Harley Clarke Mansion faces uncertain future as Artists Book House withdraws from project


Daily file photo by Evan Robinson-Johnson

Harley Clarke Mansion. Artists Book House announced its decision to leave the mansion in January.

Aviva Bechky, City Editor

After a contentious Administration & Public Works Committee meeting Jan. 9, Artists Book House decided it would withdraw from the Harley Clarke Mansion, capping off the group’s three-year attempt to revitalize the building.

Harley Clarke is a long-closed beachside mansion located in the 7th Ward. In 2019, Evanston issued a Request for Proposal asking community groups to suggest potential uses for the mansion. Artists Book House, a local organization devoted to bookmaking and literary arts, won with a proposal to bring papermaking classes, writing workshops and more to the mansion.

But funding struggles and disputes with Jens Jensen Gardens over the rights to the ground properties stretched out over the next three years. Audrey Niffenegger, author of “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and founder and board president of Artists Book House, said the intersection of those two issues caused the group’s departure.

“It felt like our lease was, as Audrey put it, built on quicksand,” said Jamie Thome, the Artists Book House programming chair. “We didn’t feel like it could be sustainable to feel so precarious.”

[Read more about the complicated history of Harley Clarke Mansion’s lease]

Fundraising challenges

According to Niffenegger, the group would need about $8 to 10 million to revitalize the house. Artists Book House had set fundraising benchmarks with the city, which included making $2 million by mid-2022. 

But over the past three years, Niffenegger said the COVID-19 pandemic hampered fundraising efforts.

“We, being fairly inexperienced fundraisers, probably wouldn’t have been able to raise that amount anyway,” she said.

So the Artists Book House board approached the city to ask to lower the initial fundraising goal to $1 million by the end of the year. 

Ald. Eleanor Revelle (7th) said she thought revising the goals would help the group bring in donors at a more reasonable pace.

“It’d be more realistic to approach a potential funder, where you say, ‘We need to raise $1 million by this date’ as opposed to, ‘We’re still trying to raise $2 million by the end of the year,’” Revelle said. 

Rights to the grounds

When Artists Book House began working on Harley Clarke, Niffenegger said she gave keys to the coach house on the grounds to Jens Jensen Gardens, a group maintaining the grounds and gardens.

However, they struggled to reach an agreement on a sublease with Jens Jensen. The groups’ relationship soured, and Niffenegger eventually asked for the keys back. They never signed a sublease.

At one point, Niffenegger offered a position on Artists Book House’s board to Jens Jensen Board Chair Charles Smith, who said he turned it down because he wasn’t interested in literary arts.

“We want to take on the burden of creating (the gardens) and paying for it and maintaining it,” Smith said. “We’re in the process of receiving a lease for the property, so that we can raise the money and do the job.”

However, Revelle said the city’s lease to Artists Book House had complicated the issue.

The city had granted rights to the grounds to the literary group, but because the grounds are public property — used by Evanston Parks & Recreation — Revelle acknowledged the lease may not have been entirely sound.

“Unfortunately, there was confusion between the two groups in terms of what wording to use, and I think that was a big contributor to why they could never reach an agreement,” Revelle said.

Niffenegger also pointed to an Oct. 10 City Council meeting in which Ald. Clare Kelly (1st) suggested using the benchmark revision as “leverage” to resolve the dispute as a reason her group eventually departed. Niffenegger saw no reason to tie two separate issues together, the author said.

But Smith said he thought Kelly’s reasoning was that it made the most sense to amend the lease all at once, rather than doing it twice. He also said Artists Book House’s limited fundraising seemed the main issue, not the lease.

After the October meeting, the city requested two separate leases for Jens Jensen and Artists Book House. And in the Jan. 9 committee meeting, the city suggested that a neutral party mediate their dispute.

Now, with Artists Book House leaving, Smith also clarified that he would have loved to see the group make its Harley Clarke contract work. 

“I hope that Audrey and Book House is successful,” Smith said. “And I think that this move has made it more likely that they will be.”

Moving forward

As of Jan. 25, Niffenegger said Artists Book House had yet to formally notify the city of its lease termination. Once it does so, the group will have 24 hours to vacate the premises, according to Revelle, so members are working to clear out their materials from the mansion before terminating the lease.

“What we would like to do is go find ourselves something much more sensible, like a storefront, perhaps, and move into it,” Niffenegger said. “Because we’ve been concentrating on trying to renovate the house — that’s been at the forefront of everything that we’ve been doing — and it’s been getting in the way of us doing the things that we want to do, the things that are our actual mission.”

After Artists Book House leaves Harley Clarke, Revelle said the city is likely to put out another RFP. While several other groups applied for the mansion location when the first RFP opened, Revelle said she’s not sure if they’d still want it.

Emily Guthrie, the president of Evanston Community Lakehouse & Gardens, agreed. ECLG applied for the RFP in 2020, but Guthrie said she isn’t sure she would want to come back.

“We put heart and soul into the previous response to that RFP,” she said. 

But she also said she wants Harley Clarke to be preserved, referencing an old Chicago Tribune opinion piece that described the mansion as Evanston’s treasure.

Revelle concurred, saying the community cares about seeing Harley Clarke revitalized.

“They love the building,” she said. “And they don’t want to see it torn down.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @avivabechky

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