a library side kick. It takes me 20 minutes drive time to get there between traffic and lights. And, a distance for the northside folks.
    I am all for a school in the 5th ward. Well deserved. Well needed. I believe all classrooms should be at most 15 children with two teacher and teacher aid along with specialities: a teacher have 20 minutes 1 on 1 time each day with each student. Every child should read at 6th grade level.
    How many young adults cannot read these comments?

    Harley is a GEM, with views of one of the greatest assets of the midwest, Lake Michigan, and its teaching moment begins with the restoration, a journey to its place of inspiration for folks to enjoy programs and nourishment. Enjoy its nooks and crannies; light and shadow; twists and turns; texture and warmth while meeting nature, refresh mind and body. Harley Clark can teach us much.
    Be the Light!
    Thank you! Let’s do it!

  2. I’m shocked, shocked that a proposal which included such high general interest topics as book binding and paper making couldn’t raise funds. Saving this masterpiece on the lake would be great but would all those in favor of this be willing to contribute a few thousand dollars?

  3. Open space is what makes the most sense at this juncture, sadly. Let the garden folks restore the gardens. I would like to see, however, a renewed lakefront plan that includes a city commitment to not selling the land to developers or NU.

  4. So tired of reading about this mansion fiasco over-and-over-and-over again. Let’s just knock it over and turn it into a public park and integrate with the space next door. I really don’t understand the love for this building.

  5. Harley Clarke is the best spot on the lakefront in Evanston and possibly the entire north shore. Those of us who see the value in that (lakefront) mansion will continue to work with the city so that Harley Clarke can offer a cafe, lakefront patio, event space, workshops and be open for public use. There is a group of architects, attorneys and preservationists ready to help the city see this vision become a reality, and there’s also some NEW funding opportunities for Harley, yes. The city recently received many, many, many, many millions of dollars to use for city improvements and community based projects. We have a new city manager, new mayor and an almost entirely new city council…which is a recipe for a fresh new start. A billionaire and a world famous writer both try to save Harley and instead both fail because of so many unnecessary hurdles and lack of support. Let those be lessons learned moving forward. At this very moment in time, Evanston can afford to invest in Harley with capital improvement funding and create for itself a public lakefront mansion, cafe, lakefront patio. That would be a powerful return on investing in our lakefront and creating such a useful future space.

  6. How sad and unfortunate that the City’s former actions took away the possibility of a viable alternative to the present fiasco with the Harley Clarke property. Namely, the proposal of a private bed and breakfast enterprise. We would not have been in the situation we are in today! Hindsight! Try to use foresight next time.

    1. Hello Gretchen -The proposal you refer too was not some quaint bed and breakfast it included a 3 story 57 room addition covering the parking lot and lord only knows if they could really build an underground garage. It was privatization of valuable public parkland. WIth a structure that large western sun would have blocked our park land and sun to the beach. It’s about our community values and public lands too.

  7. The lease was formalized in the midst of the Covid pandemic. It is not easy for a project of this magnitude to raise funds during a pandemic. We must also keep in mind the cost of materials and construction continue to rise, which in turn raises the cost of the project and the necessity to raise even more funds than initially anticipated. It really is a daunting task for groups that are established fundraisers let alone a nascent NFP group.

    Evanston has a gem on the lakefront; the city should take a more active role in saving it, rather than count solely NFP groups to fix the house for them. The city owns it, it is a registered building. Fix it Evanston. Make it a beach house with a cafe, and locker rooms for the beachgoers. Rent out the halls for events.

    Best of luck to Artists Book House, it was a difficult goal from the start, but you gave it your best shot. Hope you find success with a smaller-scale project.

  8. New to the history on this so forgive me, but seems it would be ideal to make this a city/building with a cafe that could be rented for events or just a great place to go to eat and enjoy the views. Plus maybe a takeout window for beach goers to buy food. It would be such a desirable rental for weddings and such.

