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.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

Join the Conversation


  1. Viewpoint: In love with wretched excess

    I agree with your viewpoint.  However, I disagree with the 3 options.

    1. Private development:  the land lease makes private equity nearly impossible.  If the City cannot clean up the title encumrances on the site, a commercial lease and the financing that would follow is not viable.

    2. Residential development:  the City will be sued.  If the City wants to sell public property, they will likely spend every dollar from a potential sale on litigation.  It would be held up in court for years.  Thus, exacerbating the problem which would lead to #3.

    3.  Demolition and re-development of a public park with more vehicular parking for Lighthouse Beach:  a viable plan.  Would require tax dollars backed by increase beach revenue. Probably time for parking meters at the beach

    4.  Adaptive re-use of mansion to become special events center:  if the City can guarantee a $3M loan, this is a viable plan that would attract an end-user.  However, the City needs to get serious about the financing and due diligence and quit wasting time with the mayor's committee.  Hire a professional.


    1. encumbrance?

      Your post states this parcel is under a land lease and that title carries encumbrance.  I didn't realize that, could you explain who owns the land and what those title encumbrances are?

  2. I, like no doubt many of the

    I, like no doubt many of the "I hate change"'ers you describe, don't have a problem with changing the Mansion's use (I think a reasonably-sized b&b is the best proposal). My problem has always been that the city was apparently willing to give the property away for so little. You yourself just stated the 2012 appraised value was $3 million. Yet the city, by the time most of the taxpayers heard of it, was prepared to sign away the property for a mere $1.6 million and turn the Lighthouse Beach property upside down for an untold period to make way for an overwrought Hotel/Parking plan that seemed far too grand/iimposing for the given property. It seemed to many, I think, that a deal had been struck that had no room for compromise. Thus the outcry.

    I like change. Evanston needs more of it. But when we're talking about popular, public land — let's open it up to discussion.  

    1. For so little?

      At the meeting on July 22, 2013 at which the aldermen voted 6-3 to stop discussing a sale, the request from staff was for direction. To quote from the meeting packet:

      "At this point, Tawani [Pritzker's company] has requested that the City provide a formal counter proposal and/or negotiation terms in writing. Staff requests direction from the City Council on how to proceed."

      The proposal before the aldermen was not to accept the terms of Pritzker's initial offer of $1.2 million for the mansion and land around it, excluding the beach.

      So to say the city was "willing to give the property away for so little" doesn't match the facts. We don't know what price six aldermen (the minimum required to approve sale of public land) might have been willing to accept, or whether Pritzker would have been willing to meet that price.

      All we do know is that six voted to cut off any further discussion.

      — Bill

    2. Mansion and Park original NU land ?

      I'm trying to dig up the map of the original land granted to NU.

      Since that land extended to Central and Asbury, it may be that the Mansion et al was part of it.

      Yes, NU gave a lot of the land back to the city and sold other parts, but may be it is time for NU to take some of it back–esp.  Mansion. They certainly do a better job of funding things and management than the Council does. May be they would create a hotel for all the visitors to the campus or let commerical ventures [hotel, bed and breakfast] lease it from NU.

  3. Why does a $3 million value
    Why does a $3 million value minus $2 million in renovations not equal a reasonable sale price of $1.2 million? All the loans for downtown and other developments have been squandered. Who do you see around town? NU students. They are the population we should cater to. Their parents and visitors at a B&B and inexpensive eateries, etc downtown.

    1. Appraised value vrs cost of keeping idle and off tax roll
      As long as the property is off the tax roll and I assume the city pays for the cost of upkeep/repairs, the real ‘net’ value sinks every year.
      Get the best private bid and be done with it.

    2. Wait, what?

      The market value is as-is, with the knowledge that you'll need an additional $2 million to bring it up to snuff. If you decide to sell your house for $650,000 and and a buyer thinks it needs $250,000 in renovations to get it the way they like it, you don't sell it to them for $400,000. And yes, I agree — a B&B catering to NU parents would be a goldmine, although at that public location, I think something smaller than the proposed 50 rooms would work best. 

  4. The Property Belongs to the Public

    Change is always going to happen – no one argues this point.

