Harley L. Clarke, the man whose former home on the Evanston lakefront may be sold by the city to become a boutique hotel, was a 1920s electric utility executive who fell on financial hard times during the depression.

As recounted by the Chicago Tribune, he built the house at 2603 Sheridan Road in 1927, but was forced to step down as president of the Utilities Power and Light Corp. in 1936.

A stock certificate from Utilities Power & Light bearing Harley L. Clarke’s signature as president. The company went bankrupt in 1939.

With a fortune at one time estimated at up to $60 million, he also dabbled in the motion picture and real estate businesses.

After struggling against creditors to hang onto the mansion, he and his wife sold it in 1949 to the Sigma Chi fraternity for its national headquarters.

That move led to complaints similar to those heard today — that the sale would open the area to commercial business and disrupt residents’ privacy.

In the 1960s Sigma Chi sold the property to the city, and the current tenant, the Evanston Arts Center, moved in not long after.

Original story

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Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. What about leasing the mansion to a restaurant owner?

    What if the city leased for $1 the Harley Clarke Mansion to a private company that converts the building into a restaurant?

    It can be done. In college I worked at a restaurant that operated in a 19th century mansion and it was a popular place to eat. In this case, the public could eat at a restaurant with lake views in the middle of winter. The lease could stipulate that In the summer the restaurant would open only for dinner, leaving the parking spaces available for beachgoers.  There is room in the back for outdoor dining. 

    The city would gain sales and liquor tax revenue. It would be the only Chicagoland year round restaurant on Lake MIchigan!!!! Best of all, the restaurant would be used by local residents: a boutique hotel would attract mostly out of towners. 

    Not only do I oppose the sale of a city owned lakefront mansion (location, location, location) but I really dislike Pritzker's plan to expand the 16-room building into 58 rooms. It's too much and it would interfere with the popular Lighthouse Beach.

    So what about it? Do we have aldermen who can think outside the box and resist the influence of the wealthy and politically powerful?

    1. I love the idea

      A waterfront cafe would be lovely for the mansion space, I can already picture myself trudging up the beach at the end of the afternoon for a glass of wine at a bistro table to watch the sunset.

      Chicago's Park District allows one in East Roger's Park, though I'm sure they must have some arrangement with a private company to run it.

      But I doubt the neighbors would go for that in Evanston as it would mean more traffic and an increased need for parking — many of the same objections to the B&B idea.

      1. The Sun sets in the West

        Maybe you can enjoy the moon and the stars instead? Else you can arrive early in the morning and watch the sun rise. Details, details – hasn't stopped our politicians or school administrations with their plans either.

      2. Neighbors might support a restaurant

        A restaurant owner leasing the mansion would be far more acceptable to neighbors than Pritzker buying the building and expanding it to 58 rooms from 16 rooms as a hotel with underground parking. 

        Don't sell the neighbors short. A lakefront restaurant at that isolated location might be the best item on the menu for them. They could walk year round to a restaurant on the lake (ideal to lower their carbon footprint). It would certainly to some degree add value to their homes.

    2. Restaurant realism.

      Restaurant use?  Talk about an unrelaistic pipe dream.  Even at a dollar a year in rent you won't get a restauranteur with a successful track record to take that space for your idea.  Not until the City spends a few million to bring the property up to acceptable standards.  All that dead space that a restaurant owner would then need to maintain, never gonna happen. 

      And then you make it even more enticing by talking about shutting down his dayparts for the very few people who use that park.  Really shows how unrealistic your thinking is. 

      A hotel with a restaurant has a chance to succeed, especially with someone like Pritzker who has the ability to financially support the project while keeping the park and the beach open to the public.  Time for people to get a clue.

      Those who want the mansion preserved or torn down need to come up with the cash to take it down and then pay for all maintenance and upkeep now and into the future. They simply sign up on their NIMBY petitions to have their homes get assessed for extra r.e. tax payments now and forever more. 