  9. Thank you Paul Janicki for setting the record straight, and Jean Cunningham for being spot on. How do these small percentage of people gain so much leverage? I believe these same people, or similar, also fought the movie theatres on Maple. All Evanston got out of that deal was a solid anchor for downtown and a beautiful Levy Center relocated by James Park. Now they are fighting Northwestern… Northwestern, show us you really believe in Evanston (money for police, fire, schools, equity, etc. on top of tax revenue) and I feel many people will be behind you.

  10. I am most saddened by the departure of ARTIST BOOK HOUSE group. I have long wanted to see the Harley Clark become a community center for Evanston” artists now and in the future. I hope they find a new place less expensive. I hope the Harley Clark mansion will be refurbished and serve the whole community with a variety of venues.
    Constance Porteous

  11. Post-pandemic, the “Save the mansion for $10 million dollars” narrative sounds frivolous. Yes, HC is historically significant. It is also on the far north side and not easily accessible for 5th ward or SW Evanston residents – it requires a car or 2 bus rides. The runner-up had a nice plan with niche-services but fell short on fundraising as well (with lots of excuses). Fans of 2nd runner-up project lamented “if only” an angel donor would drop out of the sky and hand over millions, or ‘if only’ the rich people in Evanston would write big checks. Neither happened. Will this big house continue to sit empty for a decade or more? Probably. In the mean time, 5th ward residents will have the new neighborhood school it deserves and hopefully a new community center with a multitude of services (maybe even a public pool) – right in their own back yard.

    1. Hawley Clark is about 5 blocks from the Fifth Ward. It is also the only ward in Evanston with two Purple Line stations (Foster and Noyes). The building is only three blocks from the Central St EL station so you really don’t need “2 buses” to get there from the ward. Hop on the el and it’s 1 or 2 stops to Central

  12. Interesting how quickly the Evanston nay-sayers have forgotten the effects of Covid on the fund-raising potential of not for profit groups.

  13. CORRECTION to my previous comment: Alderman Suffredin did not propose the wording to the referendum. I have sent him an email apologizing for the error.

  14. This is absolutely no surprise, just magical thinking of everyone involved, including the city council. I remember a proposal from a np to demo it, recycle anything that can be sold and use that to fund the demo and create natural space around the jen jensen garden elements. That is the best idea at this point.

    1. @ jeannemariesierant: The proposal you remember was from a group of neighbors of Harley Clarke who were explicitly *not* a non-profit. They were not a np because then they’d have to be transparent rather than collude with the City behind closed doors. They called their group “Evanston Lakehouse Dunes” (ELD). ELD got a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the City. The MOU held that ELD would raise $400,000 by Oct. 31st 2018 to finance the demo, a wholly inadequate amount BTW, or the MOU was cancelled. ELD fell short–only a “mistake” in which a check for $500 sent on 10-24-2018 was–oops!–recorded by the city as $5,000 made it *look* like ELD eked out the amount $1K. I still have the city’s screenshots of all the checks. The City stonewalled repeated FOIAs about who the donors were, saying it was their secret and right to protect said donors. Finally it went to the State AG, who determined it was public information. Here’s the coverage:
      https://patch.com/illinois/evanston/evanston-admits-harley-clarke-demolition-records-were-incomplete
      When you peruse the donors’ names in the above Patch article, be sure to note the demo donors on the list are still commenting here and are still hell-bent on tearing down Harley Clarke.

  15. So, for anyone saying we should’ve just taken the Pritzker plan, Pritzker has actually divested herself of her real estate interests in Evanston, plus the plan was to double the size of the house, have underground parking, for the community to lose access to Lighthouse Beach, and to pave the way (pun intended) for privatization of the Lakefront, so not really a winning proposal there either. If anyone is interested, visit Highfield Hall https://highfieldhallandgardens.org/ and see what can happen in a community where the City embraces creative ideas and works with the community to see them to fruition for everyone’s mutual benefit. Want to help, visit https://www.friendsofharleyclarke.org/home

