The Artists Book House organization is withdrawing from efforts to renovate the Harley Clarke mansion on Evanston’s lakefront.

Leaders of the group informed city officials of their decision Thursday.

Earlier this week a City Council committee had directed city staff to hire a mediator to resolve a conflict between the book house group and the Jens Jensen Gardens of Evanston organization over how the grounds outside the mansion itself should be divided between the two nonprofits.

At his ward meeting Thursday evening Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th) said the leaders of the Artists Book House group, including author Audrey Niffenegger, concluded they would not be able to meet the goal of raising $10 million to restore the mansion on the revised timeline they had recently been negotiating with the city.

Nieuwsma said it looks like the city “is back to square one” in its decade-long effort to find a group to lease and restore the mansion.

“We need to take a breather and not act hastily,” Nieuwsma added.

The book house group reportedly plans to seek a smaller and less costly home for its planned operations.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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  1. Not surprised. The city had an opportunity to transfer all costs associated with rehabbing the crumbling Harley Clarke to a willing billionaire. Instead, as appears to be the usual, the city chose the least fiscally responsible route: granting a group with no money and no fiscal plan, use of the space.The current council is not capable of fiscal responsibility. Our streets are crumbling. Our schools are crumbling. Businesses are leaving down town. The council routinely supports entities that relate to the uptick in Evanston crime and harassment. Compare Evanston to that of the suburb one over. Chaos versus efficiency. Taxes primarily going to social service interests versus maintenance. Let’s vote in some folks who understand economics.

  2. It seems like some wish Evanston to be trapped in amber. Preserve a dilapidated mansion on the lakefront! Oppose NW’s redesign & future use of the football stadium! Guessing these same folks won’t pony up the many millions needed for sad, old Harley to continue in existence. Cloaking what one wants- e.g. no change, as the right thing to do is not going to work. Tear down the old frat house & let the land be used for taxable purposes. Same for the FB stadium.

  3. At the end of the day can someone willing and financially able please just restore this beautiful home and make it somewhere residents and visitors alike can enjoy?! I’m continually baffled why this is so difficult, but in the meantime someone please call JP — then ask for forgiveness and for her to reconsider!

  4. I agree with Fed Up.

    An idea: give the mansion to Connections for the Homeless and let them spend all of their donated and federally funded millions on renovation. Their operations currently running without a license at Margarita Inn could then be moved into Harley Clarke.

    This would serve to alleviate the concentration of social services facilities and operations in the fourth ward.

    I wonder what homeowners in that neighborhood would think of this idea?

    1. I really love this idea (Connections paying for renovation of HC, then make it a home for those who need one). And yes I would PAY to hear how that goes over with those who are so incredibly passionate about keeping this run down and neglected mansion from demolition. (and yes, it’s a historical landmark and a beautiful structure, I am not debating that).

  5. No surprise, now the usual group of activists will re-emerge with their strong opinions about Evanston Lakehouse Gardens, the runner-up. They too, could never raise the funds but always had lots of excuses. It’s so interesting, this group of people who are radio silent about Fleetwood Jordain, the 5th Ward school, or the Margarita Inn, but when it comes to saving a mansion on the far north side and originally owned by a wealthy white guy, they’re all over it. Oh and always with tall tales about how it’s the people’s mansion and residents from 5th ward can ride their bikes over or better yet, take a bus, to enjoy whatever services ELG keeps promising (a smoothie bar, environmental classes, a rentable party space). It all sounds great – if only $10 million would drop from the sky! Isn’t that how it works?

  6. So they get to walk away without any consequences? They raised over a $1 million from Evanston residents for the purpose of renovating the building and they get to keep it? They’ve paid $1 a year rent because they are a community based non-profit who’ve used the space for their social functions. And now they get to walk away without any fiscal penalties? This needs an audit!

  7. What are the penalties that the organization will face for walking away and breaking the lease? This is such a scam. Evanston has a real non-for-profit industrial problem that we really need to address. They rob the tax coffers and give back very little to the community. Between this group and Evanston made what have they actually contributed to the community other than asking for donations to support the organizations. Furthermore non of them are transparent with reporting requirements of running a non-for-profit. Where are the 990s on the sites? No where!

  8. Before we start blaming the City, I think we need to remember all of the people with “Save Harley Clarke” signs in their yards. I think a lot of people are going to forget that they didn’t want the Pritzker money to touch the mansion. They somehow want it to remain the same, but miraculously be a nice place for people to visit. I would like to know how much it costs to keep that building afloat. The City has to be spending tons of money to just keep it from falling down. I, for one, don’t want my tax money or any funding to be put in that building from the City. Tear down the mansion, keep the lighthouse and dunes, and make the land a nice park. The mansion is not a historical site. it’s an eyesore and a blight to the City.