      After all, aren't they going on about it not being about money?  So they should put their money where their mouths are.

    3. Restaurant dreams

      I always thought the Dawes House would make a fantastic restaurant.  Imagine all of the great patio seating in the front yard … and such a convenient location with parking already there.  And a fantastic wedding/event venue.

  2. It’s about the park land not the mansion

    Interesting backstory on Harley Clarke, but the issue today is not the mansion as so much the public park land it sits on. Our parks are priceless and a finite resource and should not be sold of because their maintenance is not budgeted for. It would be nice to renovate and put this landmark building to good, public use. Maybe part of it could be leased to a commercial restaurant. It would be great to have a restaurant and or cafe in that location, but the city should always be the landlord. 

    Hopefully everyone recognizes that it is not about the building, but our parkland. Selling it should not be an option. And preparing a sale up to where it stands right now without the residents and taxpayers of Evanston is just wrong.

    1. Bring on the lawn signs!

      While driving around NE Evanston today, I saw that lawn signs have started to pop up like dandelions on the lawns of NIMBY households  "Parks not profits" or something like that.

      NIMBY HQ was a house at Colfax & Sherman – as of now (noon on Saturday) there is a table out front , and several stacks of lawn signs.

      I had doubts about the project before, but if the NIMBYs are against it, then I am for it.

      Saving the money-losing mansion with City money is clearly not acceptable.  Let's not even discuss that.

      Demolishing the mansion and expanding the park would be reasonable….but since many NIMBYs are OK with this, we have to consider their ulterior motives.  If they want to expand the park so people will actually use it, that is great….but if they want to prevent people from actually accessing the park, and just want to keep that land unused  or only for the benefit of people who live next door, then forget it.

      So if it is about park land, not the mansion, let's demolish the mansion and expand facilities and parking at the park to encourage more people to come there.

      1. NIMBY Man

        "If they want to expand the park so people will actually use it, that is great….but if they want to prevent people from actually accessing the park, and just want to keep that land unused  or only for the benefit of people who live next door, then forget it."

        Next time, why don't you stop and talk with the people to whom you sterotype with your increasingly meaningless NIMBY moniker?

        You obviously had your chance to ask these folks that very question…but instead, you run to your computer keyboard and attack their efforts and make assumptions about what they're doing.

      2. Nimbys only use Lighthouse Beach?

        Looking at a map of the homes from Central street to the golf course from the lake there are about 300 households.  How many kids?  Lets assume about 150 homes have children under 18 years old, assume 2 kids per house hold that about 300 kids.

        Statistics I recieved from the city show 44,000 uses at Lighthouse beach –  clearly there are many other residents using the beach than just those that live in the neigborhood.

        There are also many other uses here, park programs, the shelter and fire pit accounting for over 5000 users, again not all the people of NE Evanston.

        What about the people that come from all over Evanston to just walk around the Lake- there is no accounting for this but assume even 20 people a day, visit thats over 7,300!

        I suggest you drive you car up to the park and look around, there are people from all over Evanston using this public park. 

        Can you explain to Me the value in selling  this for a private hotel with 57 rooms and the use the average Evanston resident will have of this facility?  At $250 a night rooms?   Or an expensive dining room? 

        1. Lacking logic

          You're using "uses" — visits to a location — and suggesting that equates to the number of "users."

          Can't be done. You must also know average visit frequency to be able to calculate number of users from the number of uses.

          Also, if you were to look at the city's summary of 2010 census data, you would see that the total population of the three of the city's 18 census tracts that the city defines as being "Northeast Evanston" is 14,275.

          Of course, there's no easy way of telling how many of them might be nimbys, or how many of them visit the mansion.

          It's also worth noting that you are focusing on uses of the beach — which the city is not proposing to sell.

          — Bill

          1. Agree with you statement but limits to data

            My statement is not for a research paper, I agree the data I was given, is the city is only counting uses, not frequency, since the city is only counting, not conducting a survey. 