    The point is that this is public property.  If the mansion cannot be salvaged, fine – but this is STILL public property.  Turn it into a park.  It should remain a municipality that should be enjoyed by EVERYONE – for free – because we already pay for it.

    The public should have final say-so.   Once it's gone, it's gone forever – and since we've been paying for it, our vote should decide.

    1. It’s only your point

      Your "point" applies only to one viewpoint among several.  To me the much larger point is what is the best use for the greatest number of citizens at the cheapest taxpayer cost.  Pretty obvious that a lot of citizens would like to see the property rehabbed and put to a greater use that more citizens can vist more often, for more reasons, year round.  

      That very frequently stated goal means this already developed property needs to be sold to private investors, maybe for a boutique hotel with group function capability.  That would create varied use for a greater number of citizens over empty parkland, and at the lowest taxpayer cost.  Simply can't happen without private development.  

      Therefore the blanket objection to private ownership is placing an unjustified obstacle to fulfilling the expressed desire of a large number of citizens.  So your "point" may well be your point, and I do understand the reasoning, but it is by no means the final default or even most important, point.  

      My vote is for greatest variety of uses for the greatest number of citizens at the least taxpayer cost. Couldn't care less who holds the deed so long as the desired public benefits are obtained.

      1. Lighthouse Beach Park

        It is indeed my viewpoint — and it's not solely my own — I think a lot of people are tired of the government selling public property so a very small group of people benefit and take over what once belonged to everyone.  

        Personally – I think "desired public benefit" is not something that can only be measured in dollars.  It is entirely possible that the public would "benefit" from riding their bike to the new Lighthouse Beach park – enjoy a spectacular location, and enjoy the park.  I don't think the "desired public benefit" is only measured by how much money someone makes off a deal constructed solely for the gain of a very small group of people.  I deeply disagree.

        There are many things in life that are beneficial that don't necessarily equal profit and tax dollars. The joy this park could bring to everyone would be immeasurable.  

        Lighthouse Beach Park.  For everyone in Evanston.  


        1. more of everyone

          And my viewpoint is also, "not solely my own" which addresses my statements countering your making a definitive "point" as forgone conclusion.  Your's is an opinion, no more or less valid than others, nothing more.

          I agree with you when you say desired public benefit isn't something that can only be measured in dollars.  But your basically stating that some private entity would maybe make money, while returning zero or diminished public benefit as a result, is completely false.

          There is zero extra activity for the public to benefit from under your scenario. I understand some people desire limiting public activity along the lake, but nobody would be losing the ability to ride a bike and enjoy Lighthouse beach in any way, no matter what happens to Harley Clarke.

          Selling to develop a boutique hotel with a cafe patio and private event space provides much greater opportunities for the public to interact with that park/beach.  Ride your bike to the beach, have lunch on the patio, middle of winter, we can all still use that facility.  I could go on and on as to the expanded public benefits above and beyond what you advocate for.

          The joy that could be brought to everyone isn't immeasurable, it's very measurable. Make two columns, add up the activities and possibilities for public interaction under both scenarios.  It's obvious which provides the greater number of options for the public to enjoy the area.  I consider that an absolute benefit which includes an expanded "everyone" in Evanston.  

          The dollars? The lower taxpayer cost and increased City revenues, new jobs, while certainly a public benefit, thats simply icing on the cake.

    2. Stop Chasing Sunk Funds

      What Harley Clarke was does not resolve the issue of what to do now. We, taxpayers of Evanston, are owners of a white elephant no one wants, other than for fanciful ideas no one seems to be able to fund.

      I agree with the three proposals listed in the editorial, in that order. And, if we sell the mansion, we have to sell the land that it sits on. Yes, because we paid for the land, we should get a good return now and in years to come when it becomes revenue generating vs. revenue consuming.

      It may just be me, but I sense that Evanston public sentiment has turned on Harley Clarke, and the referendum requested may be the next Aldermatic elections.

    3. It was private property

      It was private property 40 years ago and the city bought it. I don't know why they bought it. They leased it to the EAC for a dollar a year with the stipulation that the EAC would be responsible for maintaining the inside and the city would be responsible for the outside.

