The hard-working taxpayers of Evanston need to stop subsidizing a shrine to conspicuous consumption.
Harley Clarke built his rock pile on the lakefront in the mid-1920s — the twilight of the last gilded age. Clarke was a second-tier player in an internet mania of its time — the utilities industry — who went on to lose most of his money in the depression.
The house and outbuildings, with over 20,000 square feet of space — a wildly excessive amount for any single family home — were built in a style variously described as Châteauesque, French Chateau, French Eclectic or even English Tudor.
The building and a 38,000 square foot segment of the grounds — excluding the lakefront beach — was estimated by an appraiser hired by the city in 2012 to have a market value of $3 million — and to require, by ballpark estimate, an additional $2 million in renovation work.
The “I hate change” crowd has advanced a bunch of painfully vague, speculative and improbable proposals for this or that non-profit group to lease the property from the city.
But even if their imaginary friends actually came through with a deal, it inevitably would leave the taxpayers on the hook for the cost of maintaining the mansion when the fanciful revenue streams fell short. This is unacceptable.
In a time when most Evanstonians are devoted to living more environmentally responsible lives, we can’t afford a shrine to wretched excess. The city needs to behave in a fiscally responsible manner to limit the already severe tax burden most residents face.
We must recognize maximum economic value from the mansion property while preserving public ownership of the beach.
So what options make sense?
At this point it appears the best option is something along the lines of the boutique hotel concept advanced by Jennifer Pritzker that aldermen rejected two years ago.
It would preserve the mansion, provide public access to amenities including a planned restaurant and — in addition to the initial sale price — would likely generate in the neighborhood of a half million annually in revenue to local governments from property, hotel and sales taxes, as well as creating some new permanent jobs.
The main problem is that there’s no clear indication now whether Pritzker or another developer would be willing to face the buzz saw of opposition to make that project happen.
Ranking second — a subdivision of the property for new homes. It potentially could include physical preservation of the mansion, but would eliminate public access to the building. In addition to the initial sale price, it appears it might generate roughly a quarter million annually in local tax revenue — or about half as much as the boutique hotel.
In third place — tearing down the mansion and turning it into open space parkland. That would maintain public ownership of the property and dramatically reduce long-term maintenance costs. But it costs some money up front for the demolition, produces no significant long-term revenue and means the destruction of the building that some cherish.
The Harley Clarke Committee has done solid work so far in clarifying the potential options for the mansion. It deserves the community’s thanks for that effort.
No solution will satisfy everyone, but the committee has at least made it more likely that aldermen will be better informed when the question of what to do with the mansion returns to their agenda in June.