    1. Agree. Time to tear down and enlarge the park. The folks who had those signs in their yards arguably did not have the facts: rehabilitation of the HC would be/will be/is an insurmountable task, for one. Next, those folks apparently did not concern themselves with how JP came into the pic. The story is quite different than the basis the group referenced (privatization of our parklands for profit). Nonsensical to believe JP needs to profit off anything let alone the money pit on the lake. Evanston council and so called “do-gooders”: stop ruining Evanston and causing the city to plummet into bankruptcy and our home values to plummet in value.

    2. Do you live next door? There are no natural dunes on the west beaches of Lake Michigan.
      Sounds like the city is doing the bidding for a boutique hotel, again.
      We do not want a boutique hotel.
      Yard signs were up because we want an inspiring community center. Yes. I was ok with Artist Book. I saw, nor heard about its fundraising endeavors – covid did not help. Inflation does not help.
      However, it will be a wonderful, inspiring, inviting learning center, open to those wanting to learn. Different way breathe fresher air and dream. Maybe Artist book will team up with the new proposals.
      You know some children never have a new book to call there own. What if they could make their own? Do you know these kids never go to a tutor, Kumon Huntington, Lindamood Bell, other adventures. Why?
      Isn’t it true, we can do better?
      And Yes, except for they 150 neighbors, plus University people living near by- Most people need to ride a bike, or walk more than a few steps, or take a bus to that gorgeous lake! We are lucky to be so close to this great resource! Taking some time to expand your vision and craft new ideas.
      I, also, hope the 5th ward finally has a wonderful neighborhood school. Classes should be smaller across the district. No one should be left behind. We should have more teachers. Teachers should have 20 mins 1-1 with each student. More specialties per child needs. And, at the end of elementary school, there should be Zero children with reading capabilities at grade level 5. And not by lowering standards, I hear sight words level are being lowered for 1st grade. Why? Is this true?
      Anyway, this house, in this spot, can serve more people and reach minds in ways we do not understand.
      Evanston should do better. And, not a limited boutique hotel or a blank vista blockaded by a bike wall serving only the neighbor next door.

      1. Frances, I am a neighbor and don’t fault you for inspiring the City to pursue these goals but that building has been vacant for what, 7 years now? It is clear that the costs to renovate are not economical, and the value lies in the site not the building.
        I was not in favor of the JP proposal because she wanted ownership of the surrounding grounds. I personally thought we could address her needs via a ground lease rather than an outright sale, but admittedly I don’t know the detail of her proposal.
        The time has come to stop mollycoddling the Save HC crowd. We need to knock the building down.

      2. Francis, I believe that you are sincere. But how many properties in disrepair can the City manage? We already had multi million dollar challenges in maintaining the Civic Center, Fleetwood and Chandler before Harley Clarke became a problem again. Something has to give.
        The potential for this property comes with significant problems. It is not centrally located nor easily accessed by many Evanston residents. Parking is very limited. The peak demand for the space will be in the summer- the same as the peak demand for the beach.
        If we are truly going to provide an inspirational learning center for students, why not put it in a community center in the 5th ward? Or the 8th ward? Why must we always demand that the children and residents of our most challenged neighborhoods travel?
        In my opinion, the best way to save Harley Clarke is to sell it to an entity with the ability to restore and manage it. The expectations that a small group of volunteers can stand up an organization while raising millions of dollars seems to be well intended but wishful thinking.

  9. A lot of comments are full of hyperbole and panic. It took the Cook County Hospital decades to realize its vision of adaptive use and restoration. These things often take more time than anyone could expect. The building is significant and the priority now should be securing the building envelope and finding a future lessee or buyer who can propose a more active use capable of realistic financing. The Pritzker proposal was absolutely a missed opportunity but perhaps a good learning lesson.

    1. Hyperbole, really? Cook County hospital provides need-based services, i.e. healthcare and life-saving medical attention to an under-served community. Harley Clarke is a vacant house on the far north side that offers no services. The nonprofits who proposed taking over had nice ideas like a smoothie counter, environmental lectures and party rental space. All of this sounds lovely, but hardly a hospital. Meanwhile while the house sits empty for another 10 or 20 years (which is just fine, say the HC fans), who pays for and potentially incurs debt from covering the annual maintenance?

      1. I think you missed the point. The Cook County Hospital was vacant for 20 years and highly dilapidated before its new use and restoration (which we seem to both agree is a great thing for the populations it serves).

        1. My point was that if it was ‘worth it’ to wait 20 years for Cook County, that’s because it’s a hospital. Is the city of Evanston really going to wait that long for a nonprofit to open a niche business with the ‘hope’ that all the residents will bike or bus over to for a lecture series and a Diet Coke?

