Groups present possible uses for Harley Clarke Mansion


Jacob Fulton/The Daily Northwestern

Evanston Community Lakehouse and Gardens board member Bill Brown. Brown presented to members of the Evanston community about his group’s new plan for the Harley Clarke Mansion.

Jacob Fulton, Reporter

Two groups on Tuesday presented possible plans for the Harley Clarke Mansion to Evanston residents, ushering in a new period of discussion and debate about the building’s fate.

The Harley Clarke Mansion, located at 2603 Sheridan Rd., has been vacant since 2015 when the Evanston Art Center left the property. Since then, the City Council has struggled to find a use for the mansion. Proposed plans for a hotel, an environmental education center and demolition of the building have all been denied. The city began a third request for proposal period on May 16. It will end in February.

After a pre-proposal bid meeting where interested parties could attend and ask logistical questions about the proposal process, two groups — Evanston Community Lakehouse and Artists’ Book House — presented their ideas to attendees.

Though other groups can submit their ideas for the mansion until Feb. 28, when the request for proposal period ends, Susie Hall, a management analyst for the city, said the two that attended have been the only groups the city has heard from so far.

Hall said this meeting is the first of its kind when it comes to proposals for the property. The city did not hold similar meetings during the previous two RFP periods.

“We’ve never done this before with any of the requests for proposals that we’ve had for Harley Clark,” Hall said. “We know that the community wants to be a big part of what happens at the mansion. We wanted to make sure that there was an opportunity for the proposers to show their proposal, but also for the community to hear them and get an idea of what’s out there.”

Evanston Community Lakehouse and Gardens shared a reworked plan after their initial proposal was denied in 2018 in favor of a demolition plan. In a referendum held last November, residents overwhelmingly voted to preserve the mansion for public use, a result which is not legally binding.

Evanston Community Lakehouse and Gardens board member Bill Brown said the group has deviated somewhat from the plan the city denied. Both plans wanted to preserve the building for public use, but Brown said the new one focuses more on engagement within the community and incorporating ideas that citizens have presented to them.

“It is well-worth the asset that is in place now, and what it will become when you do that work,” Brown said. “It will be a vibrant, active place with many different uses.”

The organization Artists’ Book House hopes to turn the mansion into a literary center for Evanston and the Chicago area. Founder Audrey Niffenegger, an Evanston-based based author of novels, including “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” said her plans will transform the mansion into a multi-functional space for community members to appreciate many facets of the literary world.

Some elements of the plan included a paper-making center in the conservatory, a cafe facing the lake and a variety of printing presses in the basement. Niffenegger said the prospective layout would also include a library of rare books.

“The idea behind the organization is that we are all about the book,” Niffenegger said. “If you want to make a book, if you’re interested in writing, if you’re interested in paper-making, installation work, sound — we’re interdisciplinary.”

Hill said the event was intended to assist both groups in evaluating their next steps as they approach the Feb. 28 proposal deadline.

“I hope the questions the community asked of both of the proposals was beneficial to them,” Hall said. “They now have three more months to tweak their ideas, and take that feedback and have a really great response to offer to the city.”

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