Podcast Episode #3 https://cream-city-windy-city.simplecast.com/episodes/oldest-houses
Title: Oldest Houses
This is Cream City~Windy City. I’m Wendy Bright.
Every episode, we explore thought-provoking connections between Milwaukee and Chicago, two cities 90-miles apart on the shores of Lake Michigan. This podcast is an effort to lay out some of these links, to connect the stories of both cities. There are a lot of them.
Some of these connections won’t be all that surprising; we are two Midwestern cities on the same body of water that grew up at the same time. But some of the links I’ve discovered are indeed weird, wonderful, and surprising. And I hope the interest and surprise goes both ways – north and south.
There are many reasons to care about the connections between Milwaukee and Chicago. The two cities have a long, complex history: adversarial, competitive, but also cooperative and familial. As urban leaders have recently been discussing, there is undeniably an emerging megacity on the southwest shore of Lake Michigan.
While both cities will keep their distinct identities, as time goes by, we will increasingly have more in common. It’s good that we forge a bond and get to know one another.
About the title of this podcast.
As you may already know, the nickname ‘Cream City’ is not about dairy and ‘Windy City’ is not about weather. Both nicknames are of 19th century origin. Milwaukee is the ‘Cream City’ because of its distinctive pale-yellow brick. Chicago is the ‘Windy City’ because of some particularly braggadocious city boosters.
You’re hiking on a trail through the curving Estabrook Park that follows the Milwaukee River. It’s a popular urban green space filled with old oak trees. Bikers zip along the Oak Leaf Trail, once a railway line, today a straight and wooded path. People fish in the pond and in the river. Humans and canines socialize at the Dog Park. And many find their way to the Beer Garden within earshot of the roaring Estabrook falls.
But you notice something that seems out of context: a small white house with a front porch and columns. No sidewalks, no driveway, no neighbors. By itself among all the green of Estabrook Park is Milwaukee’s oldest surviving house: the Benjamin Church House of 1844.
You’re walking through the energetic South Loop neighborhood of Chicago. Just south of downtown, it is an attractive place to live with a mix of converted industrial buildings and glassy new residential towers. There are a few elegant 19th-century mansions scattered among them, especially on Prairie Avenue. Michigan Avenue, lined with restaurants and shops, cuts north-south through the neighborhood. Parking in the South Loop can be difficult. Yet, you notice many people out leisurely walking their dogs, pushing baby carriages, jogging, biking, and sitting at cafes. Life is good in the South Loop.
But you see something you do not expect. Facing Indiana Avenue, rising behind a tree-lined, wrought-iron fence is a large buff-colored house. It looks nothing like any of the buildings in the neighborhood. And unlike the other tightly packed buildings in the pricey South Loop, this house is surrounded by a park. It has a front porch and columns. It is the focal point of the Chicago Women’s Park and it is the city’s oldest surviving house: the Henry B. Clarke House of 1836.
I became well acquainted with Chicago’s Clarke House as a docent there for several years. I interpreted the exterior architecture and the interior design and explained the Clarke family’s life in early Chicago.
I recently moved back to my hometown of Milwaukee, specifically to its northern suburb of Shorewood. A key amenity for me was proximity to Estabrook Park and as soon as I could, I headed over to the Benjamin Church House in the park. I took my time walking around the house, reading the signage, and trying to notice everything about it.
Upon further research, I noticed something else: the Benjamin Church House, Milwaukee’s oldest house, had much in common with the Clarke House, Chicago’s oldest house.
Here are their stories, juxtaposed. See what you think about the parallels between the two.
Chicago’s Clarke House is the older of the two by eight years. Like Milwaukee’s Benjamin Church House, the Clarke House was built in the early years of settlement before the city was incorporated.
Educated, upper-middle-class Henry and Caroline Clarke came from New York State. They had witnessed the prosperity that came with the completion of the Erie Canal. And now there was excitement about Chicago’s planned canal that would soon connect the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River. The Clarkes were ready to find greater prosperity in the frontier town of Chicago.
They arrived in 1835. They were raising six children and brought a servant with them. They bought 20 acres of land located about two miles south of the center of town, at what is today 16th and Michigan Avenue. They settled into the existing log cabin on the property until they could build their own home.
