2603 Sheridan Road without the Harley Clarke mansion. Submitted image

2603 Sheridan Road without the Harley Clarke mansion. Submitted image

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, asked that City Council consider an “immediate resolution” to be prepared by City Staff that would accept an offer from a community group to deconstruct the Harley Clarke mansion and restore the site to its natural state. The referral came after the group offered to pay all costs of deconstruction and site restoration during public comment at the May 29 City Council meeting.

The group, Evanston Lighthouse Dunes, is led by Nicole Kustok and Jeff Coney. In a prepared statement they said they are “members of a group of volunteers representing all wards, ages and socioeconomic groups in Evanston. We honor the lakefront as the place where the community, nature and history come together, a place where all Evanstonians can gather to learn, play and celebrate.

“We are here tonight to offer Evanston a gift from these citizens – an opportunity to restore the natural dunes, beach and parkland as part of a new public space with the iconic Grosse Point Lighthouse, a national historic landmark, as its centerpiece,” said Mr. Coney.

In an email to the RoundTable, Ms. Kustok wrote, “We have been working on this for over a year… and our hope is to gift the City with the funds to accomplish what we think is the only truly inclusive and fiscally sound answer to this long debate – sustainable green space. The amount we’ve raised exceeds bids for deconstruction, regrading and naturalizing the site.”

The plan would remove the mansion and coach house, but the use of recently renovated fog houses would be expanded. “... the current Ecology Center and District 65 programming at the fog houses are under-utilized and can be expanded once there is even more open space for all children to learn from and explore,” wrote Ms. Kustok.

“This is a spot with astonishing natural beauty and great historic significance that predates even the Lighthouse itself,” said Mr. Coney. He then quoted historian Viola Crouch Reeling and lighthouse keeper Donald J. Terras, describing journeys by French explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet at Lighthouse Landing. “[A]s the men swung their canoes around the point where the lighthouse stands, the artist soul of Joliet and Marquette’s keen eye must have delighted in the beauty of that point…” he said, quoting Ms. Reeling.

The fate of the Harley Clarke Mansion has confounded Evanston’s City Council since at least 2011, when City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz first proposed “alternative uses” including actively exploring selling the mansion. At the time, Mr. Bobkiewicz told Council that “current deferred capital projects for the building exceed $400,000.”

Since 2011, estimated costs to return the building to code have soared, with recent estimates ranging from between $1.5 million and $5 million. Facing a budget crisis, Council has shown no appetite for spending any money at all on the mansion.

Last year, Council recently voted to allow another group of citizens, the Evanston Lakehouse and Gardens not-for-profit, to explore a long term lease of the premises provided the group could raise enough money to restore the mansion. But when the proposed lease came before Council in the spring, fundraising targets and insurance issues, along with a general skepticism and issue fatigue among some members of the Council, combined to derail the proposed lease. Council voted against entering into the lease on April 9.

Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, responded to Ald. Rainey’s request for a resolution by defending the ELHG group. “It is premature to talk about deconstructing the Harley Clarke Mansion,” she said. Council members have been in communication with ELHG and reached an informal arrangement under which they will give the group one year to raise $1 million in cash-on-hand. If ELHG can reach that target, the lease would be reconsidered.

It appears Council will face a choice, and one community group will be pitted against another. “It is time to move forward, and this is a limited time offer,” said Ald. Rainey, clearly staking out her position in the debate.

Ms. Kustok told the RoundTable that although her group has been working on a natural restoration solution for more than a year, they waited to bring their proposal forward until after Council voted on the ELGH lease. They did not want to compete or interfere with that group’s proposal, just to offer an alternative solution should Council decide not to move forward with the ELHG lease.

The natural restoration resolution will be back before Council on June 18 – a meeting likely to last well into the early morning hours of June 19.

Proposal presented at the May 29 City Council meeting, statement submitted to the RoundTable

We are Nicole Kustok and Jeff Coney-  members of a group of volunteers representing all wards, ages, and socioeconomic groups in Evanston. We honor the lakefront as the place where the community, nature and history come together, a place where all Evanstonians can gather to learn, play and celebrate.

We are here tonight to offer Evanston a gift from these citizens- an opportunity to restore the natural dunes, beach and parkland as part of a new public space with the iconic Grosse Point Lighthouse, a national historic landmark, as its centerpiece.

This is a spot with astonishing natural beauty and great historical significance that predates even the Lighthouse itself.

In her book published in 1928, Evanston, Its Land and Beginnings, historian Viola Crouch Reeling described how Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet disembarked at Lighthouse Landing. She wrote:

“Never getting far from land, but hugging the shore of this lake with their canoes, the travelers, no doubt, gazed with admiration on the lofty oaks, tamaracks and other varieties of trees that dotted the length of Evanston’s holdings of today....as the men swung their canoes around the point where the lighthouse stands, the artist soul of Joliet and Marquette’s keen eye must have delighted in the beauty of that point, a point so beautiful that it gained the name from sailors in a later day of ‘Beauty’s Eyebrow.’”

She is describing the Grosse Point Lighthouse- site on the City's treasured lakefront. Quite an image for us to reflect on today.

In The Grosse Point Lighthouse, by Donald J. Terras in 1995, the author writes that, "Father Marquette paddled south along the western shore of Lake Michigan on his second voyage to the Chicago region. He was accompanied by two French companions and a band of Potawatomi and Illinois Indians…On December 3, Marquette made an entry in his diary indicating that the party was besieged by fog and was ‘compelled to make a point and land.’ Marquette’s map of the region.... strongly indicates that this famous wilderness pioneer camped on Grosse Point the night of December 3, 1674.

Recognizing centuries-old significance of this site, we realize that we have a opportunity to make it come alive again today and to broaden the appeal of this space for all of Evanston. Our vision is to restore the dunes to their natural state, to deconstruct the house and coach house and to utilize the two recently-renovated fog houses as environmental labs and classrooms for Evanston children.  

The mansion and coach house now obstruct both the lake and lighthouse from public view. We envision restoring key elements of Jens Jensen's historic 1920's garden and integrating them into the natural landscape while clearing and expanding the parkland and beach for the free enjoyment of all members of our City.

The primary goal of the City's Lakefront Master Plan, which the Council unanimously approved in 2008, is to preserve and enhance the lakefront's natural environment. Our plan is completely consistent with the community's consensus vision for Evanston and our most precious natural resource.

We are ready to move forward. Our gift has been secured through the generous contributions of numerous residents- no additional fundraising is required. No liability issues will persist and no prolonged construction period will be needed.  We are eager to meet with the city to finalize details so that we can move ahead.

We hope you share our vision and will act favorably on our offer. The future of this park and its dunes and beach have been debated for the last seven years.  It is time for a new vision. We look forward to working with you and the city’s garden and green space groups on what we think will be a wonderful project for Evanston.

Thank you for your consideration.