Harley Clarke Mansion


  • LOCATION: 2603 Sheridan Road, Evanston, Cook County
  • STATUS: Redevelopment Pending
  • BUILT: 1928
  • SITE TYPE: Residential, Public Property
  • GEOGRAPHY: Suburban
  • OWNER AT TIME OF LISTING: Public, City-Owned
  • THREAT AT TIME OF LISTING: City included demolition as a potential future option for the property.
  • CURRENT USE: Vacant, Redevelopment Pending
  • DESIGNATIONS: Anchor for National Register Northeast Evanston Historic District (created 1999), Evanston landmark in 1982.
  • TAKE ACTION: Evanston residents are encouraged to reach out to their local aldermen and the mayor supporting preservation and reuse.

(Photo credit: Liz Chilsen)

Historic Significance

In 1928, utilities magnate Harley Clarke hired Boston architect Richard Powers to design a home just off the shores of Lake Michigan in Evanston. Once completed, the three-story mansion in the French Eclectic style boasted a rough stone exterior, ballroom on the top floor and a conservancy on the south side, while the full 37,700-square-foot estate included a coach house, two apartments and a three-car garage. The grounds were designed by famed landscape architect Jens Jensen and to this day include one of his original limestone grottoes. Considered to be an anchor for the National Register Northeast Evanston Historic District created in 1999, the building was also named an Evanston Landmark in 1982.

In 1950, the Clarkes sold the lakefront mansion to Sigma Chi, which turned the home into its Memorial Grand Chapter House. More than a decade later, the fraternity sold the property to the City of Evanston, which purchased the land in order to expand the city’s public beach. Soon afterward, the city leased the Clarke Mansion to the Evanston Art Center, which occupied the building until May 2015.

(Photo credit: Liz Chilsen)

Threat at Time of Listing - 2016

The City of Evanston began seeking a new user for the Harley Clarke Mansion in 2012, aware of the art center’s plans to vacate the building in 2015. After rejecting a proposal that would have adaptively reused the building as a boutique hotel, the city appointed a study committee to review options that included moving the building, renovation or demolition. Evanston residents held split opinions on the building’s future use and possible demolition. Some opposed private redevelopment plans because they believed it could threaten the residential character of the surrounding neighborhood or were opposed to the commercialization of public property. Others welcomed private investment in the historic mansion’s renovation and reuse, which would be difficult for the municipality or a non-profit to fund. The split in public opinion left the Harley Clarke Mansion in limbo and without a clear path forward. In October 2015, the Evanston City Council voted to table any discussion of the local landmark’s future until a state budget determining the city’s funding was passed, delaying a decision on Harley Clarke indefinitely and putting the historic structure at risk of further deterioration.

In response to this threat, Landmarks Illinois included the Harley Clarke Mansion on the 2016 Most Endangered list. Landmarks Illinois joined local advocates to urge Evanston’s City Council members and City Manager to not consider demolition of Harley Clarke as an option, instead prioritizing a rehabilitation and reuse solution put forward by Evanston Lakehouse and Gardens, a nonprofit that formed for the sole purpose of rehabilitating and saving the mansion. However, the City Council was ultimately unwilling to leave the property to Evanston Lakehouse and Gardens, unoptimistic that the group could raise the necessary funds to rehabilitate the building. Then, in July of 2018, the Harley Clarke Mansion suffered another blow when Evanston aldermen voted to move forward with demolition at the request of a small group of wealthy neighbors willing to donate funds for the tear down.

(Photo credit: Liz Chilsen)

Preservation Efforts

Local advocacy groups, however, were not deterred. With help from Landmarks Illinois, The Cultural Landscape Foundation, The National Trust, and other organizations, the grassroots organization Save Harley Clarke mobilized public support. In October, the Evanston Preservation Commission unanimously denied the city’s application for demolition of the landmarked building and, in a November referendum, a whopping 82% of voters expressed their desire for the refurbishment and reuse of the Harley Clarke Mansion. Despite all this, the City still attempted to move forward with demolition by appealing the Preservation Commission’s decision. At the December 10 hearing on the issue, impassioned citizens crowded the Evanston Civic Center to demand that the City Council heed the public referendum and Preservation Commission. In a stunning and heartening reversal of previous policies, the Evanston City Council unanimously voted to uphold the decision, denying the demolition permit and saving the Harley Clarke Mansion. “The action was a triumph of people power,” wrote Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune in December 2018.

Friends of Harley Clarke, an outgrowth of Save Harley Clarke, will now begin working with the city to fund maintenance of the building and begin formalizing and finding an adaptive reuse plan. The city has already received multiple offers to purchase the building for uses ranging from a single family home to a co-working space to an educational facility. While the exact future of the Harley Clarke is yet to be determined, Landmarks Illinois is thrilled to know that demolition is officially off the table, ensuring the bright future of this historic building and grounds. LI will continue to work with local advocates and partners, as it has done so for years, to ensure the preservation of this local and national landmark and to find viable reuse solution.

(Photo credit: Liz Chilsen)

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