The Fate of Harley Clarke


[Rachel Freundt/Chicago Patterns]

Although Evanston Alderman Anne Rainey called the Harley Clarke Mansion a “bundle of bricks,” the house is so much more than that. It is a National Historic Landmark, a part of the Northeast Evanston Historic District, and a lakefront jewel that perfectly symbolizes Evanston’s community, character, and history. It is also a piece of many people’s childhoods, mine included. Nearly thirty years ago, I attended art classes there when the mansion housed the Evanston Arts Center. I’d like to think spending time in the Clarke Mansion is what influenced my love of architecture and old houses.

Now, the mansion faces demolition at the hands of a short-sighted Evanston City Council and a secretive, possibly self-serving group of nearby residents who want to see it obliterated. A tenacious group of local activists continue to organize to save it.

I never thought a legally-protected piece of architectural history, a piece of my youth, could meet such a fate in a town that usually prides itself on environmental sustainability and historic preservation. It is absolutely appalling that Evanston aldermen voted to move forward with the home’s demolition, even though 2,100 petition signatures opposed such a decision. As resident Frederick Weinstein said at the Evanston City Council meeting this past Monday night of the home’s possible demolition, “It will be a wound that will not heal and it will be an absence that we all feel.”

“I’m so mad about this. I worked for the art center, proposed to [my wife] there, spent countless hours in the building making art and helping teach and being inspired. It is such a special place. Not just for me but almost every Evanstonian I know. Just being on the grounds makes me feel like I’ve stepped into a storybook. With the money being offered to tear it down, couldn’t it be used to stabilize and preserve the home until the city figures out what else could be done with it? Shame on the city council for not stepping up. This building could be used for so many different things. Any investment into its preservation is money well spent. It sounds like the folks who want to raze it are just looking for a sunrise view that they can’t afford.” – Alex Tweedie

Rear lakefront facade. [Rachel Freundt/Chicago Patterns]

Clarke Coach House. [Rachel Freundt/Chicago Patterns]

How did this happen? The group Evanston Lighthouse Dunes is offering $400,000 towards the destruction of the mansion and its coach house in order to restore the Jens Jensen-designed garden and the dunes to their natural state. The group also claims there will be no liability issues for the city, no prolonged construction periods and no additional fundraising required. The group says they just want to “honor the lakefront as a place where the community, nature and history come together.”

But is this really their objective? Or does this have more to do with their own lake views, and their distaste for continued public use of a neighboring mansion?  Six of the involved households are located directly across the street from Harley Clarke, while nine live within a quarter mile of it. Something is drastically wrong when a handful of wealthy individuals get to decide the fate of public property. Historic preservation should not be privatized, and the decision of what to do with this publicly-owned treasure should not be left to the self-serving whims of those who would most benefit from its destruction.

[Rachel Freundt/Chicago Patterns]

The mansion’s conservatory. [Rachel Freundt/Chicago Patterns]

The story of the 16-room home began in 1927 when Boston architect Richard Powers, inspired by both the French Eclectic style and the English Cotswolds, designed the mansion for utilities magnate Harley Clarke, who was worth $60 million at the time of its construction, and his wife Hildur Freeman. Located on five lakefront acres, Clarke’s 37,700-square-foot estate includes a spacious glass conservatory, ballroom, third-floor media room, basement rumpus room, and coach house. The limestone mansion also boasts six towering chimneys, a red Ludovici tile roof and a spectacular curving stair hall. The last house of its size to be completed before the 1929 stock market crash, the mansion won a design award from the Evanston Art Commission.