          1. A brief point of clarification here, Cook County Hospital had built a brand new facility in the general vicinity of the old complex. It was the original beaux-arts building that was no longer needed for medical services that was eventually repurposed.

  10. I recall that the Evanston Conservancy had been a credible applicant at the time proposals were requested for Harley Clarke mansion’s renovation and management. I was surprised when their proposal was not selected. I don’t know if it is still viable, after the Pandemic and resulting social change and inflation in construction costs. The proposal remains available on the City of Evanston website, and reviewing it is useful in making one familiar with the many aspects that must be addressed in such a project. I have no knowledge of the proposal’s sponsors. I do think that unspent monies raised through community donation to the winning group should be donated on toward a renovation fund if the project is to be taken forward.

  11. It’s time to move beyond sincere intentions and wishes to independent expertise on what it will take to rehabilitate and maintain Harley Clarke. The City should hire a structural engineer, restoration contractor, business development firm and fund raising advisor for independent and unbiased opinions on what it might take to restore and manage this property. No more best guesses and hopes for restoration costs, potential tenants and uses in an effort to win a bid. Let the City have unbiased data to make the next decisions.

  12. First, there were two separate “yard signs”: 1. “Don’t privatize our Parkland” circa 2013, opposing Pritzker’s bid to make in a boutique hotel with a public bar/restaurant, and 2. “Save Harley Clarke” circa 2019 to oppose the council’s plan to demolition the building. They aren’t necessarily a complete overlap.

    For the first event, having someone else capable of footing the bill in a massive renovation, while generating additional tax revenue and visitors to Evanston, while also offering a public use bar/restaurant/veranda overlooking the lake would have been a win/win in my opinion. How many people would get use out of the hotel/restaurant compared to what is being proposed by these various non-profit groups for specialty hobbies? I would think a nice bar/veranda overlooking the lake would be a massive draw and argue that would get MORE public use. But that ship has sailed as Pritzker isn’t coming back with that offer anymore as she’s abandoned her other Evanston properties, including a near lakeside B and B. And what developer would want to even entertain this idea now with the City?

    So, we’re left with trying to find a non-profit/public entity that has the ability to fundraise massive funds for a project that has some mass appeal. Is that possible? As has been seen over the past few years, seems unlikely. So, while I personally would love a boutique hotel with a restaurant open to the public, that’s not going to happen. And we’re not getting a viable option for a non-profit to be able to bear the cost. So, we’re left with the city renovating it or tearing it down. I was in favor of “saving Harley Clarke” at the time, but given what we’ve seen from the City Council and others, I’m now in favor of turning it into parkland and just moving on from this albatross. As an architecture fan, it does make me a bit sad, but that’s the most viable option going forward and would actually (finally) get some public use.

  13. Idea:

    Move City Hall to Harley Clarke (already owned by the City). Sell Civic Center building and grounds to the developer (or similar) that bought and developed the Kendall College property. Use proceeds from sale to renovate Harley Clarke. Lease Civic Center back from new owner during renovations. Add a community gathering “space” at Harley Clarke taking advantage of the lakefront.

    Okay, maybe too far fetched?

    I argue that we need more creative and viable ideas.

  14. The Achilles heel of the Harley Clark mansion building to be considered for a public facility (commercial or otherwise) has been and will continue to be the meager extent of the immediately adjacent parking. No proposals reviewed in recent memory have ever adequately addressed this shortcoming in my opinion.

  15. Sorry, but the Save Harley Clarke people have lost. Tear it down, restore the dunes there, put in a wildlife sanctuary, make it another lakefront stopover for migratory birds and call it a day. This issue makes me embarrassed to live here. Get a life.

  16. As a resident of Evanston since 1982, I voted to tear the building down. 20% of Evanston residents voted this way. Tear the building down, preserve the Jensen garden, and build up the beach. Enough already.

  17. I love cool old houses and know enough about restoring them to say that restoring Harley Clarke is a huge financial misadventure and the city should not be undertaking this without a financial sponsor. Unless you can get a benevolent billionaire to take on the restoration as a pet project solely in exchange for naming rights, with proposed use as a community center with cafe and rental hall, this should be torn down due to the building being ‘functionally obsolete’ in real estate lingo. The city would be better served with grasslands park space and maybe a few tasteful modest single-store buildings such as a cafe and a small event hall if they were built in the ‘Prairie School’ style that would fit in with the Jens Jensen garden. Or for inspiration, look to Highland Park’s Rosewood Beach, which has a lovely modern event hall comprised of glass and natural wood, and which is purposefully designed to be small and unobtrusive as a fit to their beautiful prairie beach.

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