The Evanston Art Center is looking for new quarters after learning it may lose its rent-free home in a city-owned lakefront mansion.

The non-profit center, which according to its latest financial report to the federal government had income of over $1.2 million last year, mostly from fees for classes it offers, has been based at the mansion for at least two decades.

Norah Diedrich, the center‘s executive director, says the decision last month by the City Council to considering selling the mansion came as a surprise.

Top: Children in an art center class take a break for some playtime on the center’s front lawn. Above: The classroom the kids left behind.

“It was difficult news,” Diedrich says. “When it got to the public, we started getting very worried calls from students wondering if they’d be able to take fall classes, from faculty members wondering whether they’d be teaching, and from a donor wondering where her promised gift might be going.”

She said the center’s board is now looking at several options for its facility needs — ranging from a new agreement with the city to stay in the mansion, to looking for a new space in downtown Evanston or possibly some other community.

Adult students work on projects in the metalworking studio in what once was the mansion’s conservatory.

“We’re on a very tight timetable, Diedrich said, “We have promised Mayor Tisdahl to present her with a proposal no later than Oct. 1.” And, she said, the proposal needs to include an implementation timetable.

While the center’s lease with the city runs through 2021, it contains provisions that would let either the center or the city terminate the agreement, “I believe with 240 days notice,” Dietrich said.

Christophe Roberts’ lion made from Nike shoe boxes is among the works on display in the center’s galleries.

The Tudor-style mansion, built in 1926 and described as the last lakefront mansion built in Evanston before the stock market crash in 1929, provides 15,000 to 17,000 square feet of space on four levels, including the basement.

The building includes gallery space on the main floor and classroom and studio space on its other levels.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz says the city, facing revenue shortfalls, lacks the funds to make capital improvements needed on the building, which has suffered from decades of deferred maintenance.

A gallery exhibit of paper collages and an animated video all by Jang Soon Im.

Bobkiewicz also suggested that the city consider new uses, including a possible sale, of the Chandler-Newberger Recreation Center and the Noyes Cultural Arts Center.

Aldermen rejected the idea of closing the rec center, but agreed to explore new funding arrangements for the Noyes Center.

Artists at Noyes currently pay rent to the city for their studio space, but the rent — typically $12 to $15 per square foot per year — hasn’t been sufficient to cover capital improvements to the building.

Figured at rates equivalent to what art groups are charged at Noyes, the free rent for the art center amounts to a city subsidy of roughly $200,000 a year.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

Join the Conversation


  1. Time for a change

    This is the perfect opportunity for the Art center to become a part of the larger community. The city owns several properties across the town and the West end needs something like this to help jump start them. There is no reason for this organization to keep hiding on the lakefront where they are all but inaccessible to the majority of Evanstonians.

  2. Not entirely rent free

    Thank you for writing the article and including such vibrant photographs. Just to clarify, the Art Center is legally responsible for maintaining the building interior and spends well over $60,000 a year to fulfill this part of our lease; funding for this comes directly from our operating budget. Additionally, we have added mechanical upgrades to the facility over the years. We are a fiscally responsible non profit which is evidenced by our 990 tax return.

    1. Solution is not Wally’s answer

      Norah – the solution is not the answer Wally wants, the sale of the property.  This is a joke the property is of no value to any business use that would generate tax dollars.  The current use makes sense.

      The issue is the city which can not even run its own capital projects, can't spend $400,000 to add improves to the art center.  Can you give us a list of all the so called improvements the city is wanting for the $400,000?

      My guess it is wrong.  To quote Alderperson Rainey at the last PD meeting – " its screw up" she stated this in regards to the police firing range project.  which is about $400,000 not done after years of being in the capital plan.  The city capital plan lacks is totally unprofessional, poorly managed and lacks proper accountability of staff.

      I think the answer is simple, the art center agrees to a new rent subject to a deduction for all capital  maintenance to the building,   Assuming the $400,000 is a really number – you would borrow or have a capital program fund drive and deduct it from the rent  over X number of years ( what is a really rent of the building we all know its more than $1 )  $40,000 more a year to your budget, it looks like the Art Center could afford this?

      I think the city should have nothing to do with the building, time and time again the council and Mayor have shown us they have no ability to provide leadership to solve any problems.  Wally is not dealing with the really capital issues, he is focusing on the small items such as the art center, he should be more concerned with the 100 year old water pipes he is currently transfer capital from the water fund to keep the general fund afloat!  Millions of dollars of mismanagement.

      Wally is spending money on another study to sell water to other users, it appears to me in the budget the city is facing a 1.2 millon dollar short fall in sales this year.  I have a bad feeling we Evanston water users already subsidize the other suburbs we sell water to already!  When you look at a $400,000 capital expense for the Art Center and the fact the $400,000 could be borrowed at around $40,000 – this is peanuts to the budget, The Art Center just needs to agree to a capital plan to keep the entire building up and end the discussion so Wally can find something more productive with his time to do!

      1. A restaurant or a B&B is the best use for the lakefront mansion

        I agree the city should not be a landlord for this lakefront mansion but I respectfully disagree that the city should not sell it. I think the property has tremendous value for a business.

        I think the city should sell the lakefront mansion to a private enterprise (keep it on the tax rolls).

        I think this building would make a wonderful restaurant or bed and breakfast. Just think, residents can dine at a restaurant in an historic beautiful building with lakeviews. Now that would be classy.

        It could bring in more customers for the Lighthouse and boost tourism in Evanston. Best yet, the business would pay property, liquor and sale taxes.

        It's a win win.

  3. Really?

    How is the lakefront "all but inaccessible to the majority of Evanstonians"?  All they need to do is get on the #201 bus and be able to traverse the last 300 yards from the bus-stop to the park.  I find it hard to believe the majority of Evanstonians don't have the ability to use public transit.  I understand the need to spread out services so that they can be used by the community, but underlying your claim with totally preposterous statements like that only serve to undercut it's validity. 

    1. Also an easy walk from the

      Also an easy (half-mile) walk from the Central purple line stop.

  4. Lakefront mansion

    If the city can sell this mansion, and put it on the tax lists, that would be nice. 

    But if not, at least it appears that the mansion is being put to good use.  I like the photo of the former conservatory that is now a metalworking studio.  

    Chuckie Dawes' mansion, on the other hand, does not appear to be serving any purpose.   There is no point in preserving giant mansions in their original mansion form – if these old buildings are going to be preserved, they need to be useful.  Otherwise, they should be torn down.

    The same can be said of the old downtown theater, the 708 Church building, the Civic Center, and other old buildings….they must be useful or they should be razed.

    1. Lakefront?

      Prof. Who Knows, why stop at those buildings? The whole town is decrepit. Many buildings are old, vacant, the school system is sub par, and the City is in a deep financial mess with pension systems that are severely underfunded.

      Why not sell the whole town? The money can be used to build a new Valhalla, with tall erect buildings filled with condos and retail space that will sell instantly. With fire safe new LEED buildings and screened new citizens, we will not need the police and fire forces that our decrepit city now requires. Just think of the savings!

      With the old buildings out of the way, we can have a house free path for high voltage towers for new lake wind turbines to send power to the grid near Edens and Church St.


  5. Don’t sell the mansion

    Evanston is insane!  Yep, insane.  They will sell that bullding for whatever amount – 5million – and that money will be gone in 10 seconds and that wondeful mansion that has been an art access point to generations will be gone just as fast. That art center is Evanston's greatest gem – don't let the city council sell it – they are morons.   I am so angry I can't write a smart message here. They should be voted out of office immediately.

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