The Landmarked Harley Lyman Clarke House, or Harley Clarke Mansion and Jens Jensen Gardens are located at 2603 Sheridan Road in Evanston, Illinois adjacent to Lighthouse Beach and at the foot of the National Historic Landmark Grosse Point Lighthouse and its fog houses.
The house, its accessory structures, and the property's grounds are all situated within the Northeast Evanston Historic District and are part of the Lighthouse Landing campus of public properties east of the juncture of Central Street and historic Sheridan Road in north Evanston. These properties are situated atop the point of land, jutting into Lake Michigan, that early French explorers called Grosse Point. Historical account has this site as where Father Jacques Marquette landed in 1674. As trade developed, numerous shipwrecks occurred and an important, early lighthouse, the Grosse Point Light, was built in 1873. Today, the lakefront complex includes the lighthouse, keeper's house, fog houses, the Harley Clarke house and grounds, and parklands including Noah’s Playground for All and the public Lighthouse Beach. The lighthouse, supported in recent years by a not-for-profit, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 and made a National Historic Landmark in 1998.
The historic Harley Clarke House, designed in the French Eclectic style by Richard Powers, is situated on nearly 5 acres of beachfront property and originally featured gardens by pioneering landscape architect Jens Jensen. The house and coach house are listed as contributing structures in the application to the National Park Service designating the historic district. 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 this partnership 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.
Harley Lyman Clarke was a self-made man who believed in giving back. When he and his wife Hildur Freeman Clarke built their home in 1927, their love for ecology and the environment was on full display, as they contracted architect Richard Powers and Jensen (the Frank Lloyd Wright of landscape architecture) to ensure that the house and gardens worked harmoniously with the surrounding environment of the lake and the beach. Their vision and usage of materials has allowed the mansion and gardens to stand the test of time.
While Clarke may be commonly known for being a powerful utilities magnate who served as President for Utilities Power and Light in the years leading up to the Great Depression, it’s a lesser-known fact that, as an electrical engineer, he founded The Society for Visual Education in 1919. That same year, an early study that proved the worth of utilized motion pictures for the purpose of education was conducted in four Evanston public schools, including Foster School. This pioneer study, supported by The Society for Visual Education was funded by Harley Clarke. The study proved successful and the curriculum was first rolled out to all Evanston schools, then to Chicago Public schools, and eventually nationwide (after direction from President Hoover and through Harley’s persistence). In 1931, Harley promised to “place all the resources of his concern” behind this effort. His commitment helped advance "talkies," and when he saw what a difference visual education could make in the lives of children, he became president of Fox films for that purpose.
Clarke and his wife, Hildur, were active philanthropists in Evanston, Chicago and Lake Geneva. Hildur volunteered with garden and horticultural clubs, they donated heavily to the Chicago Shakespeare Civic Theatre (in fact underwriting it to the tune of $500,000 in 1931, the equivalent of $8.4 million today) Perhaps most importantly, they continually donated, volunteered, opened their home, and raised funds for the Chicago Junior School (for orphaned children) in Elgin and Evanston. They felt that one of the most important things they could do was to help provide education to those less fortunate and lacking access because of financial or location constraints. They were philanthropic pioneers who believed in equity.
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. He created a state of the art media room in the ballroom after investing heavily in Fox Studios, served as the president of Fox Studios after buying out founder William Fox during the Depression, and also owned the General Theatre chain.
Sadly, Clarke 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 the Sigma Chi 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 city leased the Harley Clarke House to the Evanston Art Center for $1 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.
Today, the mansion and surrounding gardens are the keystone of the four-part lakefront complex, which includes: Noah’s Playground for All, Lighthouse Beach, the Grosse Point Lighthouse, and the mansion. With the Evanston Art Center having relocated to a newer, more centrally located facility in 2015, the Harley Clarke House is currently vacant and in need of repair, restoration, and a new vision. As stewards of a new vision, it is time for us to act, to contribute, and to revitalize this unique space. Make history with us.
Illustration by John S. Dykes