The second referendum question on the ballot is advisory only. That is, the results will express the opinion of voters but not mandate any action on the City’s part.
The question deals with the future of the mansion at 2603 Sheridan Road, built in 1927 by businessman Harley Clarke, with gardens by Jens Jensen.
“Shall the City of Evanston protect from demolition and preserve the landmark Harley Clarke buildings and gardens next to Lighthouse Beach, for use and access as public property, consistent with the Evanston Lakefront Master Plan, at minimal or no cost to Evanston taxpayers?”
The City purchased the property in 1963 and leased it to the Evanston Art Center for some 40 years. Neither the City nor the Art Center took the trouble to maintain this asset, however.
The Evanston Art Center relocated to 1717 Central St., and shortly afterward City Council members began negotiations with Tawani Enterprises to rehab the mansion and convert it to a boutique hotel. In 2013, Council agreed not to sell the 2.5-acre property to Tawani Enterprises.
For a brief period in 2014-15, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources discussed options with the City to use the property for a teaching center with office space as a branch of its Coastal Management Program.
Having just promised residents they would not sell the building, Council members sought a long-term lease with IDNR. IDNR apparently remained firm in its wish to purchase the property, and the City continued to push for the lease.
When the lease negotiations fell apart, Evanstonians took up the challenge of the future of the mansion. Groups of residents have emerged with ideas for the future of the site that, they each say, would cost the City little or no money.
One nonprofit group, Evanston Lakehouse and Gardens, was near to signing a lease with the City to upgrade the mansion and turn it into an education center. The group was not able to meet the City’s demand that it raise $5 million, and the Council did not approve the lease.
A second group, Evanston Lighthouse Dunes, then appeared, composed primarily of residents who live near the mansion.
The members have promised to donate up to $400,000 to the City, which they would cover the cost of razing the mansion and retouching the landscape.
After the Lakehouse and Gardens deal with the City fell apart, some from that group threw their support to yet another group mounting a campaign to save the mansion – Save Harley Clarke.
So far City Council has sided with the other group, Evanston Lighthouse Dunes, and is pursing permission from the City’s Preservation Commission to demolish the building. City Council can overrule any finding by the Preservation Commission.
Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky and State Representatives Laura Fine and Robyn Gabel have all asked the City to spend more time to explore all alternatives to demolition. Other organizations, including The National Trust for Historic Preservation, Landmarks Illinois, Open Lands and The Cultural Landscape Foundation have lent their support to preserving the mansion.