    1. Well, there are so many falsehoods in this one paragraph. Jennifer Pritzker had not divested herself of her Evanston holdings at this point and since I was her architect I can assure you your memory of that timeline is broken. The underground parking was an attempt to leave the front lawn free of parking so the view of this beautiful landmark would not be impinged. Not to mention how unbelievably expensive it is to do that but she felt strongly about the community’s right to enjoy that view. Beach goers would have been able to use the garage as well. By the way, beach access would not have changed for citizens, this is a falsehood that still lives on like some scene in a movie of people waving pitchforks and wearing lederhosen. Also Jennifer proposed adding new beach bathrooms on her dime. The option of adding more rooms was discussed but the team never had the time to discuss with the City over the howls of the misinformed. As far as privatization is concerned, one wonders if more people would have enjoyed the house in a hotel scheme as opposed to the wonderful but narrow profile of the book house scheme. On top of all this, Jennifer Pritzker had no problem throwing the needed money to finally save this incredible asset. Good luck Evanston.

      1. Really? Unnecessary nasty verbiage, along with the fact: a boutique hotel is and was unwanted.
        We want a Community House serving targeting inspired, sustainable learning!
        Consider saved money from a costly boutique parking lot can help fund tutors for reading, math, and healthy eating growing. Inspire storytelling to book writing, garden architecture structure taught and enjoyed, while growing greenhouse micro greens puts all elements of learning to work.
        Maybe Artist Book might be a part of the team?!?
        I am sure with all of the proposed hotel costs, “you” (Janecki) being one of them, the boutique hotel will not lose money. But, add profit to a few for a limited number of people to enjoy.
        Certainly, a missed opportunity to create a path forward for our community goals.
        I helped run a bookstore at Lincolnwood in the 90’s- a good portion of these children could not read, and never had a “new” book.
        Do the math? What happens, to say a underestimate of 300 children district-wide, who can’t read over 3rd grade, each year from 1990… Say this makes them 7-9 years old in 1990. By 2000, they should be graduating from high school.
        What happened? Did they drop out? Pass away? What opportunities do they have? What early education 1 on 1 tutors did they have?
        300 non-readers produced by Dist 65 each year from year 2000-2022 would equal 6,600 young adults; 35 years and under. 6,600 adults-young adults…can’t read. It makes me sick.
        Where can other opportunities lie to teach in other ways?

        We need more workers and less of a reason for people to be homeless.
        Evanston being the brilliant educational leader, sharing land with an expensive highly regarded University??
        Be the inspiration, do the needed work to change the direction of this landscape for the betterment of people. The challenged and the brilliant. We all need a place like Harley to breathe in good air and be drawn into fresh thoughts. Do good.
        Very glad you are so familiar with the house, maybe you can help store it and secure and renovate the bones to make it available to community. Take care!

      2. Thank you, Paul. I remember reading that in the proposal (which is still on the city’s website for those who would like to revisit it in addition to the various assessments of the status of the building). Col. Pritzker is also known for careful renovation of historic buildings, so we would have had a magnificent restoration, I’m sure, in addition to jobs and the rental facilities and restaurant that so many propose. The fact is that the building needs a lot of work. I would love to have it as an art space and I actually love book arts and was hoping for ABH to succeed. But renovating an old building in disrepair is extremely costly and needs a big infusion of cash. From a fundraising perspective, there needs to be a comprehensive assessment and plan done in advance, similar to what Friends of Robert Crown did.

  16. I’m saddened by this, but there’s absolutely no surprise that funding this project was going to be difficult. More than difficult. However well intentioned, please tell me what institutional funder would support this project at conception rather than after a long period of proven fiscal responsibility and growth? Where was the individual support, either before or after the idea was presented to the council? In good faith or in pledged dollars? This project was not adequately vetted for the short term big dollars needed to fix it up, to the annual budget needed to support operations and maintenance of this big building. I don’t know what professional fundraiser would say, sure, this could work. Did anyone ask before this was approved? That’s just to bad for the council who should have been responsible for such vetting.

