[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]
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]
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
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!
saveharleyclarke.org: 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!