The Artists Book House logo from the cover page of the group's response to the city's request for proposals for the mansion.

Evanston aldermen have voted to direct the city manager to negotiate a lease agreement for the Harley Clarke mansion with the Artists Book House organization headed by bestselling author Audrey Niffenegger.

The Book House won out over three other groups seeking to lease and renovate the lakefront building, which has been vacant for several years, since the city terminated its lease with the Evanston Art Center.

A rendering how how the mansion’s conservatory might be converted to a papermaking studio.
A rendering how how the mansion’s conservatory might be converted to a papermaking studio.

The Book House proposal for the mansion says it would become “a place where artists, writers, readers and other thoughtful people gather to learn and create.” It promises to “promote the literary arts and the crafts of bookmaking.”

During Monday night’s City Council meeting several speakers, most of them backers of the Evanston Community Lakehouse & Gardens proposal for the mansion, which was ranked third in a staff review of the plans, urged that the Council postpone a vote until after next month’s election.

But Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said he and some other aldermen have been working on the issue for 10 years. “All of us have been here long enough to be able to make a very informed and thoughtful decision.”

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said she, too, has been on the Council for the entire length of the mansion debate and it was time for the Council “to finish the job that we have all worked on so hard.”

Wynne said she favored the Book House proposal because it relied less than the others on special events that would attract large crowds to fund its work.

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward agreed with Wynne and said she didn’t “want to overwhelm the lakefront with special events.”

The relatively low-impact of the Book House proposal also swayed Alderman Eleanor Revelle, whose 7th Ward includes the mansion site. Revelle said of another plan, from the Evanston Conservancy, that she liked everything about it but the large number of special events. She added that in 2018 she had favored the Lakehouse group’s proposal — but feared the special events it called for would be too great for the property.

The Artists Book House proposal was approved 7-1-1. Alderman Tom Suffredin, 6th Ward, voted no. Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, abstained saying that despite a Board of Ethics ruling against her related to the mansion debate she was not obliged to abstain but didn’t want to have opponents of the Book House proposal use her vote to try to derail the decision.

City Attorney Kelley Gandurski said it “wouldn’t necessarily take a lot of time” to draw up the lease agreement, suggesting the aldermen might be able to vote on it before the new City Council takes office on May 10. The lease agreement, she said, will require a two-thirds majority, or six votes, for approval.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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