Harley L. Clarke was a powerful utilities magnate serving as President for Utilities Power and Light in the years leading up to the Great Depression, once donating $300,000 to form the Chicago Civic Shakespeare.
When he hired architect Richard Powers to design his lakefront home in Evanston, it was probably the last of the 1920s big mansions in Evanston before the stock market crashed.
Harley Clarke had the Wilbur D. Nesbit House moved in 1926 to make space for his three-story brick mansion, built in 1927, at 2603 Sheridan Road, directly next to the Grosse Point National Landmark Lighthouse. The 37,700-square-foot estate features a spacious glass conservatory, ballroom, basement rumpus room and coach house.
Renowned landscape architect Jens Jensen designed the grounds, which still feature his original limestone grottoes, a council ring (fire pit) and walkway. Alfred Caldwell, creator of the Chicago Lily Pool, worked under Jensen during construction of the Clarke project and referred to that time as one of his fondest memories. The mansion, valued at $500,000 in 1938, was the first in the Chicago area to win an art commission award, according to news articles.
At one time, Clarke’s fortune was estimated at up to $60 million. An undated glossy real estate brochure, presumably from the 1940s, states that motion picture equipment was housed on the mansion's third floor. Clarke was cutting edge in the film industry and was more than just a hobbyist, having created a state-of-the-art media room in the third floor ballroom and invested heavily in Fox Studios, serving as its president for a short term after buying out founder William Fox.
Sadly, Harley and his wife were victims of the Great Depression and after a long struggle with creditors, were forced to sell the property in 1949 to a local college fraternity to be used as their national headquarters.
In 1964 a group of visionaries working on Evanston’s City Council, purchased the property and beachfront from the fraternity, stating the importance of creating a public park and beachfront for the community.
Shortly after the purchase, the same group of city visionaries agreed to lease the Harley Clarke House to the Evanston Art Center for $1.00 per year with the intention of promoting art and culture on a broad spectrum for the benefit of the entire Evanston Community.
For over 50 years, the Harley Clarke House served the Evanston Art Center, working as a cultural destination for residents of all ages.
This July, 2015, the house sits empty, and the voices of those city visionaries echo in its hall to preserve this public space. As stewards of the vision, it's time to act, to contribute, and revitalize this unique space, to enjoy today, tomorrow and for future generations. Make history with us.