In the early years of Chicago’s growth, the Clarke’s windswept, prairie property was decidedly remote. Lake Michigan lapped at the eastern edge of their land. And slicing through the center was a centuries-old Native trail that was used by travelers making their way north to town. At night the Clarkes hung lamps to guide travelers and every day they would open the gates to allow them to pass through. This trail would later be known as Michigan Avenue.
Benjamin Church, like the Clarkes, came from New York State. 1834, one year before the Clarkes arrived, he landed in Chicago. Church was a young carpenter intent upon success. The same year the Clarkes arrived in Chicago, 1835, saw Benjamin Church leaving the city. He was on his way to Milwaukee. The savvy young carpenter decided to drive a herd of hogs 90 miles north so that he’d have income upon arrival.
Within one year, Benjamin Church bought a plot of land in the western settlement of soon-to-be downtown Milwaukee, known as Kilbourntown. It was located at what would later be 4th and Court Streets. His brother joined him and they lived in a small cabin on the land until Benjamin could build his home. Benjamin Church put his carpentry skills to good use in Milwaukee, participating in the construction of many structures in the burgeoning city. Seven years after he bought the land in Kilbourntown, he was ready to build his own home.
Both Henry Clarke and Benjamin Church, building homes in the 1830s and 40s, chose an architectural style that was widespread out east, one they were quite familiar with: the Greek Revival. Starting in the 1820s, Greek Revival architecture had become popular in the United States in part because of Greece winning its independence in 1821. Americans became fascinated with all things Greek – especially architecture. The United States was a young nation and appealing to the ancient Greek cradle of democracy made sense: Americans saw their country as the spiritual successor to ancient Greece.
Using elements of the ancient architecture, and often resembling a temple, the Greek Revival style swept the nation. From grand mansions to humble farmhouses, the versatile style could be seen everywhere.
Building in this dignified style on the frontier was a way of showing one’s refinement and aspirations. Acclaimed writer James McConkey described these early Greek Revival homes as “a dream of order and balance and proportion set down in rude wilderness.”
Milwaukee and Chicago were cities filled with Greek Revival buildings in their early decades. But over time – and due to disasters like the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 – most of these have been lost. The Benjamin Church House is one of only about a dozen residential structures built before 1850 that survive in Milwaukee. And Chicago’s Clarke House is a rare survivor of early Chicago residential architecture.
Henry Clarke and Benjamin Church knew that their choice of Greek Revival design would not only signal refinement and celebrate democracy, it would be a perfect style in which to create a comfortable, beautiful home for their families.
While most homes of this era were built in the balloon-frame manner – a Chicago innovation of the 1830s: fast, easy, light with no carpenter required – both Henry Clarke and Benjamin Church chose to go the more labor-intensive route – the well-established post-and-beam method.
The Clarkes knew that they wanted a large “prairie mansion” – solidly built. Their builders used squared logs with mortise-and-tenon joints to construct the timber frame house. Benjamin Church, himself a carpenter, also wanted a solid house. He built his new home out of hand-hewn timber and plaster lath slats. He utilized local Cream City Brick within to strengthen and insulate it. Both houses would be of highest quality, elegant and dignified.
The finished Church house in Kilbourntown was simple and modestly sized, the front façade a well-proportioned temple-style front. Though it has no pediment, the hipped roof provides the classical triangular shape above. Two flanking wings add space and contribute to the overall symmetry. The front portico features four fluted Doric columns, which support the entablature, with pilasters at the corners. Four steps take you up to the porch and the plain framed door. Two windows are on either side, six-paned and double sash. The exterior was clad in clapboard and painted white.
Chicago’s Clarke House was especially grand for its time, and also featured a temple front. The large house is basically a symmetrical cube. Symmetry was a key element of the Greek Revival style, and one which the Clarke House embodies. The east and west facades mirror each other, as do the north and south facades. While both east and west façades were over the years alternately used as the front entrance, the original idea was to have no true front door. Clarke House has been restored with both east and west entrances.
