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Evanston History Center faces crisis

The Evanston History Center, housed since at least 1960 in the Northwestern University-owned Charles Gates Dawes mansion on the lakefront, is faced with closing the building to the public on April 16.

University officials say the building at 225 Greenwood St. needs several million dollars worth of upgrades to meet current fire and building codes for a place of public assembly.

The university’s vice president for business and finance, Eugene Sunshine, says the trust fund that Dawes, who served as vice president under Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s, left to the university to maintain the house yields only $50,000 to $60,000 a year in income.

Under a 30-year lease with the university that expired last year, the history center has occupied the mansion rent free, and also retains income from renting the building’s carriage house as a private residence, Sunshine said.

University officials have met with history center board members over a period of several months to try to work out a resolution.

History center officials could not be reached for comment this morning.

The situation came to a head this week after the university requested an inspection of the property by the fire department, which confirmed the fire code violations, including an open stairwell running through the three-story building.

Both the history center and the university "have put money fairly regularly into maintaining the building reasonably well," Sunshine said, "but it’s an old house that was never designed as a museum or place of assembly."

The unmet needs "have grown very dramatically over the years" as fire, safety, ventilation and structural codes have changed, Sunshine said.

"That creates huge risks for the university, for the history center and for its board members individually in continuing to use the place for the kind of museum and assembly-like activities it has been used for," he added.

The university has proposed continuing to lease the house to the history center for use as office space only until no later than June 30, 2009, provided the history center provides $3 million in insurance coverage on the property.

It is also offering to provide financial support to the history center to house the building’s collection of furniture and other Dawes memorabilia at a new location.

The former  vice-president’s personal papers are already housed in the university archives.

"It’s an unhappy circumstance that nobody on either side created intentionally, but because of code changes, we’re put in a position where it’s really time to get serious about finding another suitable location," Sunshine said.

He said that assuming the history center moves out, the university would either sell the property or use the Dawes House as a home for a university staff or faculty member, as it does with some other homes it owns around town.

"We have no interest in trying to use it for office space or other university purposes," Sunshine said.

The property is zoned for residential use and has been designated a local historic landmark, which creates legal barriers to its demolition.

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