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History Center board sees progress in NU talks

Evanston History Center members Wednesday elected officers and trustees who said they’re committed to negotiating with Northwestern University to keep the organization in its long-time home at the Dawes mansion on the lakefront.

About 100 people attended the center’s annual meeting at the King Home, where some members of the ad-hoc General Dawes Returns group urged a more confrontational approach toward the university.

The center’s president, Marge Wold, said, "You do what you feel you need to do," but that the center’s board believes it is making progress through quiet negotiations with university officials, and plans to continue that strategy.

Wold said that by making some relatively low-cost fire-safety repairs the center hopes to be able to reopen the first floor and basement of the three-story mansion to limited public use by this fall.

She said the university believes the building needs an additional $4 million in immediate repairs to fully reopen, while board members think the work could be done for about $2 million.

"This is just for things that we all basically agreed need to be done to keep the building safe and keep it from deteriorating further," Wold said.

She said the work includes repairs to the roof and windows and a variety of interior work.

"At the same time we’re doing this, we have to have a ‘Plan B’ for what to do if talks with the university fall through and we have to be out by Jan. 1," Wold said.

She said the board is looking for other sites in Evanston, but "that’s really hard to do and we hope we don’t have to."

Some of the dissident members tried to open nominations for other directors, but were told they had missed the nominating deadline, which ended several days before the meeting.

In response to questions about the center’s resources, Wold said the center operates on an annual budget of $250,000 and has an endowment of about $1 million.

The university received an endowment from General Dawes in addition to his donation of the house to the school that she said now is valued at about $1.8 million.

History Center Director Eden Pearlman said the university has used funds from the endowment over the years to pay for a variety of repair work on the house including fixing third-floor brick work that was literally separating from the walls and adding a steel beam to the second floor to secure a balcony.

Wold said the board is reluctant to launch a major fund raising campaign at this point, because it doesn’t know whether it will have control of the building in the future, and that donors want to know how their contributions would be used.

She said NU officials haven’t specified an asking price for the property, if it were to be sold. But given the property’s size and location along the lakefront, it might potentially be valued at several million dollars.

The building is protected as a local landmark, so it would require city council approval to demolish, but the site is large enough, at nearly two acres, so that it could conceivably be subdivided into several building lots under its existing R1 residential zoning.

Patrick Leary, an Evanston resident and curator of Wilmette’s historical museum, said the board should "be careful what you wish for."

"Historical house museums are in crisis and decline all over America now," Leary said. "They are horrendously expensive to maintain, and it’s difficult to get return visitors. People say ‘I saw that mansion, why should I go back?’"

"You could wind up in a situation in which in order to stay in the Dawes house, you mortgage the future of the center to the building," Leary said. "All the money that could have gone into collections and staff to make the center a dynamic part of the community is instead going into the house."

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