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Evanston City Council votes to advance demolition of Harley Clarke Mansion

Opponents of demolition of Harley Clarke packed Evanston City Council's Monday meeting | Adam Thorp/Sun-Times

The Evanston Preservation Commission is the next line of defense for the Harley Clarke Mansion after the City Council opted for demolition in a confused meeting Monday night.

Since 1927, the building has sat in the shadow of Evanston’s iconic Grosse Pointe lighthouse. The Evanston City Council voted 5-3 to accept a $500,000 offer from a group that offered to pay to knock it down in order to expand the nearby dunes and parkland.

Over the course of the meeting, the group, Evanston Lighthouse Dunes committed to increase its donation from $400,000 to $500,000 in order to pay for landscaping and dune restoration of the site. The demolition resolution was also amended to require the group to cover the full costs of the project, including potential cost overruns, though a representative of the group, Nicole Kustok, said she was unwilling to sign a “blank check” in support of demolition.

Alderman who voted in favor of demolition worried about the cost of any possible repair for the city, and rejected the idea of pushing the decision off.

The City Council voted for demolition over angry objections from preservationists, who hoped the city-owned building could be saved and made open to the public.

The public comment period leading up to the vote elicited a flurry of objections and alternatives to demolition.

An aide to State Representative Robyn Gabel (18) read a letter suggesting that state help in preserving the building might be forthcoming after November’s election.

Tim Franzen, the president of Graduate Hotels, a developer of boutique hotels in university towns, said his firm was interested in developing the building as a boutique hotel at no cost to taxpayers.

The preservation group Lakehouse and Garden said they had raised $200,000 in support of their vision for the site, and asked for time to raise more.

Public comment overwhelmingly favored preservation of the building, and the tone in the room sometimes turned hostile against the handful of pro-demolition speakers.

When one member of Lighthouse Dunes exceeded her time, the audience loudly interjected. Ald. Judy Fiske (1), acting as mayor pro tem, threatened to clear the room if speakers were interrupted again. As pro-demolition aldermen spoke, booing was sometimes audible from the overflow room behind the City Council room.

Attendees at Monday’s Evanston City Council meeting more than filled the Council Chambers and the overflow room beyond | Adam Thorp/Sun-Times
Attendees at Monday’s Evanston City Council meeting more than filled the Council Chambers and the overflow room beyond | Adam Thorp/Sun-Times

Speakers and anti-demolition aldermen pushed for the Council to wait for non-binding referendum. Preservationists said they had collected more than enough signatures to secure their position on the November ballot.

The fight now moves to Evanston’s Preservation Commission, which will decide whether Harley Clarke’s architectural and historic qualities are worth saving.

Even if the commission votes against demolition, the same City Council majority that voted to accept the demolition deal could vote to overrule them. Supporters of keeping the mansion have no route for further appeal if the commission signs off on demolition.

Demolition would end a controversy over the building’s fate that has roiled Evanston government for the better part of a decade.

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