In 1833, when Chicago was just a newly-formed town on the western frontier, Henry B. Clarke, a young and ambitious New Yorker, arrived with his family with dreams of striking it rich. At that time, Chicago had a population of about 200 but Clarke believed it would grow into a major metropolis. He decided to open a firm selling building materials. In 1836, he built his estate a mile and half south of town in what was then the middle of nowhere. The house is now the oldest surviving home in Chicago.
It’s possible to visit the Clarke House, which is in its third location at Chicago Women’s Park in the Prairie District, on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Free guided tours are given at 1pm and 3pm on those days.
A tour of the home begins in the basement where a small museum is located. The museum tells the history of the home and stories about its moves. It was originally located at what is now the corner of 17th and Michigan but was moved in 1871 by English immigrant John Chrimes to 45th and Wabash. It later was sold and became the St. Paul Church of God in Christ. Bishop Louis Henry Ford of the church had it restored as a house. It was later acquired by the city and in 1977 it was moved to its current location, just one block east and one block south of where it had originally stood.
Next, we were taken to a replica kitchen of the period. Many of the items in the kitchen were commonly used during the 1830s.
From there we went upstairs to see the hallway. The floor is an ancestor of linoleum and was made to look like fine marble while the walls were wallpapered to look like expensive brickwork. The doors were stained to look like real cherry but were made of pine. The Clarkes did a fine job of saving money while making the house look more upscale than it was.
Main Floor – 1830s
The half of the house we visited first was completed in the 1830s. We saw a children’s playroom and a parlor. Clarke hit hard times after his business quickly folded and he used the incomplete half of the house to cure animals for the sale of their hides and meat. The upper floors were rented out to boarders for extra income. Unfortunately, he died during a cholera epidemic in 1849. The other half was completed in the 1850s and was visited later in the tour.
Upstairs, we were taken to see the cupola which was most likely added in the 1850s. Cupolas were not part of Greek Revival architecture, which was the style of the Clarke House. The addition of the cupola drew light into a very dark space.
Next were three bedrooms, including the master bedroom, a children’s room, and a guest room that was used by boarders.
Main Floor – 1850s
Finally, we went downstairs to see the half of the house completed in the 1850s. After Henry died, the house became known as the Widow Clarke’s House. Caroline Clarke fared better than her late husband, as his vision of a growing Chicago started to come to fruition. The land around the Clarke House became highly sought-after. A gaslit Michigan Avenue ran in front of the house through the Clarke’s property and new homes were popping up in the area. Caroline subdivided the property, keeping only three acres around the house, sold it, and completed the rest of the house in a much more elegant style than the original 1836 Greek Revival style. We were shown a dining room and parlor.
The tour ended back in the basement museum. It was a fascinating look into the beginnings of Chicago and what life in the city was like shortly after it was founded. The docent did an excellent job of telling the story of the house and the Clarke family. If you are in the Prairie District during a tour time, it’s worth taking the hour-long tour.