The Clarke House is raised up half a story much like Greek temples built on podiums. A wide stair – both on the east and west sides — leads to the spacious porch. Each portico is supported by four columns, topped with a well-proportioned triangular-shaped pediment. The columns have Doric capitals and fluted shafts but Roman-style bases. Pilasters mark the four corners of the house. The tall, triple-sash windows are trimmed with ornamental cornices and shutters. The doors are especially prominent with transoms and sidelights. The roof has a parapet – a low, ornamental railing – which defines its shape. The exterior was clad in clapboard and painted white.
But in a major remodeling of the Clarke House in the 1850s, the exterior was repainted a sandstone color. Also at that time, a stylish Italianate belvedere was added to the roof. Its windows opened, bringing abundant light and air down into the large house.
The Clarke House took years to complete. In fact, the family moved in before the house was finished. They struggled financially for a time, but just as things were improving, Henry Clarke died in Chicago’s cholera epidemic of 1849.
Widow Caroline sold off three acres of land in order to survive. With the proceeds she also completed the house. This is when the belvedere was added. Caroline also added gas lighting to the house and completed the interior design in the most stylish 1850s fashion.
The perfect symmetry of the Clarke House exterior continued inside. The 40-foot long main hall bisects the house, with two large rooms on either side: two large family spaces on the south side, and parlor and dining room on the north, separated by pocket doors. The 12-foot ceilings and fine staircase add to the grandeur. The Greek Revival style interior wood trim – moldings, stair railings, mantels – were all made in New York. Wallpaper in the main hall was made to look like the cut stone inside of a Greek temple. Downstairs was the kitchen and upstairs were bedrooms and storage.
In Milwaukee, Benjamin Church completed his house in 1844. He and his wife Permilia and their six children moved in and the family lived in the home for four decades. The front entrance opens directly into the living room. Beyond it is the dining room and beyond it, the kitchen. Symmetry is reinforced with the identical bedroom wings. The interior wood trim was made in Buffalo, New York, where Benjamin Church had traveled to purchase it. A narrow stairway leads to a second floor and attic.
After 40 years of life on 4th Street in Milwaukee, in 1884 Benjamin Church sold the house he had built. The next family to own the house stayed for a few decades and then began renting out the house. One of the tenants in the 1920s, Clara Stewart, operated an African-American church group out of the house. She tried to have the house declared a landmark and be preserved as a museum, with no luck. By the 1930s the house had been sold to a landlord who proved to be absentee. The house grew dilapidated. One of its elegant Doric columns rotted and fell down. The owner had stopped paying taxes, so the City of Milwaukee took control of the house in foreclosure.
The Clarke family in Chicago also lived in their house for over three decades. Caroline died in 1860 and her children – some of whom were by then adults caring for the younger ones – stayed for another 12 years. But after the 1871 Chicago Fire (which had not come near the house), they decided to move away. In 1872 the Clarkes sold the house to a family that promptly relocated the entire house to a property on Wabash and 45th Street. For three generations, they lived in what became known as the “Widow Clarke House.” This family in 1941 sold to Bishop Louis Henry Ford and his congregation, St. Paul Church of God in Christ. The church lovingly preserved and celebrated the historic house, using it as a parsonage, office, and community center.
During the decades that Bishop Ford’s church owned the Clarke House, they received many offers to buy it, but the congregation knew any buyer during that midcentury, urban renewal era would surely tear it down. So they refused to sell until they could trust someone to save their beloved building. Finally, in the 1970s the City of Chicago made an offer to purchase the house with a promise to preserve it. In 1977 the church agreed to sell to the City. Clarke House was to be a central part of the City’s plan for the new Prairie Avenue Historic District. Which was fitting, since this was the same neighborhood where it was built.
So the Clarke House needed to be moved one more time. Major challenges for this move were modern power lines, streetlights, and the elevated train lines now in the way. They decided to move the house OVER the tracks. The plan was a good one, except for one thing: they made the lift over the tracks on a bitterly cold night in December 1977 while 2,000 people watched. The house cleared the tracks and then the hydraulic lifts froze. The Clarke House was suspended in the air, right next to the el tracks for two weeks. This, of course, made the news and during that time was a curiosity for el passengers going by the old house perched at eye level.
The Clarke House eventually made it to its new home in the Prairie Avenue Historic District in the South Loop, in the new city park. Over the years, many changes had been made to the Clarke House, including removing most of the Greek Revival details. A new foundation was prepared, and the house was completely restored to its original form, complete with porticos and pediments.
