Charles Smith and Audrey Niffenegger.

Two groups that want to restore Evanston’s Harley Clarke mansion and its grounds were directed by a City Council committee Monday night to try to mediate their turf dispute.

The Artists Book House group, headed by author Audrey Niffenegger and the Jens Jensen Gardens in Evanston organization, headed by landscape designer Charles Smith, have failed for more than a year to agree on how to set boundaries for their respective areas of control over the site.

The City Council in March 2021 agreed to lease the city-owned lakefront mansion and grounds for 40 years to the book house group, with the understanding that it would reach an agreement on subleasing most of the grounds to the gardens group.

The Harley Clarke mansion on the Evanston lakefront.

Last October, after the mansion group fell behind on renovation fundraising targets set in its lease, the Council directed staff to renegotiate the agreement and also try to resolve the boundary dispute between the two groups.

Backers of the two groups spent nearly an hour during public comment Monday night staking out their positions.

Corporation Counsel Nicholas Cummings then reported that despite working on the issue since October, he had been unable to persuade the parties to reach agreement.

He recommended that the city negotiate separate leases with the two groups — but said to do that they would have to agree on a precise legal description of the boundaries between the two portions of the property.

After committee members spent another hour trying to hash out what those boundaries should be themselves, they ultimately agreed to Cummings’ suggestion that the city hire a mediator, and then a surveyor to try to resolve the dispute.

During the meeting Niffenegger said the book house group has raised over $1 million toward what has grown to be a $10 million fundraising goal and is now prepared to start renovation work on the exterior of the building. She also said the group is on the verge of hiring an executive director.

Bill Brown, vice president of the garden group, said it has raised nearly $200,000 toward its work, but did not offer a figure for the total cost of restoring the gardens.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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