Close-up of the curving staircase. [Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

Historic view of the staircase and library. [North Shore Chicago: Houses of the Lakefront Suburbs 1890-1940]

Close-up of the Clarke Mansion. [Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

Unfortunately, the wealth did not last for Clarke as he struggled with creditors during the Great Depression, and eventually was forced to sell the property in 1949 to the Sigma Chi fraternity, who used it as their national headquarters. In 1964 the property was purchased by the City of Evanston to create a public park and beachfront for the community. Shortly after the purchase, the city leased the mansion to the Evanston Arts Center for $1.00 per year with the intention of promoting art and culture, which they did for over 50 years. The main-floor rooms were converted to exhibition galleries and the second-floor bedrooms and third-floor ballrooms were used as classrooms.

[Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

[Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

It’s not just a beautiful house. The integrated landscaping, also slated to be destroyed, reflects the naturalistic sensibilities of Jens Jensen, master landscape designer of the Prairie School movement. Ornate pressed-metal cisterns gather rainwater from the roof, and stone walls curve gracefully along the contours of the lakefront site, leading to one of Jensen’s signature council rings surrounded by a stand of trees. The elegant presence of the mansion and its landscaping enhance, rather than detract from, the presence of the adjacent Grosse Point Lighthouse.

[Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

[Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

The house has been included in a number of books, like “Evanston: 150 Years, 150 Places,” which chose buildings based on not only architectural significance but also their importance to Evanston. A number of pages were devoted to the mansion in Stuart Cohen and Susan Benjamin’s “North Shore Chicago: Houses of the Lakefront Suburbs 1890-1940.”

Jens Jensen-designed walkway leading towards Lake Michigan. [Eric Allix Rogers/Chicago Patterns]

A number of reuse proposals were on table when the Evanston Arts Center moved into a brand new building. In 2013 aldermen voted down a plan by Jennifer Pritzker to convert the mansion into a boutique hotel, after residents objected that it would put a key chunk of the city’s public lakefront in private hands, which now seems ironic, all things considered. Last April, the council turned down a proposal from the nonprofit Evanston Lakehouse & Gardens, a group formed specifically to restore the mansion, to make it an environmental education center. Aldermen expressed concerns that the group might not reach its multi-million dollar fundraising goals.

“This is not progress, this is a demolition of the past based on purely selfish reasons. Thousands of people signed a petition to keep the Harley Clarke Mansion here. You did not vote in favor of the people. You voted for your own interests. Shame on you, Anne Rainey, for standing against history and destroying a valuable artifact of our past. You will forever be remembered for this. You call yourself a ‘public servant,’ when there is nothing about this vote that acts in the interest of the public. I am sick of the argument of ‘it’s just one house.’ That’s what they say about every single one!”  – Alina Taber

“Save The People’s Mansion!” [Save Harley Clarke/]

There is still hope for the Clarke Mansion. Alderman Tom Suffredin floated the idea for a nonbinding referendum on this November’s ballot, and on Monday, Suffredin said that preservation supporters were close to gathering and submitting the number of signatures needed to get the initiative on the ballot.

In a town of almost 75,000 people, why do 41 so-called “concerned citizens” get to determine the fate of this historic home? Let all Evanstonians decide!

Take Action Learn how you can sign the ballot petition in person if you live in Evanston, or how to support the effort to save Harley Clarke in other ways!

7 responses to “The Fate of Harley Clarke”

  1. Great article, thank you!

  2. Ben Gasbarra says:

    Beautiful Article. Harley Clarke had a similar effect on me. It started my path as an artist and developed my appreciation for historic homes. To me, it’s backbone of the historic district, providing structure and continuity to the rest of the homes.

  3. Deborah says:

    Thanks for the article, really fine work. We collected more than 3,300 signatures in ten days from every Ward in Evanston!

