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July 20, 2018

11/1/2017 4:38:00 PM
Evanston Lakehouse & Gardens Creates Plan for ALL of Evanston
Guest Essay by Tom Hodgman

For the past several years, Evanston residents, City Staff and City Council have been on a quest to discover what the next chapter will be for the Harley Clarke house, formerly the Evanston Arts Center. Evanston Lakehouse & Gardens (ELHG), a 501c3 not-for-profit, was established three years ago after the mayoral-appointed Harley Clarke Committee was inconclusive after several months of exploration.  Our home-grown group formed with a goal to do something proactive, to improve our community, and help bring resolution to this longstanding debate with a creative solution that would benefit everyone. We’ve come a long way since then, and now stand as the sole respondent to the City’s RFP. We think our plan has real merit and urge City Council to vote yes on ELHG.

Our board consists of historic building managers, landscape architects, educators, conservationists, finance professionals, writers, film producers, attorneys and fundraisers – a diverse group representative of our unique community. For the past three years, we have been hard at work with tremendous input, refining our plan and vision. We have participated in all of the processes outlined by the City. Most recently, a second Harley Clarke Planning Committee (including the Parks & Recreation Board and Lighthouse Landing Committee) recommended our plan to City Council following nine months of detailed review of the ELHG plan. 

Our proposal outlines the many benefits the Lakehouse would provide to all Evanstonians, culturally, educationally, and economically.  Our plan creates a high quality public use, consistent with Evanston’s 2008 Lakefront Master Plan; Retains and protects the historic character of the buildings; addresses potential parking issues; and accommodates existing public spaces and recreation areas to ensuring community access consistent with Open Space zoning.

In addition to restoring and repurposing a local architectural icon, we plan to develop new programs focused on experiential, environmental education and history that leverage the building’s landmark status and setting next to Lake Michigan, the dunes, and the historically significant Jens Jensen Gardens. More than 20 varied organizations, from Landmarks Illinois to LakeDance  and from neighbors to Northwestern’s Center for Water Research, have written letters in support of our concept.  Our full proposal can be viewed at

To date, we have secured more than $100,000 in financial commitments towards the estimated $5 million project, and we are eager to launch a full fundraising campaign. We are very grateful to our generous supporters for their commitments to date, and look forward to providing current and new supporters the certainty a lease with the City will provide for them to become anchor donors.

We believe that the right questions to ask regarding ambitious community development projects, like ELHG, are. “Is this a strong plan? Is this good for the community? Does the community support it?”  Through the Harley Clarke Planning Committee and now the RFP process, we have shown that the answers to those questions regarding ELHG are YES. If the standard for community projects is to have all the capital in hand up-front, many important and highly beneficial projects would never get off the ground. With commitment from the City to enter a long-term lease, we can provide the certainty and confidence necessary to secure significant funding from supporters.  

As we have written in this paper before, our public lakefront is one of our most democratic spaces – the analog of our national parks at a local level.  While not everyone is able to have their own house on the lake, in Evanston we are lucky enough to have a Lakehouse that belongs to all of us.  A place where, no matter your income, race, or status, you can enjoy the best of Evanston. We believe that a repurposed Harley Clarke is the best way to connect with and engage Evanston’s diverse population. There is something special about an award-winning French Eclectic building, surrounded by a landscape designed by pioneering landscape architect Jens Jensen, that transitions to the shores of Lake Michigan – part of the largest freshwater system in the world. A place where the built and natural environment co-exist and blend together, creating more opportunities and inspiring more creativity than either does in isolation.

It’s been a long journey, but we’ve jumped every hurdle and landed here, answering the City’s RFP with a strong proposal for success. We urge the Council to say YES to this exciting plan. We can do this together, and look forward to making history along with all of you.

For more information, or to get involved, visit us at, or attend the Nov. 13 City Council meeting. We’re eager to begin the next phase of work and invite you to join us.

Mr. Hodgman is President of the Board of Evanston Lakehouse & Gardens.

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