The Harley/Clarke mansion on Sheridan Road near the Lighthouse was opened for public viewing on Wednesday, August 3.  Interested groups could make appointments to tour, and individuals could go through between 3 and 4 PM, a window that was extended to the hours between 8 AM and 5 PM because of a large popular demand to see the mansion. 

As has been widely publicized, there was a big grassroots movement in Evanston last year to try to save the handsome historic house from destruction or sale to private developers.  It was built in 1927 at 2603 Sheridan Road to be a family residence with offices and work-spaces in a prominent location in the park overlooking the lake, beaches, and drive.  The grounds and gardens were designed by the famous Jens Jensen, and gracious turnarounds, parking areas, garages, and coach-houses were built around the house to accommodate the large numbers of visitors, workers, and servicers who came to the house regularly.

The 12,500 square-foot, multi-story house was built for Harley L. Clarke, a wealthy man involved in electrical utilities, real estate, and the film industry. He had financial troubles and sold it to a Northwestern fraternity in 1949 that sold it to Evanston in 1960.  The town management and a number of city council members had decided last year that it should be let go.  Several council meetings, workshops and committee meetings were held to examine the issues and let voices be heard, but the town administration seemed to continue to plan to de-accession it. 

Some representatives and administrators had supported its sale to Jennifer Pritzker for $1.2 million to be developed as a boutique hotel but many citizens felt the sale was a sweetheart deal that gave away a socially valuable public amenity for an amount incommensurate to its monetary value.  (Ordinary wood frame two-storey, un-renovated mid-19th century family homes of 4000 square feet with 4 bedrooms go for that price in Evanston, for example.) Others had recommended its tear-down to restore the area to uninterrupted green space.  But a majority of the citizens who attended many meetings about the fate of the house wanted this landmark building saved from destruction and put to public use for the town's recreation programs.  Many, too, supported the non-profit formed to protect the house and grounds from damage, destruction, and de-accession: Evanston Lakehouse and Gardens.  The organizers of the non-profit have done extensive research on the house, looked up its history and construction, discovered and copied original plans in libraries, and have proposed a range of public uses, including community recreation activities and event spaces that could be rented to support costs. 

Some citizens and representatives jibed at estimated costs to restore and maintain such a large building, but some of the estimates are considered to have been exaggerations.  It also happens that several State and Federal historic preservation programs have grants that communities and non-profits can apply for to restore and maintain important historic buildings for public use.  Commercial entities also can apply for such funds to develop historic buildings for private use, but those working to keep the house for the public felt that important public resources should not be alienated to private entities for private use.

The active and often conflictual public discussions about the house were ended more than 6 months ago when the town council voted to table the subject.  In the meantime, a number of aldermen have signed onto Alderman Wilson's proposal for the town to retain the house and manage it for town recreation programs.  An estimated $500,000 of town funds would be applied to any renovations needed to keep the spaces of the house usable.  During the earlier meetings, town maintenance personnel gave it as their opinion that the house was in good shape and that most spaces could be put to use right away, without renovations.

The walk through on August 3rd was well attended.  The non-profit Evanston Lakehouse and Gardens brought together a large group to tour the house in the morning.  It included citizens, town leaders, contractors (including mechanical and trade subcontractors), preservation specialists, architects, environmental education groups, facility managers, and artists.  7th Ward Alderman Eleanor Revelle attended, for example.   Other organizations represented included: Design Evanston Evanston Community Foundation (ECF), Evanston Parks and Lakefront Alliance ( EvPLA) Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois Southeast Evanston Association (SEA), Parks are for People, and others.

I and other SEA Board members and members went through the mansion individually. For an hour or more, I climbed through the building basement to attic, going into every room that was open to the public.  I've put together my observations on the tour, aided by notes taken by Linda Damashek, also from the board of SEA.

The tour showed me that the building is huge, beautiful, and in amazingly good shape. (A condition survey by Paul Janicki, Architects, also concluded that the main elements are in good shape, with only minor elements needing restoration or replacement.)   The main style is one perennially popular with Americans: the eclectic "French Provincial" style and the mansion is an outstanding example.  The architect and builders chose the best and sturdiest materials and so the 1928-9 structure has stood up well with time.   The foundations and floors are solid brick, limestone, flagstone, art tile, or various hardwoods.  The walls are brick, limestone, other stone, and/or stout plaster.  The windows are framed in steel.  The roof is ceramic tile, with copper gutters.  Most of the elements are of stronger, finer materials than most modern buildings, and the building has been well maintained for the most part.  I saw no evidence of leaks affecting ceilings or walls, and the basement showed no signs of flooding.  There have been some poor maintenance decisions, and some rooms have been defaced with paint splashes and plasterboard additions.

Many elements are decorated stylishly, in designs that echo several styles of the period.  The hardwood paneling bears finely detailed garlands upheld by architectural carvings.  The sturdy openwork bronze and iron railings are similarly enhanced.  Floors range from flagstones and hardwood to colored and sculptured ceramic art tiles.  Rooms are well-supplied with large rows of large casement windows with strong cast metal frames and muntins and leading and tinting in a few cases.  Several have large bay windows as well.  The windows' glass and sturdy, handsome metal fittings show no signs of breakage or corrosion. The thick glass looks mostly original.  A few windows have been removed, and many of the screens are missing.  I could not see if there were storm windows for the windows but it seems likely that there are.

Because of the active social life of the family and the use of the building for the owners' film business, it has ideal spaces for public use. There were all kinds of rooms that would be good for meetings: intimate ones that would be good for board or committee meetings, as well as several large ones with stages, dressing rooms, and service rooms. Wings and large rooms all have multiple entrances and stairs, so they could be entered in various ways, to avoid traffic problems or interruptions.  There are many staircases to facilitate access without necessitating disrupting activities in the rooms.  Each type of meeting room can be found at different levels of the house: ground floor, basement, upper floors, and top floor, and all have multiple bathrooms adjoining.  Most of the bathrooms retain their delightful subtly colored and sculptured tiling.

The kitchen on the ground floor is enormous and appears almost unaltered.  Because of the solid construction and careful choice of materials, there would be no reason to heavily alter it, except perhaps to put in new stoves and refrigerators.  The kitchen has several service rooms and water sources and several access routes to the outside and to the house interior as well as dumb waiters. Several rooms of different size for food preparation and dining link to it directly. It seems ideal for catering.  Because of its arrangement, it looks as if it could be separated into several catering areas that could be used at the same time without traffic jams.

The basement of the house is enormous and shows no signs of leaks or structural problems.  It was originally used for normal utility services and also work for the film company, such as film developing.  There are many useful spaces that could have craft-working, lockers and changing rooms, exercise rooms, cafeterias, seminar rooms, etc.  There are several ways to get in and out of the basement, whether to the interior or to the outside.

The house and grounds seem ideal as a sort of community clubhouse, possibly with event spaces that could be rented out for a good income. There were spaces that looked good for annual meetings, board meetings, town meetings, dances, concerts, and children's events.  Many community organizations and public institutions - the Field Museum, the Art Institute, Chicago History Museum, the historic Frick mansion in NYC, the American Museum of Natural History also in Manhattan, do rent out their spaces for events that are fitting to their missions, in order to help fund their programs and building maintenance.  Some misgivings have been voiced about such rentals in residential neighborhoods, but both the Frick and AMNH are in residential blocks.

The Harley/Clarke mansion will be up for discussion again at the Evanston City Council meeting on September 12th.  We urge all interested citizens to attend to both listen and have their voices heard.

Anna Roosevelt

Posted on September 3, 2016 and filed under Development & Zoning, Evanston Community.