It’s no surprise that an author has a relationship with books, but Audrey Niffenegger’s is deeper than most. Before her bestseller “The Time Traveler’s Wife” was published in 2003, Niffenegger was an accomplished book artist who co-founded the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College of Chicago. Since the death of the center after the college’s shifting priorities, Audrey has been trying to create a new book arts center she calls Artists Book House. We discussed her ambitious plans for the center, which are focused on a pitch to the City of Evanston for what may be its most contentious property: the vacant Harley Clarke mansion.
What is the Artists Book House and what is its mission?
Artists Book House is a new organization trying to make a place for people to get together and learn and experience all kinds of books. Book arts encompasses letterpress printing, calligraphy, typography, paper making, book binding, artists books, zines and comics. It’s everything from origami to edible books. Almost anything you can imagine as a book has probably been tried and even if it hasn’t you can learn to make it at Artists Book House. It will encompass a bookshop full of curious things. It will embrace local authors. It will host creative writing classes and events like poetry slams and book launches. It will be a place where people can do bookish things.
The impetus for the creation of this organization was the death of Columbia’s Center for Book and Paper Arts. Could you talk about its exodus?
The Book and Paper Center existed at Columbia College from 1994 to May 2019, if you ignore a handful of graduate students. It is closed to the public so I consider it over. We founded it as a community book arts center where anyone could take classes and try things at any level. You could be a beginner or an expert bookbinder: there was something for you. It was a gathering place where people taught each other. There was a gallery space so people could come in and see these amazing book objects. People would come from other cities, because most major cities have a book arts center, and they would be wowed. It was 20,000 square feet in the Ludington Building. Columbia did us proud and spent a million on our buildout. It was a beautiful place.
That was all very good, but if you put yourself in the hands of an institution, then you are at the mercy of it. Columbia has been getting rid of its centers. Book and Paper is gone. Anchor Graphics is gone. The Center for Black Music Research is apparently in boxes in the library, but its archivists are gone. It’s been painful to watch. I’m sure great new things will come of it, but it’s a little hard to watch my beautiful Book and Paper Center die while a fifty-million-dollar student center went up.
So you’re looking to find a place to anchor that community?
Chicago has particularly fantastic book arts and writing communities. The talent here is wonderful, wild and weird. When I see my fellow book artists and writers, I think “Wow, this really is a fantastic bunch. Wouldn’t it be cool if we were all in one building?” I remember reading about this awful building MIT had. People in it liked to be out of their offices, so they kept running into each other in corridors and wound up talking about their ideas. All sorts of cool stuff was born from this, as if you could produce fire by rubbing together scientists. I’m hoping that by giving everybody reason to emerge from their studios through continuing Chicago’s history of having a wonderful Book Arts Center, great things will happen.
We need to talk about your intended home for the Artists Book House: Evanston’s Harley Clarke mansion. How did it come on your radar as a possible community center?
I first visited the house when I was fourteen, back when it was the Evanston Arts Center. I was given a scholarship to take etching lessons and was blown away by how beautiful that place is. Later, when I graduated from the Art Institute at the age of twenty-two, I couldn’t magically materialize the money to get my own print studio, so I did what most printmakers do. I went out and found myself a print studio. I went back to taking lessons at Harley Clarke until I was asked to take over a class a year later. It was kind of outrageous of them to hire a twenty-three-year-old with no teaching experience, but I knew the subject. It was a great laboratory for learning to teach. There was a lot of room to experiment, and no grades. It wasn’t expensive. A lot of the people in the classes were very experienced and only needed me to answer the occasional technical question. That building was crackling with amazing talent. I taught there for fifteen years and kept doing it alongside starting the Book and Paper Center, just because I liked it so much.
The history of the building itself is that it was originally a lakefront home built for the Clarke family. Harley Clarke was a utilities magnate and a pioneer in early educational film. The house had Jens Jensen gardens and a gorgeous landscape. It was built in 1927, the last big house built on the North Shore before the Depression. The Clarke family sold it in 1949 to the Sigma Chi Fraternity to be their national headquarters, which then sold it to the City of Evanston. Aside from carving off the Lighthouse Beach from the property, the city didn’t really have a plan for the house and decided the Evanston Arts Center should have it. They were in the house from 1965 to 2015, when the city felt like it wanted to do something different. The Arts Center is now in a different location, happily for the Arts Center. One of the issues with this building is that the Arts Center was unable to afford complying with the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act]. It’s something that anybody moving into that building will have to address.
