I am proud to be a docent at the Clarke House Museum (1855 South Indiana Avenue). I give tours the first Saturday of each month at noon and 2 pm (for more information).
From its earliest frontier days Chicago has been a beacon to those looking for opportunity. Merchant Henry B. Clarke was one of the early pioneers seeking his fortune in the town on the shores of Lake Michigan. And the history of the Clarke House is intertwined with that of the burgeoning city.
Clarke and his wife Caroline, along with three children and a servant, moved to Chicago from upstate New York in October 1835, even before the outpost was incorporated as a city (1837). They purchased 20 acres of land two miles south of town, the borders of which are now 16th and 17th Streets, State Street on the west and Lake Michigan on the east. The only way to reach the remote property was by an old Native American trail – now South Michigan Avenue – which cut through the Clarkes’ land.
Henry and Caroline, well educated and upper-middle class, had witnessed the fortunes made out east with the 1825 opening of the Erie Canal. They expected that Chicago would enjoy the same prosperity when it opened its planned canal, linking the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River.
Reflecting their aspirations, the Clarkes chose to build their home in the Greek Revival style; a type of home familiar to them in New York. Popular in America in the mid-19th century, the style speaks to democratic and elevated ideals of ancient civilization. Writer James McConkey described the attraction of Greek Revival in the young republic as, “a dream of order and proportion set down in rude wilderness.” Clarke House would be a big – and sophisticated – house on the prairie.
Pattern books for Greek Revival houses were available, but the Clarkes wanted something better – and larger. They hired experienced finish carpenter John Campbell Rue to customize their Greek Revival mansion. Erected in 1836, Clarke House is an especially fine example of the style. Balanced and symmetrical, the east and west facades feature identical porticoes. Each portico is composed of a wide stair and a classical pediment atop four Doric columns. The main floor plan was typical of the style: two large parlors on each side, bisected by a grand main hall. The house has been returned to its original sandstone exterior paint color.
Although the Clarkes could have utilized the new Chicago innovation in building construction – “balloon” framing, which was fast and cheap, using boards and machine-made nails with no need for skilled labor – they chose, instead, the older method of timber construction, with carefully crafted mortise and tenon joints. This sturdy construction would serve the house well in its subsequent moves… and mishaps.
Henry Clarke was enjoying success in Chicago with his hardware and banking concerns when the Panic of 1837 hit and caused him to declare bankruptcy. Construction on the house came to a halt by 1838. Clarke turned to farming and hunting to survive and support his family. The family took in boarders to make ends meet. Of this period, one of the boarders described in her journal how the unfinished south parlors were used for meat storage. She writes of rooms filled with “half a dozen deer, hundreds of snipe, plover, and quail, and dozens of prairie chickens and ducks.”
The economy recovered by the late 1840s and Chicago entered a major boom phase. The Illinois & Chicago Canal finally opened in 1848. The first railroad line from Chicago was completed that same year. Prosperity was returning. But cholera also came to the city in 1849 and claimed Henry Clarke as one of its victims.
Now a young widow with six children, Caroline decided to sell the majority of their increasingly valuable land. With the proceeds from the sale of 17 acres, the family would be secure financially. And, finally, the house could be finished.
But Mrs. Clarke did more than complete the 1836 structure. She remodeled it inside and out with the most up-to-date 1850s features. Inside, the south parlors (formerly meat lockers) were transformed into an elegant Victorian double parlor. She added gas service to the house, which meant fine new light fixtures. And for the crowning touch, an Italianate cupola (or belvedere) was perched atop the house, accessed via a winding stair from the second floor, which added light and air circulation to the entire structure.
Caroline Clarke died in 1860 and a number of her children continued to live in the house, the elder ones caring for the younger ones. In 1872 they sold the house and the three acres of land to separate buyers. The Chrimes family purchased the “Widow Clarke House” and three generations of their family would inhabit and lovingly care for the home.
But first, they decided to move the house three miles south to 4536 South Wabash Avenue. In the move, the two porticoes of Clarke House were removed and those prominent Greek Revival elements were lost. A porch and double-doored entrance was added and it appears the structure was painted in contrasting hues.
After unsuccessfully attempting to convince the City of Chicago to purchase the home for conversion to a public museum, the family found a preservation-minded buyer in Bishop Louis Henry Ford and his congregation, the St. Paul Church of God in Christ. (Bishop Ford was the leader of his some eight-million-member national church body and has a portion of I-94 named for him.)
The church became the third owners of Clarke House in 1941 and over the years used it for a community center, parsonage, offices, and schoolrooms. They loved the house and each year hosted a birthday tea to celebrate its construction. During a time of rampant “urban renewal” thinking, Ford and his congregation fought off demands to raze the house to make way for new development. The only way they would eventually sell is if they knew the home would be preserved.
And finally in the 1970s the City of Chicago was ready for Clarke House. The City had purchased land near Clarke House’s original location and the new site (Prairie and Indiana Avenues, 18th and Cullerton Streets) was adjacent to the newly designated Prairie Avenue Historic District.
Now, to move Clarke House one more time! There was one formidable obstacle: the elevated tracks. Many schemes to accomplish the move were entertained, but finally it was decided to use hydraulic lifts to raise the 120-ton structure over the tracks. It was a bitter cold December night in 1977 when the “L” trains were temporarily stopped to allow for the passage of the house over the tracks. All was well until it came time to lower the house. The hydraulic lifts were frozen. Clarke House would remain suspended in the air for a full two weeks!
Eventually, the house made it to its new home on South Indiana and was set down on its new foundation – only a few blocks from its original location at 17th and Michigan Avenue. The City, with the expertise of Joseph W. Casserly and Wilbert R. Hasbrouck, set about restoring it to its original Clarke family-era appearance. Paint and finish analysis was performed and colors and wallpapers reproduced. A photo believed to be from the 1850s (shown above), after Caroline Clarke’s renovations, proved to be helpful.
Clarke House was opened to the public in 1982. Further restoration work was done in 2004 by Gunny Harboe, notably: adding the west portico. The house is owned by the City of Chicago, furnished by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Illinois, and operated by neighboring Glessner House Museum.
Today, those visiting Clarke House get a detailed look at early Chicago life and marvel at the story of a house that exists today in large part because of the love, care, and far-sighted preservation it has known for 177 years.