            I think the person who is claiming the park is for the NIMBYs is claiming a Nimby lives in a single family home, the area the city defines as North East Evanston would clearly pick up apartments and NU.  Apartment users under the person who claims Nimbys live in NE Evanston, would clearly not fall into his definiton.   Also NU students have their own beach and are not likely to  paid to use the city beaches. Although they may walk in the parks.

            The point may be NO one has any data to suggest, that only NE residents or All residents use the beach or the park or other uses. 

            One thing that is certain the park and beach have very high use.

        2. What about the people

          "What about the people that come from all over Evanston to just walk around the Lake- there is no accounting for this but assume even 20 people a day, visit thats over 7,300!"

          That's why it makes sense for Northwestern to construct a visitors' center…with parking….near the lake.  So more people can come by and walk around the lake.   

          "Can you explain to Me the value in selling  this for a private hotel with 57 rooms and the use the average Evanston resident will have of this facility?  At $250 a night rooms?"

          By that logic, we should have almost NO hotels in Evanston – anywhere.  The average Evanston resident, who by definition lives in Evanston, would not usually need to stay in a hotel in Evanston – except on rare occasions when his house is being remodelled or is flooded, etc.

          $250 a night rooms?  Good.  The higher, the better.  That means more taxes.   Anyway, I doubt that the "Concerned Neighbors" would be any happier if rates were lower.  Would you prefer to  see a Motel 6 in NE Evanston….perhaps on the Kendall lot?

          Anyway, the "average" Evanston resident does not access the lighthouse beach now.  If you want to make the lakefront more accessable to residents of the west side of Evanston, I would be all for that…but given the track record of the hotel opponents, I find it hard to believe that they care about anyone other than the home owners near the lake.

          1. Open the beach access at the Lighthouse

            Evanston has some terrific lakefront property and charges a pretty high price to access it. The Lighthouse beach is a great spot and with the dunes offers a nice natural habitat to enjoy. The only issue is it is not larger. If the daily fee isn't enough to maintain it, then raise it so all those who have the funds can enjoy this asset of the city.

            Or, assuming the hotel deal is already done and it's just a matter of time and appearances until it formally passes, let's open that particular beach for no charge based on all the hotel revenues which will be derived from this venture.

  3. Sigma Chi

    Very interesting history regarding the mansion and as a Sigma Chi, I had no idea this was our National Headquarters from 1949 – 1960.

    I am happy to say that our National Headquarters remain in Evanston, on Hinman close to NU, who has a fantastic chapter.

    And, Sigma Alpha Epsilon is also here, about a block north.


  4. Lakefront restaurant

    "  In this case, the public could eat at a restaurant with lake views in the middle of winter. The lease could stipulate that In the summer the restaurant would open only for dinner, leaving the parking spaces available for beachgoers.  There is room in the back for outdoor dining.

    The city would gain sales and liquor tax revenue."

    Restaurants are the most risky business ventures, with 90% of them failing in a year.  You object to Ward 8, but you want a restaurant on the lake?

    And restaurants can only survive if they have customers….but the local NIMBYs don't want any TRAFFIC in their neighborhood, and nobody is going to walk or take the CTA to a nice restaurant.

    And liquor tax?  Liquor?  Do you think that the NIMBYs will allow liquor in their precious NE Evanston Historical Neighborhood?   What about the children?

    1. corruption and long-term lease option


      Considering the deal was done behind closed doors,  the tapes were destroyed, and my alderman accepted a campaign contribution from Pritzker one week AFTER he won the election, I'm thinking that the deal needs to be re-drawn with public scrutiny invited.  This is NOT the council members land to sell. It is all of our land, so the public should have a voice in the matter.

      If you feel that the council members are acting in your best interest behind closed doors, then continue ripping on the "NIMBYS."   I will stand by the people who are acting to prevent corruption in our backyard..