      The EAC has been getting a great deal for 40 years.They has used the front lawn to display their art and made a minimal effort to fix up a small portion of the the mansion. They have rented out the mansion for private parties many times making ten's of thousands but pleaded to be dirt poor. They have never had the money to fulfill their obligations but they raised 2 million in 6 months to move out and leave the city holding the bag.

      The EAC must go down in history as being the worst renter ever.

      The city has done little to maintain the outside of the building other than a little Elmers glue here and some Crazy glue there to keep the roof tiles and the facade from falling off but they must have spent over one million mowing the lawn, plowing the driveway, and trimming the trees.

      While I would not like them to sell the park or the beach, I don't see how anyone can object to putting the mansion and it's land back into the private sector. At the very least they can start to recover the millions in losses that have accumulated over the last 40 years.

      So far, they have only collected about 40 dollars, and plan to spend between 15 to 65 thousand to help the EAC to move into their new quarters.

  5. Evanstonians will be cheated if any of these ideas happen
    So Bill, you call this beautiful lakefront stone exterior mansion a “rockpile” and “wretched excess.”

    I suppose then most of the Evanston lakefront homes, some even bigger than Harley Clarke, are also wretched excesses? Should those owners tear down their mansions in order to live “environmentally responsible lives?”

    Your viewpoint is wrong on so many levels. For some reason, you chose to ignore important facts in considering what to do with this darling diamond. Let me count the ways.

    1) The 2012 $3 million appraised value of the mansion and grounds was done in 2012. The value has increased a lot since. I read the appraisal report and the appraiser didn’t physically measure the mansion and coach house – fyi.

    2) The $2 million figure for renovations as I understand it came from that appraisal report and it was simply an estimate of how much a new owner would need to repair it to THEIR NEEDS. In other words, whenever a business or some other entity takes over space used for commercial or public purposes there will be a need for renovations. The report said the $2 million number was just an estimate and it could be less depending on what the needs are for the new owner. I think that number is exceedingly too high. But the main point is it’s just an estimate – it’s not set in stone.

    3) Funny how you failed to broach the obvious question – if the mansion is in such disrepair then why has the Arts Center been allowed to operate inside, even now?

    4) You suggest the best option is billionaire Pritzker’s boutique hotel but you failed to remind readers what that plan entails – eliminating the existing parking lot and creating another parking lot in the open green space north of the existing parking lot. How would that square with our “environmentally responsible lives” if that open green space is paved for a parking lot?

    5) You call those who oppose selling the mansion and land as the “I hate change” crowd. That is downright insulting. You know me, as a conservative I want less government not more. But there are exceptions and this is one. We don’t “hate” change – that doesn’t even make sense because whatever happens there will be a change. We just want the “right” change. Nothing drastic like tearing down this beautiful lakefront mansion and building new houses (environmentally responsible lives?) or doubling the size of the building with a huge underground parking lot for out of town hotel guests that get to use the best beach in Evanston free of charge. I’ve got swampland in Alaska to sell to anyone who thinks Pritzker doesn’t want this mansion.

    Yes, no solution is going to satisfy everyone. But if we can’t be honest with each other and discuss the FACTS in the entirety then citizens of Evanston will be cheated out of the best beach in town because new houses, a gargantuan hotel or tearing down a multi-million mansion for land are the worst solutions out there.

    I say go out for another round of bids to lease the building. The economy has improved since the last time the property was open for bids. Get creative and find a way to lease it. Unfortunately, I sense there is a powerful behind the scenes movement to do one of the three things proposed in this viewpoint.

    If you owned the Harley Clarke mansion, would you tear it down? Would you sell it?

    1. rock pile

      Anonymous Al asks:

      "If you owned the Harley Clarke mansion, would you tear it down? Would you sell it?"


      Well, Al, I can't speak for Bill….maybe he would fix it up a live in it, for all I know….but if I owned the mansion, I would definitely sell it.   Upkeep of that giant mausoleum would cost a fortune, and nobody really needs a house that big.  Property taxes would be outrageous too, and being right next to the beach would be a pain..with all those beachgoers in the summer.  [ Or maybe I could be a NIMBY and demand that nobody use the beach, because it ruins the 'character' of my residential neighborhood.]

