Safety concerns cause closing of history center

Nathalie Tadena

The Charles Dawes House, home of the Evanston History Center, is closed to visitors beginning today after engineers deemed the NU-owned building unsuitable for public gatherings.

The decision, made after Northwestern hired engineers to conduct an inspection, comes as a shock to the center’s trustees, who said they believe it is structurally sound and an integral part of the Evanston community.

“This is a decision NU has made that we are very upset about,” said Marge Wold, president of the center’s board of trustees. “However, they own the building and they can call the shots.”

Since 1960, the center has occupied the mansion of former U.S. Vice President Charles Dawes on 225 Greenwood St. NU acquired the building as a gift after Dawes’ death in 1951 and has leased the space out to the center rent-free. Wold said between 300 and 500 people visit the house annually.

The center’s lease on the property expired in January 2007 and was not extended because of “growing concerns that the building had some serious physical problems associated with it,” said Eugene Sunshine, NU’s vice president for business and finance.

“We can’t ignore the fact that we have physical limitations on the building that put people at risk,” Sunshine said.

Last fall, two engineering firms found the building did not meet the safety regulations expected for museums. The final report, released two weeks ago and presented to Evanston Fire Chief Alan Berkowsky, showed the building needed $4 million in repairs. It was presented to Evanston Fire Chief Alan Berkowsky.

The center was notified April 9 that the building could no longer be open for tours, lectures or public events starting this week. The center can still use it as office space, but must vacate by June 2009.

The decision “basically shuts us down,” Wold said.

A lecture next week and the center’s annual meeting were relocated to King Home, 1555 Oak Ave. The mansion had also already been booked for one couple’s wedding in May. NU will allow the wedding to take place on the property, but requested that the event be held under tents rather than inside the building.

The Dawes house documents the history of Evanston and also contains a portion of Dawes’ personal collection. NU keeps its collection of Dawes’ possessions – 300 boxes of Dawes’ business and career correspondences – in a special collection in the NU library, said Sigrid Pohl Perry, a library assistant who has been cataloguing Dawes’ work for many years.

The center is also exploring other venues to house its collection and thinking about raising money to buy and renovate the mansion, Wold said, adding that the house could cost between $5 million and $10 million.

NU is willing to help the center find another venue and expects the Dawes collection to stay with them, Sunshine said.

“It’s a daunting task, but it’s important for everyone concerned to get on thinking about it,” he said.

After June 2009, NU will either sell the house or use it as a residence for a university official.

“If we are not able to acquire the house and fix it up, it will be closed to the public and the public will never be able to see this wonderful, wonderful house – and that is a shame,” Wold said.

Wold said she has contacted many city officials and community members and will send letters to all Evanston History Center members in an effort to rally support for the center to remain in the Dawes building.

“People have called me and asked why are they doing this,” she said. “They’re beyond belief that NU would do this.”

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