I will always vividly remember the first moment I walked into the Dawes House, home to the Evanston History Center since 1959. I was no older than five, and as a five-year-old in a mansion grander than anything I’d ever set foot in, I felt like a princess in my very own castle. A treasure on both the national and local level, Northwestern students recognize the Charles Gates Dawes House as the massive lakefront mansion, but Evanston residents like me know it means so much more.
Having grown up in this remarkable city, I’ve had 19 years to explore the 147 miles of streets and 75 parks and playgrounds. I’ve been able to develop favorite neighborhoods, staples and landmarks, and I’ve done so through the eyes of both a resident and a student. The grand Dawes House is one such landmark.
Unfortunately, the landmark has been owned by Northwestern since the 1940s, and epitomizes the city’s notoriously strained town-gown relations. The house was closed in April to repair code violations found by fire inspectors, and since then the university has been considering permanently closing the house and forcing the history center to relocate. Many Evanstonians, myself included, became irate that the future of our own national attraction was now entirely out of our hands.
The city determined that $4 million in repairs would be needed for the beautiful building, a price virtually unattainable with Dawes’ $1.5 million endowment. Through the naïve eyes of a Northwestern freshman, it is understandable why the university would be so adamant about closing the 225 Greenwood St. building. With enough of their own fiscal concerns, especially in today’s wearisome economy, an additional $2.5 million for repairs for an already deteriorating building is far from ideal. The Evanston History Center can easily relocate permanently, leaving the residence vacant and free to the university’s discretion. Beautiful homes with historic significance are torn down everyday, bulldozed to make room of newer, more efficient buildings benefiting a greater number of civilians.
This is a case, however, when a newer, more efficient building is not the answer. Through the lens of a lifelong Evanston resident, a resident who believes we live in the best city in the world, tearing down or otherwise closing the Dawes House to the public would destroy a piece of history. A piece of history important to the city on both an individual and collective level. The university should realize that the magnitude of the house’s emotional value far exceeds the financial cost of its repair. The Dawes House’s smell of wood polish, it’s grandeur and historical presence deserves to be remembered and respected by Northwestern.
First built in 1894 for Charles Dawes, vice president to Calvin Coolidge, the lakefront manor has served as a home for the esteemed Evanston History Center for 50 years. My first experience with the Dawes House was when I was far too young to appreciate its significance, both in a national and local sense. The daughter of an architect, I was forced at an early age to value everything from flying buttresses to Ionic columns. I first visited the Dawes House on one of these educational expeditions, returning many times in the following years. As a resident of Evanston, completely separate from the university I now call my home, I had soon come to view the Dawes House as a treasure beyond explanation.
Evanston serves as a home for more than 70,000 grateful residents, all appreciative of the city’s history, location and spirit. The Dawes House, in turn, serves as Evanston’s home, a place that has seen Evanston develop from a small town to the bustling suburb it is today. It has been a place for young and old to find themselves in relation to a town I, among thousands of others, will forever call home. The Dawes House is as much a part of Evanston as Northwestern – it deserves to be recognized as such, not only by the residents who have always appreciated it, but also by the university.