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Vote expected to move historic Evanston mansion closer to demolition

Harley Clarke mansion

Utilities magnate Harley Clarke put up the mansion in 1927.

The Evanston City Council is expected to vote Monday night on whether to demolish a city-owned lakefront mansion at the behest of a group of donors willing to cover the cost.

Evanston Lighthouse Dunes, the donor group, is offering $400,000 to pay to destroy the Harley Clarke mansion, bringing a long-simmering debate over the building’s fate to a boil.

The building has sat just north of Northwestern’s campus since 1927, near Evanston’s iconic Grosse Pointe Lighthouse.

The donation will cover the cost of demolition, removal of invasive trees and some landscaping. It does not include the restoration of dunes and gardens by famous Chicago landscape architect Jens Jensen, which was central to the group’s vision for the site. Still, the offer gives Evanston a quick, low-cost way to dispose of a piece of property that has been lingering on its books for years.

Plan after plan for the building –– including proposals to make it into a boutique hotel or a center of environmental education –– fell through or were rejected by the city council over the past decade.

A plan by non-profit group Evanston Lakehouse and Gardens to lease the building, renovate it, and open it for public programming was rejected 2-7 last year, over concerns that the group had not raised enough to make their approach financially viable. The group still hopes to preserve the house, and is marshaling resistance to demolition.

The city council voted 6-3 last month to begin talks with pro-demolition Lighthouse Dunes, but several of the aldermen who voted in favor said they were reserving judgment on the final question of demolition.

If the council votes in favor of the demolition proposal, the issue lands with Evanston’s Preservation Commission. The commission will vote to decide whether the building, declared an Evanston Landmark in 1982, ought to be demolished. If they vote no, the council can vote to overrule them and push demolition regardless.

As part of the proposed agreement with the city, Dune and Gardens released its list of donors in support of abolition.

The 60 disclosed donors includes several Northwestern-connected academics and administrators, business-people, and the Lewis-Sebring Family Foundation, a non-profit that generally supports education-related causes.

If the council rejects the proposal, the mansion returns to the situation it has been in for years – sitting empty, in need of repairs, waiting for a way forward.

Monday night’s meeting begins after the close of the Planning and Development committee, which begins at 7 p.m., at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center.