      Aside from the economics, Bill nailed it when he pointed out what these ridiculous mansions really represent :   wretched excess.   I don't understand why people think outrageous mansions are something to be proud of.. When Saddam Hussein or drug barons in Latin America or Russian mafiosi  build big houses with giant swimming pools and zoos, we mock them and call them gaudy….yet for some reason when other criminal families (like the Tudors, the Habsburgs, the Rockefellers, or Vanderbilts)  build giant palaces, we call them "historic".

      As Bill pointed out,

      "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."

      This is nothing to celebrate.   Like Chuckie Dawes'  (another minor utility baron)  rock pile, there is no reason why we should glorify Harley Clarke's McMansion.

      Let Pritzker take it and make it a hotel…as long as it is open to the public – like having a public restaurant-  and doesn't become a 'private club',  I think Pritzker would be doing a great service to the community.

      If Pritzker or other developers are no longer interested because of the rude treatment she got from the NIMBYs, then the City should just tear down the building and extend the park.


    2. Try sticking to the subject

      Hi Al,

      If private individuals want to spend their own money on more living space than they need, that's their decision. I was speaking of what we as a community might best do with a property that's now publicly owned.

      1. If the property's value has increased since 2012, that's fine. We should be able to get more for it.

      2. No estimate is set in stone. That's why they call it an estimate.

      3. Funny how you fail to note that the arts center has been ordered out of the mansion by the city, in large part because of its failure to do sufficient maintenance work on it.

      4. As I recall the Pritzker proposal called for underground parking, beneath the existing parking lot. (Oh, wait, you say that yourself in your next paragraph. So which is it?)

      5. So, you claim to not hate change, but you actually do hate any meaningful change.

      I could see how a request for qualifications or request for proposals that offered a lease as one option, and a sale as another, could be a plausible approach. But offering only a lease option seems like a recipe for prolonging the agony of indecision or getting us into another disfunctional and fiscally irresponsible relationship like the one that we are only now getting out of with the arts center.

      — Bill

    3. honest with each other?

      "Be honest with each other" oh please, spare me. 

      You, and others, have constantly dissimulated what I believe are purposeful misprepresentations of the "gargantuan" Pritzker proposal.  Petitions were passed stating falsehoods, insinuations made claiming eventual obstructions of public access to the beach and parkland. Accusations made of unfounded conspiracy theories.    

      I understand peoples desires & opinions for expanded parkland or retaining public ownership.  I respect those opinions even though I don't agree with them.  But to perpetrate falsehoods, misrepresent past proposals, make accusations of conspiracy? In this particular discussion, your lets "be honest with each other", "discuss the facts", rings pretty hollow.  

      1. As long as we are being honest….

        Isn't it true that when the City requested open proposals for Harley Clarke, only three came forward? So, the proponents that claim anonymous groups want the property, including someone on this site who claimed " thousands" of citizens would be interested in transforming it to  site like the Grove, where are they? Who are they?

        If honesty is required, Harley Clarke in its current condition is a white elephant property no one wants. Why do advocates of the "I Hate Change" group continue to indicate these entities exist?

      2. Useless Rhetoric

        New buzz word "honest"  Old buzz words….as so written in the neighborhood's resolutions:

        Believes (no facts here)

        Supports (public use, perhaps mostly interested NU visitors)

        Declares (advocates public domain)

        Urges (public space withing mansion)

        There is nothing here that has substance to the extent that gives a quorum for the City to do "whatever" as long as it has provisions for (personal subsidies) for a quick decision.  Clear up the title and quit claim it to "whomever" will support their agenda. (read between the lines)

        It smells as much as the waste management situation on the west side.  

        Sell it and clear up the pension deficit that was created by mismanagement years ago. 

        Being honest would be giving taxpayers a relief, do you think that would be asking too much!

        1. Nature of politics

          Our goal is to make the best decision we can, based on conflcting interests/opinions.  The reality is that we have opinions about the best decision, but we just do not know.  So no one is right.

          Tearing  down the mansion is irreversible    It should be our last choice..

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