In Milwaukee, in 1938, the city sold off the decaying Benjamin Church House to a demolition contractor. But the head of the Milwaukee County Historical Society stepped in. He knew the value of this early structure. But he was a little late: demolition had already begun. The roof and siding had already been removed. But he, along with an architect and the City Council, was able to halt the demolition. The City then agreed to let the Society have the nearly-century-old house for restoration as a landmark, but it would need to be moved.
It was decided that the house should have a home in a Milwaukee County Park and be restored as a WPA project. Employing the heaviest machinery trailers they moved the house in several pieces. The foundation had been prepared and the house arrived at its new home in Estabrook Park.
The restoration and furnishing of Chicago’s Clarke House was a cooperative effort between the City of Chicago and the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Illinois, who furnished the house to its 1850s appearance. Original paint finishes and wallpaper were studied and recreated. The Clarke House opened to the public in 1982. In the master bedroom today, you will find a window in the wall revealing the timber frame construction, with its lath and plaster layers.
The restoration and furnishing of the Benjamin Church House was a cooperative effort between the Milwaukee County Historical Society, the Milwaukee County Park Commission, and the Wisconsin Society of the Colonial Dames, who furnished the house. The Colonial Dames did for the Benjamin Church House what they had done for the Clarke House: using period-appropriate antique furnishings, they returned the interior to its original appearance. Today you will also find a window in the wall revealing the Cream City Brick, hand-hewn timbers and split lath. The Benjamin Church House was dedicated in September 1939 before a crowd of 2,000 people gathered in Estabrook Park.
Both the Clarke House and Benjamin Church House were built by early settlers from New York intent upon success. They settled in newly formed settlements, not yet established cities. After purchasing land, both the Clarkes and Benjamin Church lived in cabins on their property until they could build. And they built solidly in the traditional labor-intensive way involving skilled carpentry, abundant time, and added expense. They built in the elegant Greek Revival style and utilized purchased wood trim from New York. The construction method may be seen in both houses today with the windows built into the walls. The two historic structures survive as rare antebellum architecture in each city.
Both the Clarke and Church families – with six children each – stayed in their homes for decades before selling. Multiple successive owners ensured survival of the houses, but substantial changes were made, as well.
The Benjamin Church House and the Clarke House had both been threatened with destruction in the 20th century. The demolition of the Church House had actually begun. But Black church groups in both houses were the earliest to seek recognition and preservation for the homes. Due to their efforts and later intervention by historic preservationists, the houses were successfully rescued and restored.
Both houses were physically – and rather dramatically – moved across town to their current locations. Both were relocated in popular city parks and lovingly restored to their original appearance. And each house was accurately furnished by the Colonial Dames.
Chicago’s Clarke House was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 and Milwaukee’s Benjamin Church House was added the following year. The Clarke House and Benjamin Church House are today open to the public as house museums, which interpret early life in Chicago and Milwaukee.
The parallels between the Clarke House and the Benjamin Church house are many. 90 miles apart, these two oldest surviving homes are sibling structures in Chicago and Milwaukee, bearing dignified witness to history.
To visit the Clarke House: https://www.chicago.gov/city/en/depts/dca/supp_info/clarke_house_museumtours.html
To visit the Benjamin Church House: https://milwaukeehistory.net/visit/historic-sites-2/kilbourntown-house/ (The house was also known as the Kilbourntown House.)
Thanks so much for joining me. I welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions.
Every episode of Cream City~Windy City will have an accompanying blog post where you can see images, check out the transcript, and leave comments. Find it at WendyCityChicago.com.
Many thanks to my son, Zack Goehner, for his brilliant graphic design work.
Intro music: “Chicago Blues” by the Kenny Dorham Quintet.
Outro music, “I Lost My Baby In Milwaukee” by KEdKE.
See you next time.
Great episode, Wendy! The Greek revival architecture is something else–the houses look bizarre to me with the columns. That’s also a great pic of the Clarke House next to the el tracks.
Thanks, Kim. Yes, columns providing the look of classical grandeur – a trend that has never really gone away.
A very informative and well written article. I enjoyed reading it as I’m a Chicago native.
So much fascinating history in Chicago! Thank you.