City Council requests separate leases for Harley Clarke Mansion


Daily file photo by Evan Robinson-Johnson

City Council requested two separate leases for the Harley Clarke Mansion at its Oct. 10 meeting.

Zhizhong Xu, Reporter

City Council requested the Administration & Public Works Committee work out two separate leases for the Harley Clarke Mansion and its garden during its Oct. 10 meeting. 

Designed by pioneering Prairie style landscape architect Jens Jensen, Harley Clarke Mansion is registered as a National Historic Landmark. Evanston-based nonprofit The Jens Jensen Garden in Evanston has been working to refurbish the mansion’s surrounding garden, which includes the stonework of famed landscape architect Alfred Caldwell. 

Artists Book House, a local nonprofit, recently secured a 40-year lease on the Harley Clarke mansion. The Council was primarily concerned about the feasibility of the Artists Book House’s current funding model ahead of reopening the mansion. 

During the meeting, “The Time Traveler’s Wife” author Audrey Niffenegger, president and founder of Artists Book House, encouraged councilmembers to vote on revising the lease’s funding goals.

Niffenegger spent the summer revising fundraising benchmarks with the project manager and architect. The original fundraising benchmark for the organization was $2 million by May of 2022, but the amendment proposed changing the target to $1 million by Dec. 31, which Niffenegger said is achievable.

Charles Smith, president of The Jens Jensen Garden in Evanston, asked City Council during the meeting to table any action regarding the lease. 

“Recently, we’ve been engaged in conversations with the city and with (Artists) Book House that may result in some additional alterations to the lease,” Smith said.

However, Smith said he still hopes the Artists Book House has “phenomenal success” in transforming the house into a place for educational programming and public use.

Ald. Eleanor Revelle (7th) supported amending the fundraising targets at the meeting, saying the revised benchmarks were more realistic. 

“When the lease was first signed with Artists Book House, the fundraising targets that were set were pretty much aspirational and not really grounded in reality,” Revelle said.

Niffenegger encouraged Council to vote on amending the lease’s funding benchmarks at the meeting, so the lease language can reflect what the Artist Book House “can actually accomplish.”

In lieu of passing the financial proposals at the meeting, Ald. Clare Kelly (1st) proposed separating the leases and sending the issue back to Administration & Public Works, which meets on Monday. The Council approved the motion 5-2, so the committee will discuss separating the leases. 

Kelly was also part of the nonprofit Evanston Community Lakehouse and Gardens, one of four groups that originally tried to lease the mansion in 2020.

Niffenegger said Artists Book House recently formed a relationship with local consulting group Sprout Partnerships to support its fundraising efforts. She said Artists Book House has two new board members who have development experience and is in the process of hiring an executive director.

Niffenegger said she encourages Evanston residents and Northwestern students to visit Harley Clarke Mansion and schedule group tours through the Artists Book House website.

“My sense is that there’s plenty of people in Evanston who really care about this place and would really like this to happen,” Niffenegger said. “The only thing that’s stopping us from getting into gear is that we need to somehow meet these people.”

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