Harley Clarke House and Garden on Today’s Ballot
On Tuesday, October 23, 2018, the Historic Preservation Commission of Evanston, Illinois, in a 10-0 vote, unanimously denied a request from the City of Evanston to permit the demolition of the Harley Clarke mansion and grounds.
City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, who filed the request on behalf of the city, told the commission that "the demolition of the buildings, as proposed by the city of Evanston, would result in open lakefront land, which would restore the original condition of the property to its natural state, and it represents the lake shore in the early days when there were no buildings present."
The city has long been intent on removing the historic property and its grounds designed by renowned Prairie School landscape architects Jens Jensen and Alfred Caldwell, having entered a memorandum of understanding with a group called Evanston Lighthouse Dunes, which has pledged up to $400k for the demolition costs, a budget that construction experts say is woefully underfunded, listing more than 20 necessary items that were not included in the demolition quote.
As reported in the Evanston Patch, former Historic Preservation Commission member Brad White (the author of Evanston’s preservation ordinance and an Obama appointee to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation) wrote a fiery letter to the commission, rebuking the city’s plan:
"I'm embarrassed," wrote White. "The presentation by the city shows a total lack of respect for the preservation commission, for this process. There isn't an ounce of expertise, it's, 'The city feels.' I don't even know why we're standing up here talking about the standards because they haven't even presented a case that would show that they would even have an iota of trying to meet the standards. No information on how much the costs are. No information on what the financial hardship is. Nothing. No experts. No nothing."
In a story related to the often-contentious issue, the Chicago Tribune reported on October 29, 2018, that the Evanston Board of Ethics had found Alderman Ann Rainey, of Evanston’s 8th Ward, guilty of violating city rules under the categories of Abuse of Power and Impartiality when she advocated for the demolition of the historic property, even going so far as to use her position to raise funds for Evanston Lighthouse Dunes in an attempt to give the appearance of city-wide support from under-represented wards.
But perhaps the most meaningful action with regard to the Harley Clarke House and Garden will take place today. After gathering more than 3,300 signatures, the group Save Harley Clarke was successful in establishing the first citizen-led advisory referendum on Evanston’s ballot in more than a decade, asking voters to weigh in on the following question on today’s ballot:
“Shall the City of Evanston protect from demolition and preserve the landmark Harley Clarke buildings and gardens next to Lighthouse Beach, for use and access as public property, consistent with the Evanston Lakefront Master Plan, at minimal or no cost to Evanston taxpayers?”
Despite the recent ruling by the Preservation Commission, Evanston's City Council could still approve the demolition of the city-owned landmark by filing an appeal and then reviewing its own application for a certificate of appropriateness to carry out the work. In combination with the Preservation Commission’s unanimous vote to preserve the site, a successful outcome for the referendum would, however, put significant pressure on the council to heed the public’s recommendation advocating for preservation of the historic house and gardens.
TCLF added the Harley Clarke House and Garden to its Landslide program in July 2018, subsequently submitting written testimony on behalf of the historic designed landscape before the Preservation Commission. The property is a rare, publicly accessible work by Jensen and Caldwell, incorporating many features from the Prairie Style aesthetic that both men championed. While the group supporting demolition has advanced a limited message of “green space and dunes restoration,” local environmental groups have come out more broadly in support of preservation of the house and gardens, as demonstrated in a recent letter to the editor in the Daily Northwestern by Lauren Marquez-Viso, the vice president of Citizens’ Greener Evanston, who also co-chairs the Mayor’s Working Group for Climate Action and Resilience Plan.