Saving a Landmark – Two Tips for Solving Problems That Feel Impossible

Most things that are worth doing are hard, and some of them feel impossible. At Equity Schools we’ve taken on projects that are so mired in financial obstacles, the stakeholders can’t help but feel defeated. But there’s a solution to every problem, and we’ve learned a couple strategies to help keep that in perspective. But first, some context:


I was minding my own business when a friend invited me to meet her at a historic landmark. She recently had gotten involved in saving it from the wrecking ball.

I thought, “Gosh, this is a gorgeous piece of architecture; she should be proud to have helped save it, and I would love to see its interior.”

It all seemed so innocent – a happy opportunity.

That was a few months ago. Now it seems I’m deeply caught up in efforts to restore and redevelop that landmark. To be more accurate, it seems I’m leading the efforts.

The Harley Clarke Mansion

Oh my. I wasn’t looking for this. But it really is an astonishingly beautiful and historic building, perched on the shores of Lake Michigan. I genuinely want people to be able to experience and celebrate it.

Located just north of the Northwestern University campus, you certainly don’t need to be an architect or historian to appreciate this gem. Here’s an excellent video (6 min):

The Evanston Conservancy

I’ve named our plan “The Evanston Conservancy” because it will be a fiscally self-sustaining, dynamic new center for conservation, education, advocacy, and community. The historic structure will house next-generation ideas with a focus on sustainability, a theme organically inspired by its striking physical setting; tucked into sand dunes and adjacent to “Lighthouse Beach,” surrounded by Jens Jensen designed gardens in one of the most beautiful locations on Chicago’s North Shore.

Among some other compatible uses, we programmed it for:

  • gallery / exhibit / event space
  • co-working
  • mid-size conference facilities
  • environmental non-profit offices
  • a light fare café
  • a diverse-by-design, nature-based preschool
  • performing arts

Pretty cool – altogether a center for education and advocacy on the global issues of conservation, environmental sustainability, and climate change. Most importantly, though, it’s feasible – a realistic project without relying primarily on government subsidy or fund raising.

Two Takeaways

This project is an excellent example to highlight two key strategies we use when we’re faced with a funding challenge that feels impossible. Regardless of each project’s circumstances, our experience is that these steps can help you stay grounded and find solutions that aren’t immediately obvious.

  • Stay calm. Seriously. When initially confronted with the problem, it’s important not to panic. In this case, almost everyone who had looked at the property was saying the cost could be as high as $10 million, the potential uses had to have “public access,” the local government (which owns the property) was not going to provide financial subsidies, and the philanthropic potential was limited. There was a lot of anxiety. It’s helpful to keep in mind that your initial anxiety clouds your thinking, and that it will fade over time.
  • Identify and unpack the assumptions. Is the cost really $10 million? Why can’t uses be welcoming – even inspiring – and still pay market rate rents? Even if the government isn’t going to provide cash subsidies, it’s offering a long-term lease; but on what terms? Will the property be subject to property taxes? Even if philanthropists might not offer donations, could friendly investors receive other tax benefits based on the historic qualities? In fact, adding all these numbers together, could this project attract investors who would welcome a fair return on their money while restoring a beautiful landmark and creating a unique community asset? Be honest with yourself about how much you’re assuming, and make a point to question those assumptions.

Remember: Stay calm, then identify and unpack the assumptions.

Does it Work?

This process helped us discover that, for Harley Clarke, this can all work. We researched and planned and estimated and modeled and projected and analyzed. It turns out to be a potentially good deal.

So, we submitted a proposal for “The Evanston Conservancy” (in response to the city’s RFP), competing with three other proposals. We feel very good about our approach and about our chances. But in truth, as long as someone restores this property and opens it up for the community, we’re good with that. A happy ending.

And, I’ll admit it. I do want to win this one

I want you to solve your own “impossible” challenge too, if you’ve got one that feels that way. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you want to talk about it! Sometimes a conversation gives you the momentum you need to get started.

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