      Why can this mansion not be leased out instead of outright sold? Perhaps a long term fixed rent lease with  tax breaks to equal any private investment in the building?  The city won't make money, but can't they work a deal where they don't lose money and maintain ownership of the land?  If it doesn't work out to share the space, then after the lease expires, the city re-claims ownership.





      1. Use of the lake

        "This is NOT the council members land to sell. It is all of our land, so the public should have a voice in the matter"

        That's true, Jen.  The land belongs to EVERYBODY.  Not the Council….and not just the "Concerned Neighbors" who live nearby.

        I would welcome ANY use of the land that :

               1.   Is not a drain on City finances, and   

                2.  Maximizes use of the lakefront.   

        A restaurant or hotel, whether this is accomplished by leasing or selling the property to an investor, would probably be best.  Demolishing the mansion to expand…and the key word is EXPAND…the park would be good too.  The point would be to bring MORE PEOPLE to the park.

        The fact is, many of the opponents of this project also happen to be some of Evanston's most notorious NIMBYs, including Judy Fiske and her supporters.  Many of the lawn signs that I see are on lawns that used to have 'Fiske' lawn signs.

        Any opponent of this project MUST have a realistic alternative to be taken seriously.

        Here is what is NOT realistic:

        a.  The City continues to own and maintain the mansion, pouring lots of money in every year to keep a few artists happy.

        b.  The City demolishes the mansion, plants some trees or flowers, and does nothing to make the park more accessable.

        c.   Any other scheme  to keep people and "traffic" out of the neighborhood so the lakefront can be used only by residents of adjacent houses.

        Given the track record of the NIMBYs involved, and Judy Fiske's own stated preference for "passive" recreation on the lakefront, I fear that their real goal is just to keep "outsiders" away from "their" lake.

        1. The problem at hand is not the one being discussed

          Anonymous: Sounds like you have a bigger issue with hating Judy Fiske and her constituents than you do with what happens to the Harley-Clarke home. 

        2. agree with your unrealistic options

          If you drive around any part of North Evanston, even west of the Greenbay, you will see signs supporting not selling the mansion. THese people could not possibly have voted for Judy Fiske.

          I agree with you that the city should not be pouring any new money into this buildling.  However, is sellling off the land for 1.2 million worth it!?? It seems rather short sited.

            A long term lease would allow the city to remain control over the property.  I'm thinking of examples like the site of the old Roycemore school. That piece of property was owned by NOrthwestern. Roycemore leased the land for 99 years. As this lease expired, NU decided to re-claim the land and use it to expand the campus.

          Colonel Pritzker may be a wonderful philanthropist who just loves restoring old builidings. What about when he is gone and this land becomes part of a trust or sold?    THe city must think long term here. Once pieces of the lakefront are sold, they are gone.

          Give PRitzker a 99 year lease.  Provide low/no rent and reduced/ no property taxes for a fixed time period to match his initial  investment dollars in upgrading the property as an incentive.  After that, charge him rent and property taxes, and the city will easily recoop the $1.2 million that they will pass by in the short run.

             In 99 years from now, our children's children can argue about whether to re-new the lease or not, but at least they will have a choice.


  5. Who is paying for all the signs?

    I was pretty surprised to see these signs popping up in other neighborhoods.  They sound so catchy and progressive I almost thought I should put one in my yard. 

    Then I thought more on what this all about.  To me, it seems like a bunch of very vocal and affluent people trying to keep others out of their neighborhood, and away from the beach they feel belongs only to them.  No one is putting that on a lawn sign though.

  6. I am a middle class person

    I am a middle class person who uses lighthouse beach. It is heavily used and not only by folks who live nearby. Would folks who use the South Boulevard or Lee Street beaches want a hotel and a parking lot on the beach? We have precious little natural beauty here. Preserve the use of the lake and parks for recreation and reflection.

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