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Evanston plan to demolish Harley Clarke mansion: Public vision or hidden agendas?


CHICAGO TRIBUNE | JUL 14, 2018 | 11:43 AM

With a lack of transparency that would be stunning even in Chicago, Evanston is about to move forward with a plan that would privately fund the demolition of a publicly owned building that’s an official city landmark and part of a district listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

With its six towering chimneys and a red-tile roof, the 91-year-old Tudor Revival Harley Clarke Mansion at 2603 Sheridan Road is a striking architectural presence. It also has some prominent neighbors.

Evanston Mayor Stephen Hagerty, who said in June that it was time to resolve the long-running debate over the building’s future, lives in a lakefront mansion on a secluded street just to the south. Nicole Kustok, one of the public faces of a group that would bankroll the demolition, lives almost across Sheridan Road. And Charles Lewis, a philanthropist who has acknowledged supporting the group, lives in another lakefront mansion a few blocks north.

The group, which calls itself Evanston Lighthouse Dunes, is selling its proposal as a public-spirited gesture, one that will take a long-festering problem off the hands of its financially strapped city by replacing the shuttered mansion with a swath of parkland, beaches and dunes. But because the group isn’t a registered nonprofit, it doesn’t have to list its leaders and document fundraising activities. That leaves critical questions unanswered:

Who belongs to it? How much are they giving? What percentage of them live nearby? Would their property values rise if the Harley Clarke mansion were converted to open space, ensuring that the site could never be developed? Or would their plan, as they claim, benefit the community as a whole?

These questions assume fresh urgency now that Evanston’s City Council will consider an agreement with the Lighthouse Dunes group on July 23. The so-called “memorandum of understanding” could take the city a significant step farther down the path toward demolition.

To be sure, the group’s leaders have committed to revealing who the donors are, as Erika Storlie, Evanston’s assistant city manager told me. But they need to list both the funders and the amount of their donations before the council takes up the plan. Otherwise, the disclosure will be meaningless.

A glass-walled structure adjoins the south side of the Harley Clarke Mansion is seen July 13, 2018, in Evanston. The mansion's landscaping was designed by Jens Jensen. (Chris Walker / Chicago Tribune)

“I don’t see any legitimate way that the council could vote to accept this without knowing who’s paying for it,” said Evanston alderman Thomas Suffredin, who opposes demolition.

(For the record, my requests to the Lighthouse Dunes group for donor information went unanswered. Hagerty could not be reached for an interview. Kustok has said in past public meetings that tearing down the house would not open views of Lake Michigan from her home.)

Yet even assuming that the Dunes group passes the conflict-of-interest sniff test, its plan to tear down the house, which has been closed since the Evanston Art Center moved out in 2015, makes little sense.

The house, designed by architect Richard Powers for a utilities magnate, is structurally sound. And it’s rare architectural gem — potentially, a people’s gem.

A successful reuse could bring much-needed social diversity to the city’s nearby Lighthouse Landing Park, Rep. Jan Schakowsky wrote last month in a letter to the mayor and council. Schakowsky, whose district includes Evanston, urged them “to step back and take a time-out from advancing the irreversible decision to demolish the building.” (A listing on the national register typically does not protect a building from being torn down. And Evanston’s City Council could vote to let a demolition proceed, effectively stripping the building of city landmark status.)

The council’s rejection of previous reuse proposals — one, from Jennifer Pritzker, would have converted the home into a boutique hotel while another, from the Evanston Lakehouse & Gardens group, was for an environmental education center — should not automatically trigger the wrecking-ball option.

Smart cities mothball such treasures and play for time. Chicago did that with the once-decrepit Reliance Building, now a posh hotel. And private capital isn’t the only way to save such buildings. The 1960s effort that saw architects and preservation-minded citizens join to save Henry Hobson Richardson’s Glessner House, now a museum, attests to that.

The Lighthouse Dunes group’s plans to remake the Harley Clarke Mansion landscape, which was designed by the great Jens Jensen, also deserves sharp scrutiny.

The group proposes to restore “key elements” of Jensen’s garden. It will be interesting to see how it defines those elements: — with integrity or for maximum wiggle room?

Also worth putting under a microscope: The group’s pledge to provide $50,000 to $75,000 for landscaping, according to Storlie. That would be in addition to a promised $447,000 for demolition.

At least one experienced landscape architect characterizes the projected landscape funding as insufficient to achieve the group’s stated aim of “restoring the beach, park and dunes to their natural states.” About $150,000 to $250,000 “would be more realistic,” said Mike Ciccarelli, an associate principal at Chicago’s Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects, who has designed private landscapes in other North Shore towns.

Evanston taxpayers should not be subject to a bait-and-switch that forces them to cover unanticipated demolition and landscaping costs. Nor should they be left in the dark about the $64,000 question of this controversial plan: Is the Lighthouse Dunes group treating the city’s lakefront as a public trust or as a private fiefdom? The view from here is that the landscape restoration plan is a ruse to get rid of a building that should be saved.

Twitter @BlairKamin


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