  4. Thank you so much for this article. I’m not certain why when people (over 150 Evanstonians signed up to speak specifically to save this building), the people whose salaries are paid for by those same speakers chose not to listen to them. Peter Braithwaite spoke passionately about helping people and kids less fortunate whose needs might not be addressed (because this building is left standing?)…a non-profit group like the Lakehouse and Gardens has raised money in excess of what the private demo group are offering. The council said pledges are not actual money, despite the fact that GoFundMe and Kickstarter groups’ successes are based on pledges. I invite the council to check out the donor wall at the Chicago Botanic Gardens. Aesthetics of our resources are important to many people. And the talented artists who learned their crafts at the Harley Clarke Mansion and spoke so passionately about saving it, should be listened to! Expertise IS important! It was mean-spirited of Alderman Rainey to disparage that by saying, “they could learn to paint anywhere!” discounting the value of inspiration from a romantic setting. The house was wrested from Sigma Chi by a talented sculptor named Katy O’Neil. The administrators of the Art Center were not artists and the decision to build a new building was decided by an administrator, not by the “very divided” board. The city should have either budgeted for its upkeep or insisted that the Art Center maintain it in exchange for its sweetheart deal of the $1 yearly rental.
    The place is still a jewel and should present the city with an exciting opportunity to have a public building with innovative programs benefitting Evanstonians and visitors to the city.

  5. Slim schramm says:

    This is a wonderful article, & the pictures are great…Much to my regret, I am no longer an Evanston resident which I was for 60 years…I took classes at the art center many years, the conservatory was the sculpture studio, what you are calling the rumpus room I took a ceramic class, & in the ballroom took a drawing…My daughter & granddaughter both took classes…We had great teachers, & made many new friends…It makes me very sad for all these neighbors who want this wonderful house to be torn down…What can they be thinking?

  6. Ann Jennett says:

    This is not the Berlin Wall and should not be torn down! City Council: DON’T TEAR DOWN THAT BEAUTIFUL BUILDING!
    I, too, have wonderful memories of being in the Harley Clarke mansion…. both as an art student where I did my best paintings, perhaps inspired by the setting, and attended various lovely, fun events there. But most important, I took some of my low income Youth Job Center clients there , just to see the place in its lakefront grandeur.. as part of an inspirational experience that involved eye opening job shadowing and Evanston “field trips”, sometimes concluding with a lunch or dinner in an Evanston restaurant… an experience many had not had. Harley Clarke “Castle” as they called it was a high point of these vision creating “adventures “ … along with meeting the then African American president of the bank in his elegant office! Let our schoolchildren have a chance at “having” an inspirational house on the lake…
    Some of the demolitionists already have one!
    I support Evanston Lake House and Garden’s educational and creative plans… but if not them, then at least mothball the beautiful place until some wise and visionary plan comes along. You can not replace that historic beauty once it becomes a pile of rubble sadly heaped on the grounds, creating just another open space of which Evanston ,fortunately ,already has many and those North End lakefront parks and beaches are used primarily by surrounding neighborhoods, and not the WHOLE community… which the mansion, once public, could conceivably be! PLEASE SAVE IT!!

  7. Nancy Sreenan says:

    Thank you for the great article and excellent photos. Both argue well for preserving the Harley Clarke mansion.

    Meanwhile, how is the following timeline not suspect?:
    Nov. 2017: City Council agrees to enter into lease negotiations with the not-for-profit Evanston Lakehouse and Gardens (ELHG).
    March 2018: City revises preservation ordinance regarding tear downs of historic properties in order to make such tear downs easier.
    April 2018: City council rejects lease with ELHG, *and* shuts down further negotiations
    May 2018: The demolition group, made up of Harley Clarke neighbors first appears on the *public’s* radar
    July 2018: City council agrees to enter into a “memorandum of understanding” with the demolition group, despite the fact that they downgraded the more generous terms of their initial offer between their presentation in May 2018 and City’s acceptance?

    Why the fast track for one group, unregistered with the State, and the dismissal of ELHG which has worked hard and in in good faith since 2015? Why is it OK to entertain the idea of private citizens demolishing public property? The City and public must decide. If demolition is the decision, then it’s the City who must issue an RFP.

    And the big question I can’t get out of my head: Why wouldn’t the demo group give their $400K to the not-for-profit ELHG? or any NFP for that matter?

    I wholeheartedly support ELHG’s proposal!

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