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.

Join the Conversation


  1. That council meeting was a lesson in ineffective government. The alders should be ashamed. Cummings was clear and forthcoming regarding the legal issues and Reid kept speaking over him and saying “hold on – let’s not be so drastic” to what avail? So that this unresolved issue can take up more time future meetings? Reid wants so badly to be relevant and feels like he is an expert at all things. He’s not.

    Also – what is up with Jonathan Nieuwsma and Devon Reid instantly dismissing Krissie Harris’s excellent comments with no thought given? You men should listen to her – she’s smarter and better than both of you.

    When Krissie Harris recommended that all 3 parties cover the cost of mediation Reid instantly says that the organizations shouldn’t carry the burden and evanston should pay. Why?!? The artist book club pays $1 a year for that amazing space – the city already covers all the utilities etc. The least artist book space can do is contribute to the price of mediation when they are not negotiating in good faith. Maybe that would be the kick they need to come to the bargaining table to find resolution.

Leave a comment
The goal of our comment policy is to make the comments section a vibrant yet civil space. Treat each other with respect — even the people you disagree with. Whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *