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February 16, 2019

9/7/2016 2:19:00 PM
Guest Essay: Evanston's Best Idea for the Clarke Mansion: Lakehouse & Gardens
A Guest Essay By Tom Hodgman, Evanston Lakehouse

The Harley Clarke House and grounds were purchased by the City of Evanston in 1965 to create Lighthouse Landing Park and secure access for Lighthouse Beach.  Now, 50 years later, the Park is unique among Evanston parks sitting at the intersection of four ecosystems – lake, beach, dunes and the Jens Jensen Gardens – and Lighthouse Beach is the most visited beach in Evanston with over 34,000 visitors per year. Together they comprise one of Evanston’s great public spaces.  However, standing in stark contrast, the Harley Clarke House and coach house sit empty, unused, and in need of restoration and repurposing.  

This year is also the 100-year anniversary of our National Parks, called America’s “best idea” by Wallace Stegner. While we don’t have National Parks here in Evanston, we do have our public parks, and none are more spectacular than the Lighthouse Landing complex – and it belongs to us all. In today’s age of enormous inequality, places like Lighthouse Landing and Harley Clarke are our most democratic spaces. It is a place where no matter your income, race or social status you can gather with friends and family at a lakefront mansion. Not everyone can afford their own house on the lake, but in Evanston we are fortunate enough to have a Lakehouse that belongs to all of us.

We, the Board and Advisory Board of Evanston Lakehouse & Gardens (ELHG) advocate for saving Harley Clarke and have put forward an adaptive reuse plan for the building that lives up to these ideals, including a revenue plan that pays for staff, operations, and maintenance. ELHG wants to create an inspiring place for all of Evanston that enhances education, recreation, and cultural tourism opportunities in our City. Our plan has the following elements:

• Restore and repurpose the Harley Clarke building (not demolish, as proposed by some elected officials);

• A commitment to socially and economically inclusive programming that will be inviting to people from all corners of our community;

• The building and surrounding Jens Jensen gardens will remain open to the public;

• ELHG will provide and promote environmental education, outdoor recreation, cultural tourism, and community meeting space;

• Renting the building for events and meetings as well as renting space to a planned light-fare café to support the non-profit operations of the property. 

All of these elements are consistent with the Lakefront Master Plan, which was unanimously approved in 2008 by City Council, including a waterfront trail/boat launch, events and a café. Many of the same council members today have the opportunity to implement that plan. The environmental theme – including education, exhibits, interpretive signage in the gardens – is consistent with the City’s sustainability initiatives and branding.

On Aug. 3, ELHG participated in an Open House at Harley Clarke. We had a team of builders, architects, and tradespeople present, including Kihm Residential, Thomas O’Connor Associates, Landmarks Illinois, Wiss Janney Elstner Associates, and WWBrown Inc to conduct an assessment of the building with our vision in mind. Based on these experts’ opinions, the house is in serviceable condition, and no immediate structural repairs are required. 

On Sept. 12, we understand that City Council will consider allocating funds in the FY17 budget to bring the building up to code, and allow the Parks and Recreation Department and other interested groups to use the building.  We support this positive step that will allow the community to get a sense of some of the exciting new programs and uses of the building. 

Moving forward, we are committed to partnering with the City to combine our resources, talents and energy.  We have been told that the City does not have the resources, or will, to fund the full restoration, and believe we can leverage the City’s limited resources to attract funds from government grants, foundations, and individuals to create an exciting, useful lakefront facility to culturally enrich and economically benefit Evanston. Under a partnership with ELHG, the City could retain access to the restored building for activities such as Ecology and Aquatics Camps.

Ultimately, Harley Clarke’s fate rests in the hands of City Council, which has an opportunity to leave an enduring legacy for our public spaces.  When Council discusses Harley Clarke on Sept. 12, we hope they will be guided by the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.

The Harley Clarke house and grounds are the inheritance of all Evanstonians, and it must remain so for future generations.  ELHG has a plan to enhance and sustain that inheritance for the next century.  

Now is the time for each of us to do our part.  Please call or email your alderperson and let them know you support these efforts to create a Lakehouse for everyone; make a donation; get involved. Find us on Facebook, Twitter, or on the web at

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