By BLAIR KAMIN
CHICAGO TRIBUNE | JUN 22, 2018 | 6:00 AM
Even some of the people who want to tear down Evanston’s Harley Lyman Clarke House admit it’s a valuable piece of architecture. But they don’t seem to know just how valuable.
The impressive but down-at-the-heels Tudor Revival mansion, which boasts six towering chimneys, a red tile roof and a spectacular curving stair hall, gets six full pages in a book that celebrates North Shore houses designed by such architects as Frank Lloyd Wright, Howard Van Doren Shaw and David Adler. That’s elite company. Yet despite the opposition of dozens of community members, Evanston’s City Council on Monday authorized the city manager to look into a still-vague, privately funded plan to scrap the mansion and turn its lakefront site into parkland.
What in the name of progressive politics is going on here? How can a left-leaning town that has shot down skyscraper proposals on the grounds that they would wipe out historic buildings be contemplating the destruction of an official city landmark?
To be sure, Evanston has been trying for years to figure out a way to preserve and reuse the mansion, which has sat empty since the Evanston Art Center moved out in 2015. But the failure of those attempts and the financial hurdles facing a renovation do not justify even the first step down the road to demolition.
The mansion, just north of Northwestern University’s campus, is a precious, irreplaceable architectural and cultural resource. Instead of exploring how to get rid of it, the city should be redoubling its efforts to save it.
As Evanston-based architect Stuart Cohen and historic preservation consultant Susan Benjamin write in their 2004 book, “North Shore Chicago: Houses of the Lakefront Suburbs, 1890-1940,” the 1927 mansion at 2603 Sheridan Road was designed by architect Richard Powers and built for its namesake, a utilities magnate, and his family. It had 16 rooms, including a conservatory that provided relief from Chicago’s bleak winters. “It was the last house of its size to be built in Evanston before the 1929 stock market crash,” the authors observe. Jens Jensen did the landscaping. A little more than 20 years later, things changed.According to Cohen and Benjamin, the Clarke family left Evanston in 1949 and sold the mansion to the Sigma Chi fraternity, which turned the house into its national headquarters. Evanston bought the house in the 1960s and leased it to the local arts center. In the last few years, reuse proposals have come and gone.
The most notable plan, Jennifer Pritzker’s attempt to convert the mansion into a boutique hotel, was rejected by the City Council in 2013 after residents objected that it would put a key chunk of the city’s public lakefront in private hands. Then last April, the council turned down a proposal from the nonprofit Evanston Lakehouse & Gardens to turn the mansion into an environmental education center after aldermen expressed doubt that the group could reach its multimillion-dollar fundraising goals.
Which brings us to the present demolition plan, which comes from an informal group that calls itself Evanston Lighthouse Dunes. The group consists of about 25 households, one of its leaders, former Northwestern Director of Economic Development Jeff Coney told me Thursday. “We’re not saying it’s not a valuable piece of architecture,” he said of the mansion, but Evanston lacks the “philanthropic bandwidth” to restore the house while addressing other needs.
The plan to demolish the mansion, Coney said, presents a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to restore lakefront dunes, recreate green space and open views of the adjoining Grosse Point Lighthouse. The group has garnered pledges of $300,000 toward the project, which has an estimated price tag of $447,000, he said, but the offer won’t last forever.
“Either we get this done and move forward or this will be taken off the table,” Coney said.
The view here is very different: Evanston needs to slow down, not move on. And even though it expects to run a budget deficit next year, the city needs to ensure that private citizens don’t usurp its public planning process. Once the mansion’s gone, it’s gone, and nothing can bring it back. The key going forward is to ask the right questions about the house’s current condition and keep it stabilized until an appropriate vision for its future materializes. Think of Cook County Hospital, which faced a teardown threat in 2003 but was mothballed after wiser heads concluded what a loss its demolition would be. On June 12, developers broke ground for a $135 million revamp that will turn the vacant beaux-arts landmark into hotel, office and retail space.
The mansion remains structurally sound, according to Edward Gerns, a principal in the Chicago office of Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, which in 2016 did a pro bono assessment of the house for the advocacy group Landmarks Illinois. The firm’s report estimates it would cost about $400,000 to fix cosmetic problems like cracked stonework at the mansion. But that’s just the low-hanging fruit. Evanston has estimated that a full-blown rehab would cost more than $7 million.
City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, who will meet with the dunes group, said he’s likely to update the City Council in late July or mid-August. He should press the group for a design, which it currently lacks, and ask whether the group would pony up for a contingency fund should the demolition costs exceed estimates.
The bigger issue, though, is time. It’s understandable that, after years of frustration, Evanston officials want to settle the mansion’s future. But that’s no excuse for expedient decision-making.
Keep the mansion on life support until it can thrive.
Blair Kamin is a Tribune critic.