Chandelier in a hall of the Clarke mansion                            RoundTable photo
Chandelier in a hall of the Clarke mansion
                           RoundTable photo

For the most part, Evanston officials have kept the City-owned Harley Clarke mansion sealed off from the public in recent years, with its status uncertain.

That is about to change, though, with a request for proposals issued May 16, seeking users for a long-term lease of the 20,275- square-foot lakefront mansion, located at 2603 Sheridan Rd.

Officials have mapped out a busy schedule of tours to show off the mansion and coach house, largely closed to the public since the Evanston Art Center moved out in 2015.

 Throughout the next nine months, officials have listed more than a dozen dates for tours of the building.

 The City is also planning two community meetings where parties interested in the building can share their ideas with the public and receive feedback, Assistant City Manager Erika Storlie said.

Starting up the process again, “I think there will be a lot of interest in this,” Ms. Storlie said, “because this is the third time we’ve done this, and there have been a lot of people contacting me in the past.”

Ms. Storlie, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz and others gave reporters an early view in a tour of the building May 16.

Constructed around 1927, the Harley Clarke mansion is regarded as the last of the large mansions built in Evanston before the stock market crash brought a halt to that period’s building boon. The mansion’s owner, Harley Clarke, was a utility company magnate who also dabbled in film.

The family’s fortunes took a downturn in the 1930s, resulting in sale of the building to the Sigma Chi fraternity organization in 1949. That group, besides using Harley Clarke as its residence, made the building its national headquarters.

 The fraternity ended up selling the property to the City in 1963.

Starting in 1966, the City leased the building at a $1-a-year cost to the Evanston Art Center.

Since the Art Center moved out, the City has pretty much kept the building “buttoned up,” said Mr. Bobkiewicz, before leading reporters on the tour. Annual maintenance runs to about $15,000, he said.

“There’s an asterisk to that,” added Ms. Storlie. If an item such as the building’s boiler goes out, “it’s going to be a much bigger cost.”

Some signs of the Art Center and fraternity’s previous use are still visible, said Mr. Bobkiewicz during the brisk tour, where lighting was at a minimum and rooms were mostly without furniture.

Many of the rooms “were either storage area or offices” for both the Art Center and Sigma Chi when those organizations were in the house, he said.

Many of the original features of the residence were also on view during the tour, including the mansion’s oak moldings, paneling and elegant curved staircase.

Local architect Ellen Galland, joining the tour at the request of the Evanston RoundTable, said she had last been in the building when the Art Center was still an occupant.

“An uninhabited building tends to deteriorate more quickly than one in use,” she said, taking note of conditions. “Delays in approving a suitable lessor are not good for the building.”

City Council members set a nine-month period to receive proposals through the request for proposal process, which closes at 2 p.m. Feb. 20, of next year. (More information about the process can be obtained at Cityofevanston.org/2603Sheridan.)

The request for proposals states that officials intend “to identify a qualified organization or individual to renovate and use the existing structures,” which, along with the mansion, include a 4,383-square- foot coach house and greenhouse, two apartments and a three-car garage.

In addition, proposals should include plans to protect and maintain the garden and landscape around the property originally designed by noted landscape architect Jens Jensen.

Along with a substantial renovation of the property, prospective users would be asked “to retain and protect the historic character of the buildings; address any potential parking issues; and include a public component in the space, such as cafe, museum, classes or meeting rooms.”

The public component “is at the imagination of the composer and the City has no specifications for what this could entail, but asks that it be a meaningful part of the proposal,” said officials, responding to suggestions of citizens in workshops earlier this year about finding new uses for the property.

“The public component should provide a place for the public to relax, play, eat, and shop, enjoy art/music/history/nature, meet or have a cultural experience, etc,” the RFP further said.

The City has come close to leasing or selling the property in the past, which included two previous requests for proposals.

In 2013, in the face of strong community outcry, the City backed off a plan to sell the property to a private group for conversion into a boutique hotel.

 That same year the Illinois Department of Natural Resources showed strong interest in using the building for the State’s coastal management program, but that proposal fell off the boards two years later with a change in the State administration.