Best-selling author Audrey Niffenegger shares her vision for an Artists Book House to go in at the City's lakefront Harley Clarke Mansion in a presentation  at a community meeting on Nov. 5.

Best-selling author Audrey Niffenegger shares her vision for an Artists Book House to go in at the City's lakefront Harley Clarke Mansion in a presentation  at a community meeting on Nov. 5.

An Artists Book House devoted to the book arts and a lakefront gathering place that could host a wide range of social and cultural events were the first two proposals put forth by advocates looking to reactivate the City’s shuttered Harley Clarke Mansion.

Best-selling author Audrey Niffenegger and a group of residents representing Evanston Community Lakehouse & Gardens presented their proposals to community members in the Parasol Room of the Morton Civic Center on Oct. 5.

Evanston officials sponsored the meeting, which was to give potential users of the building a chance to air their proposals and receive public feedback before formally submitting Request for Proposals to the City.

The new round of proposals was set in a motion by an advisory referendum in November 2018, in which residents voted overwhelmingly in opposition to the City demolishing the historic building and turning the property into green space.

In April of this year, aldermen, under considerable pressure from the community, agreed to set a nine-month process to find a new user for the mansion and grounds, located at 2603 Sheridan Road.

The deadline for Requests for Proposals to be submitted is Feb. 28, 2020.
In their proposals, both Ms. Niffenegger and Patrick Donnelly, who represented Evanston Lakehouse & Gardens, acknowledged that funding of their projects is still to be decided.

Beginning her presentation, Ms. Niffenegger, author of the best-selling “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” described her Artists Book House as a book shop, “but not the kind that you’re imagining – not a Barnes & Noble sort of bookshop that offers certain things that are commercially available.”

Rather, her proposed bookshop would expand that definition to a place totally devoted to Book Arts – writing, reading, printing, bookbinding, paper making, typography, poetry, fiction, memoirs, comics, zines and more – she said in in her presentation.

“Anything you can think of that is encompassed by the idea of writing, including things like calligraphy, can be part of this idea,” she said.

Her plans call for a library, bookshop, gallery and a cafe. Ms. Niffenegger’s  vision includes a paper-making garden in the mansion’s conservatory, where participants would produce paper from plants grown on the grounds.

The process in itself “is so water-oriented,” she said, “the indoors and outdoors could become fairly seamless. And the evolution of plants from growing in the garden, looking fabulous, and eventually harvested and turned into paper would be something that people could come and watch,” she said.

Ms. Niffenegger, who has already lined up Eifler & Associates, Architects, and Teska Associates, Landscape Architects & Planners, for preliminary designs on the project, was asked about the project’s funding.

“I’ve got a good amount of money on my own that I’m willing to put into this,” she said, “but I’m still running around trying to convince other people that this [idea] is fabulous.”

“We’re still working on nailing down hard numbers for what this is going to cost” she said, noting “it’s hard to get massive funding when you don’t actually have the house.”

Setting the tone for the Evanston Lake House group, Carlis Sutton, serving as moderator, announced that “to have access to such a wonderful treasure is our main commitment.”

Mr. Donnelly expanded on the group’s makeup.

“We are a community group; we are not a private entity,” he said. “We are a group of citizens who basically are familiar with Harley Clarke. 

“The City has one facility on the lake. Why wouldn’t we use it for the community? It was originally purchased with taxpayer money. It was turned into an art center when the City said, ‘What should we do to benefit the community?’ It was then maintained with community money. 

“To us it’s a no-brainer,” he continued. “Let’s use it for the community – let’s fill it up with really great possibilities.”

Some of the uses, he said, “could be workshops, seasonal gatherings and events, birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, baby showers – a meeting place for nonprofits for corporate events.

“If you can,”’ he suggested to the good-sized audience, “imagine a cafe [out] on a lakefront patio, [a place] to sit by the lake and enjoy yourself.”

He said the Request for Proposal that the group will submit to the City will include a long-term revenue plan that will commit to raising up to $400,000 a year.

The group is also committed to hiring staff and keeping the building maintained. “We appear to be one of the primary groups that understands that this building, the mansion, will require up to $4 million for a rehab,” he said.

He declared the work should be done correctly and would “not be a patch job,” seeing that the building is ADA- [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliant, with “sprinkler systems, proper exits and great uses for the space.”

Bill Brown, another speaker for the group, had previously overseen projects at the Chicago Botanical Gardens as well as the Lincoln Park Zoo.

He said the mansion, closed since the Evanston Art Center moved out in 2015, is “not in bad shape.”

“Has it been neglected in some areas? Yes,” he said. “But in terms of the kind of work that needs to be done, what it might cost – it is well worth the asset that is in place now and what it could become when you complete the work.”

He said the work would have to be done in phases, as in other large projects of that scale.

Cost?

“It is an expensive proposition. You can guess anywhere between $5 and $10 million, or throw a dart at the money board,” he said, suggesting it was too early to know.

“The first priority should be to get some uses going in the space,” he said. “But, really, the exterior is not in terrible shape; the foundations are good.”

There is much to be positive about, he suggested.