• Evanston residents have been trying to decide whether to preserve or demolish a stately lakefront mansion owned by the city.

Now, the offer of a large donation is pushing the city toward the bulldozer.

The Evanston City Council voted 6-3 last week to begin talks with a group that says it can pull down the Harley Clarke mansion at no cost to the city.

Preservation of the landmark building could be expensive — though thousands signed petitions urging the council to protect what some call “the People’s Mansion.”

The vote is only the start of deliberations over the plan to raze the building, a new phase in a years-long debate over a piece of prime real estate within sight of Lake Michigan. There will be further votes on the plan by both the council and Evanston’s Preservation Commission.

“We’re not going to call in the wrecking ball tomorrow,” said Ald. Ann Rainey, who introduced the resolution to begin negotiations.

Harley Clarke mansion

The Harley Clark mansion in Evanston is owned by the city but its deteriorating condition has forced the Evanston City Council to consider demolition instead of preservation. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

At a council meeting last month, representatives of a group called Evanston Lighthouse Dunes announced enough money had come in from the “generous contributions of multiple residents” to remove the mansion at 2603 N. Sheridan Road, just north of the Northwestern University campus.

They said it would offer “an opportunity to restore these natural dunes, beach, and parkland as part of new public space with the iconic Grosse Point Lighthouse as its centerpiece.”.

At a council meeting last week, Evanston Lighthouse Dunes representative Nicole Kustok said the group had raised $300,000 — close to the estimated cost of removing the mansion.

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Another group, Evanston Lakehouse and Gardens, tried to lease the building last year for “environmental education, community events, and cultural programming.” But the council voted that down, concerned the nonprofit couldn’t raise enough to see the project through.

Tom Hodgman, a board member of Evanston Lakehouse and Gardens, offered $15,000 from the group to the city to maintain the building for a year while it raised more money.

“As the full costs of demolition and restoration of the site become known, it will become clear that saving the only public lakefront building for use by everyone is the . . . superior option,” Hodgman said.

Harley Clarke mansion in Evanston

The Harley Clark mansion in Evanston. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Supporters of preservation argue that the mansion could allow residents access to a lakefront estate otherwise available only to the very wealthy.

“Some people have said that Evanston is full of historic old homes, and why do we need one more? But this old home is the only one that belongs to all of us in the community,” Ald. Eleanor Revelle said. “It’s the only lakefront property in Evanston that regular citizens can enjoy and experience firsthand.”

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Evanston’s tight budget leaves the city little room to foot the cost of either repair or demolition.

“A lot of people have ideas [for how to use the building]. Ideas are great, but we have to pay for ideas,” Ald. Cicely Fleming said. “As much as I’d like to go down several roads about the beauty and grandeur of this house, we as a city don’t have the money.”

The council’s June 25 vote extends a controversy that has roiled Evanston for most of a decade.

A sale to billionaire Jennifer Pritzkers’s TAWANI Enterprises, which would have turned the building into a 57-bed hotel, was voted down by the City Council in 2013. A plan to turn the building over to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources as a research and education center was abandoned in the face of the state’s budget stalemate. And one alderman also reached out to Sigma Chi, the fraternity that used the building as their headquarters until the 1960s, about returning to the site, but the renovations proved too costly.

A 2015 survey showed support for preserving the building for public use. More than 76 percent of 1,375 Evanston residents polled online for the city-backed survey said they want the city keep the mansion or turn it over to a private organization for cultural or educational use. Just over 12 percent of respondents preferred demolition over every other option.

A report commissioned by the city concluded in August 2016 that the mansion was mostly in “serviceable condition,” but still needs substantial spending on repairs.

The mansion was declared an Evanston landmark by the city’s Preservation Commission in 1982.

Landscape architect Jens Jensen, responsible for much of Chicago’s parkland, planned the gardens around the mansion. And whether the mansion is demolished or restored, the two groups now on either side of the issue at least can agree that the gardens should be restored.

The Harley Clark mansion in Evanston

The Harley Clark mansion was declared an Evanston landmark by the city’s Preservation Commission in 1982. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times