Audrey Niffenegger’s Evanston Dream Project: Artists Book House

Audrey Niffenegger has a vision. In it, booklovers, writers, and artists will come together to create and support Artists Book House (ABH), a new nonprofit dedicated to the art of the book, from papermaking to printing word on page, from design and bookbinding to the experience of holding the finished product. Art books will share pride of place with graphic novels, poetry, memoirs, and fiction, while artists, fans, educators, calligraphers, and printmakers pursue the process and craft of book making. People will tell stories, and others will read them and be inspired to tell their own.

This dream is closer to reality than ever before with the long-term lease of the Harley Clarke Mansion from the City of Evanston; the 22,000 square-foot home — located on the banks of Lake Michigan — is currently owned by the city. “The City is being super supportive of our efforts with the ABH,” says Niffenegger.

Originally built by famed architect Richard Powers for the Clarke Family in 1927, with grounds and gardens designed by the visionary Jens Jensen, its sweeping staircases and vistas, enormous third-floor ballroom, and glorious woodwork throughout are all decently intact, although there is quite a bit of work to be done to bring the building up to code and create the arts haven that Board President Niffenegger and the ABH Board are planning.

They will be working closely with architect John Eifler (Eifler & Associates) and landscape architect Nick Patera (Teska Associates, Inc.) to restore and renovate the mansion, which will eventually include classrooms for writing seminars, studios for print and paper making, conference rooms, a bookstore, an art gallery, and a café with a terrace overlooking the magnificent Lake Michigan shoreline. An elevator and two stair lifts will add much-needed accessibility to the building. They’re doing what they can to make the building greener, even considering geothermal solutions, although those may be cost-prohibitive.

Harley Clarke Mansion Artists Book House
The Harley Clarke Mansion. Photo courtesy of Artists Book House.

Niffenegger, the celebrated artist and author of best-selling novels “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and “Her Fearful Symmetry” among others, is no stranger to the Harley Clarke Mansion. A graduate of ETHS and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she got her MFA from Northwestern University and spent 15 years working at the Evanston Arts Center, the most-recent occupant of the Mansion. She’s well aware of the many benefits and pitfalls of the building and has a great reverence for its history and architecture. 

In 1994, Niffenegger was teaching at Columbia College when she helped co-found the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts, part of Columbia’s Interdisciplinary Arts Department. Sadly, it closed in 2019. She left her Columbia professorship in 2015 to devote more of her time to writing, and to start work on the Artists Book House, which was incorporated in 2019 and achieved 501c3 status back in April 2020. It’s wonderful to know that the Chicago area will once again have a much-needed book arts resource — hopefully sooner rather than later. 

The folks behind ABH have their work cut out for them. “We need to raise $2 million per year starting now to meet the benchmarks in our lease with the City of Evanston,” says Niffenegger. “When we have at least $4 million, we can begin to renovate the mansion. Our goal is to raise a total of $14 million, which includes operating support.”

They are subleasing the Mansion’s coach house and garden to Jens Jensen Gardens, a nonprofit that will take over the restoration and ongoing maintenance of the grounds, so that’s been taken off their plate. But the struggle for funding, and to catch the attention and imagination of the general public as well as deep-pocketed donors, is real. During the pandemic, they created an online series of programs to keep ABH on the radar, including writer and artist Collaborations, Conversations with creators, and Open House Virtual Book Arts Workshops, but this content was offered free of charge. 

Kenneth Gerleve, ABH Board Treasurer and Niffenegger’s studio assistant, is in charge of “A House, Haunted,” a “Halloween Spectacle” at the Harley Clarke Mansion that will also feature new daily content online, 31 days of tricks and treats throughout the month of October. It’s a delightful and creative Halloween distraction, but they had originally hoped to host more in-person events for the holiday that would bring attention to the project.

“We have installed Halloween decorations and art [at the Mansion] and the windows are visible at night from dusk to 10 p.m.,” shares Niffenegger. “Because of Covid restrictions, we decided not to offer ticketed tours to the public [this year], but if groups of people who already know each other would like to come, we are happy to show them around. We have made a virtue of necessity and are posting all the art online. We are also going to have candy for trick or treaters on Halloween.”

ABH has a 40-year lease from the city of Evanston, and they are hoping to make the most of it. I was lucky enough to have a personal tour of the building from the auburn-haired author herself earlier this fall, and I was struck by the scale and the splendor of the Mansion and seduced by Niffenegger’s vision of a book-arts education center and haven in the middle of the North Shore. Truly, there could be no more inspiring location, surrounded by beautiful old-growth trees, stirring architecture, and the ever-changing Great Lake just beyond the lead-pained glass. 

The love of books is universal. “We have a certain unity of purpose here,” says Niffenegger. “As an arts organization, we can help visualize it. The wonderful thing about books is you can connect them to almost any subject matter, to any occasion. We can expand your horizons.” In other words, as she so eloquently states on the ABH website, “Every book is a world. Books are vessels, ideas; they sit at the heart of civilization, where philosophies and visions converge. A book can be intimate and personal; it can change the fate of nations. Books speak to us and connect us across time and distance.” If this speaks to you — and I must wonder, how can it not? — please consider a donation to Artists Book House and help make this vision a reality.

Audrey’s Favorite Books of the Year

“My favorite recent book is Anne Elizabeth Moore’s Gentrifier, which is her chronicle of living in Detroit in a problematic free house that was given to her by a sketchy non-profit org (a sort of ‘room of one’s own’ to write in), and how she delighted in her neighbors and the community, but eventually had to leave. I enjoyed it because AEM is a great writer and a fresh thinker, and because I love Detroit despite all its difficulties.”

Celia Paul’s memoir, Self-Portrait, was interesting to me because I look to other female artists to see how they combined their art with their lives. Paul is a painter, and was in a relationship with the painter Lucian Freud, with whom she had a child. Her work is full of family: her sisters, her mother. I wanted to know what Paul herself thought about her life; this is a beautiful, reflective memoir.”

“I enjoyed Lauren Groff’s new book Matrix—she’s very inventive, funny, and writes convincingly of 12th century nuns, visions, court intrigue, and romantic longing.”

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Julie ChernoffBetter’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless, and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and counts Northlight Theatre and Les Dames d’Escoffier International as two of her favorite nonprofits. She currently serves on the national board of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, an advocacy group addressing hunger issues in the U.S. and Israel for the nearly 46 million people — veterans, children, seniors, tribal nations, and more — who go to bed hungry every night. 

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