  17. Very sadly, this is a redo of The Evanston Recycling Center but on steroids (which stand still unoccupied after over a decade). As a taxpayer, I hope there is accountability to our Evanston leaders and staff involved in the Harley Clarke fiasco: city council, staff who vetted the proposals and made recommendations, Tom Suffreden (6th ward alderman) who proposed the wording for the referendum. For those residents hoping that a “well-funded” non-profit steps up or saying “award the proposal to the second place proposal and let’s watch some real magic happen”, I expect the mansion to languish for years which is a real shame but I hope I’m proven wrong.

  18. I want to know where the passionate well-meaning people (including the ones who put the anti-Pritzker signs in their yard) with all their unrealistic and poorly thought through ideas are today. As I see it, they are completely the reason Evanston is not already reaping the income and other benefits from the Pritzker proposal with the city government having long since moved on to more important matters. Another one of many examples of Evanston citizen groups making noise and creating costly mayhem for the city because of an ill-placed emotional response to an issue rather than using their brains on some deep analysis of the issue.

  19. Can we please just tear it down? The mansion is not that significant architecturally or historically. It is an albatross.

    How many years has it been since the EAC moved out of that building?

  20. Bottom line, whatever happens here needs to be open to the community. This is a historic piece of land and should be celebrated by the city, not sold to the highest bidder. The Harley Clarke house is an interesting building but not architecturally significant. What is significant is the history of the land it sits on.

  21. The Evanston community would have been better served if the Harley Clarke mansion had been sold to Colonal Pritzker who had the means, desire and experience to restore the building. It’s a shame that a small, but vocal group rallied support to take this restoration in a different direction without an understanding of the cost and time required.

  22. A massive, not unexpected, waste of everyone’s time and resources. This tiny niche project should never have been first choice. The Lakehouse project was much more inclusive. What in the world happened?

      1. I’m skeptical that any start up NFP without a comprehensive capital plan and an experienced fund raising firm could have raised $5-8 million over the last three years.

  23. This is EXACTLY what I predicted. Stevie Wonder could have seen this coming. Well-meaning folks with more will than wallet. Harley Clarke is the gift you can’t give away. Sell this albatorss to a deep-pocketed party that can renovate it. Does anyone have Col. Pritzker on speed dial?

    1. Deborah and Derrick,
      I agree wholeheartedly.
      It’s great that we have many extremely idealistic people in Evanston looking to make a mark for the betterment of the community. But when our city councilpeople let us down by not being more realistic, we lose time and opportunity cost. Additionally, I am sure that city staff spent time on these ventures, time they might have spent on more productive matters. But all of that is water under the bridge.
      I suspect the public appetite is not there for a public-use, publicly-funded adaptation of the Mansion…at least I hope not…too many other good places to put those millions.
      A very well-funded non-profit, or somebody looking to do their own version of Col. Pritzger’s project would look good at this point. (From a distance, I am convinced that she has washed her hands of Evanston real estate.)

    2. Shocker. Anyone watching the presentation of this proposal to Council a few years ago knew that this plan had zero business merit, but was a nice work of fiction. Any of the other plans were more likely to succeed, but Council didn’t want something to succeed there. Now they throw their hands up and say, oh, well, we tried! Now that there’s a new Council I hope they’ll consider partnering with any one of the other groups for actual success like the hundreds of models like this across the country and around the world. And now that it seems the City has a problem with NU hosting live concerts for thousands of people just up the road, then there should be no problem hosting a small event for 150 people at Harley Clarke. That is, of course, unless the neighbors who tried to fund demolition decide they don’t want anything like that to happen there, and then we’re back to square one. Award the lease to the second place proposal and let’s watch some real magic happen in turning this spectacular beauty into the economic engine and stunning showcase it’s meant to be!

    3. I don’t disagree, but I think there might be better metaphors than referencing someone with blindness. I’m sure I’ve done the same thing though.

      1. Tear it down, expand the green space. Keep the lakefront forever free and clear, to be enjoyed by ALL people.