Fate of Harley Clarke House and Garden Now on the Ballot

On Tuesday, August 21, 2018, the City of Evanston’s Electoral Board rejected two remaining objections to including an advisory referendum about the fate of the Harley Clarke House and Garden on the November 6 ballot. The Harley Clarke house, along with its gardens by the renowned landscape architects Jens Jensen and Alfred Caldwell, is a city-owned Evanston Landmark listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. A group known as Evanston Lighthouse Dunes, comprising fewer than 50 people, most of whom live nearby the property in question, has offered to pay to demolish the historic mansion, which the fiscally strapped City says it cannot afford to maintain.    

The referendum, backed by a petition with more than 3,300 signatures and filed by the group Save Harley Clarke on July 25, 2018, will ask Evanstonians to weigh in on the non-binding question: "Shall the City of Evanston protect from demolition and preserve the landmark Harley Clarke buildings and gardens next to Lighthouse Beach, for use an access as public property, consistent with the Evanston Lakefront Master Plan, at minimal or no cost to Evanston taxpayers?"

Harley Clarke House and Garden, Evanston, IL
Harley Clarke House and Garden, Evanston, IL - Photo courtesy Evanston Lakehouse & Gardens

Three objections to the referendum were registered, one of which included Matt Rodgers as a signatory. Rodgers was a campaign chairperson and paid consultant to the Rainey for Alderman Committee. Alderman Ann Rainey, of Evanston’s 8th Ward, is one of three members of the Electoral Board charged with considering the objections. E-mails obtained via FOIA requests also revealed that Rainey had solicited financial contributions from her constituents to strengthen the illusion of city-wide support for the demolition efforts by Evanston Lighthouse Dunes. An e-mail from Rainey to one constituent said:     

Although they have sufficient funds to finance the effort (things will definitely come up), they want to be able to say they have financial support from all the wards. Currently, short 8th and 3rd Ward so I am out beating the bushes for a few small contributions. Can your family help with a small donation? We have 2 so far Let me know.

Another e-mail from Rainey advised that the pro-demolition group should “conduct a campaign” and “get the troops out…this looks very bad,” noting that she had received more than 300 e-mails against destroying the Harley Clarke House and none in favor of demolition.

Despite the recent Electoral Board ruling and the impending advisory referendum, Evanston City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Evanston Lighthouse Dunes on August 27, 2018, outlining the terms for the group's funding of the demolition of the property. The MOU does not contain language about the restoration or maintenance of the Jensen-Caldwell landscape, but rather refers to a goal of "natural site restoration." What is more, the landscape design, with its series of outdoor rooms responding to the site and the architectural footprint of the Harley Clarke house, would be entirely illegible were the mansion to be razed.  

Only two designed landscapes in Chicago have been honored with National Historic Landmark designations (of the fewer than 75 works of landscape architecture so honored nationwide). Columbus Park, by Jens Jensen (designated in 2003) and the Lily Pool in Lincoln Park, by Caldwell (designated in 2006). The historic designed landscape at the Harley Clarke House is a rare, publicly accessible work by these two masters, and it should be preserved and rehabilitated for future generations rather than be destroyed.


Harley Clarke House and Garden, Evanston, IL
Harley Clarke House and Garden, Evanston, IL - Photo by Carey Lundin, 2015