But with the terrible indecision about what to do with it next; it’s hard to know what the city had in mind. There have been different people and ideas that have come and gone with varying degrees of anguish and hostility.
A lot has happened since then. The fact that it was almost demolished was nuts.
I give credit to preventing that to the group that is now called Evanston Community Lakehouse and Gardens. Not to mention Save Harley Clarke and Friends of Harley Clarke. Those groups were going on all cylinders with lawn signs and referendums. They saved that building.
Back in 2017 when the Lakehouse Group applied, I considered applying. Then I went to one of their mandatory open houses and thought, “Hey, they seem groovy. They could do this.” So, I didn’t propose and neither did anyone else. And we all know what happened next. I have no idea who said what to whom, but the city first said they would negotiate and then said “No, actually, No.” Then Evanston entertained the whole debacle with Evanston Lighthouse Dunes, the group who proposed to tear it down.
So, here we are with another request for proposals. Part of me hopes that someone other than me will come up with a fantastic proposal and I won’t have to raise a trillion dollars to fix this place. [Laughs] Falling short of that, I believe it would make a fabulous book center. I’m wide open, though. The thing everyone agrees on in my community is that we want to do this Book Center, and the Clarke is a very beautiful building we would make good use of, but you know, we could go do it in some groovy warehouse instead.
What are some next steps for your proposal?
I feel very lucky to have collaborators. I have John Eifler, a brilliant architect experienced with preserving old buildings. He’s done all sorts of wonderful projects, including some Frank Lloyd Wrights. We also have Nick Patera, a landscape architect very knowledgeable about Jens Jensen. One hope we have is to adapt the original Jens Jensen plans for the gardens. Even if it can’t be leaf for leaf, the University of Michigan has the Jens Jensen archives, so we’re able to see the original planting list. We know what was there. It’ll be a matter of interpreting it.
As for next steps, I’ve managed to get incorporated in the state of Illinois and am now pursuing 501(c)(3) status so donations sent to us will be tax-deductible. I have formed a terrific board, many of them who were involved in forming the Book and Paper Center at Columbia and some who got their MFAs from the Book and Paper program. There’s a lot of collective expertise on this board but also a deep desire for this thing to manifest.
We, me along with Nick and John, presented our ideas for the mansion to the people of Evanston in a community forum on November 5. (Along with our competitors.) I am writing and writing to create the proposal. We created a website and we have a P.O. box. We essentially need to present our ideas in a way that gives people a really good solid notion of what we need to do so they can decide whether they like that or not. I’m mindful that we might not get the house, and so I’m trying to do all these things in such a way that it can move to a different building, though obviously my architects are being particular about the Harley Clarke.
From the mountain of feedback I’ve heard going to city council meetings, I understand that what everybody agrees on is that there should be a café. That’s part of this plan, but I also am formulating it so that the people of Evanston can experience the building, even if they’re not bookish. What I loved when I taught there was my ability to poke into all the nooks and crannies. Obviously not every nook and cranny can be publicly accessible, but all the intact beautiful parts of the house will be accessible. The third floor ballroom will be a space for events consistent with the mission and the house will have plenty of places to sit and talk and be.
As much as possible I want to enliven the house. There is something inherently sad about empty places. They always have this quality of waiting. Anticipation. The house feels in between right now. It’s a place that people remember as being tremendously warm and interesting and full of action. That’s the vibe that I hope we can create. If it’s not us, whoever gets it needs to make that happen, because that’s what the community is missing. That’s what they want again.
What do you need from the community to make this work?
Send me money! Send me ten bucks and your address to my P.O. box and I’ll count you as a donor. Send me anything whatsoever, because what I need to show is a broad base of support. Some people think, “I don’t have gazillions,” but what I need to show the city council is that a lot people want this to happen. And maybe that a few people with gazillions, some of whom I’m talking to, would really like it to happen.
The donation drive is going to be important. This is an appeal to vote with whatever modest or amazing amount you can. Something we’ve learned recently as a society is that crowdfunding really works. People need to feel like they’re working together and creating something. It’s been a few years of everything getting ripped apart. Things we care for have vanished or burst into flames. It would be nice to make something good.
Artists Book House supporters are collecting donations through their website and via Artists Book House, PO Box 5851, Evanston, Illinois 60204-5851. They have filed for 501(c)(3) status, which is pending with the State of Illinois. Donations will be held in an escrow account until the proposal for the Clarke House to become Artists Book House is approved.