John Chrimes, a tailor, and his wife Lydia purchased the Clarke House in 1872. The previous year, the Great Fire of 1871 had begun west of the Clarke House and spread northeast through the downtown area. The Clarke House escaped destruction. Fearful of another fire, and wanting to get an ailing child out to the purer air of the country, the Chrimeses had the Clarke House moved twenty-eight blocks south and one block west to 4526 South Wabash Avenue. In the move, the original pillared front portico was removed. The three remaining acres of Clarke land were sold separately to St. Paul’s Universalist Church at the same time. The land was used to construct a new church to replace the structure lost in the Chicago Fire the year before.
Three generations of the Chrimes family occupied the house from 1872 to 1941. The Chrimes daughter Mary married William H. Walter, and during their residence took great interest in the house’s history. The two Walters daughters, Lydia and Laura, both graduates of the University of Chicago and teachers in Chicago public schools, in turn appreciated the historic significance of their 1836 house. When they longer needed as much space, they urged the City of Chicago to acquire it. These efforts were unsuccessful.
Bishop Louis Henry Ford and the St. Paul Church of God in Christ offered to buy the house in 1941, and the Chrimeses’ granddaughters accepted. The bishop and his congregation built a church on land adjoining the house, using the Clarke House at various times for offices, schoolrooms, social events, and their parsonage. Well aware of the history of the house, the congregation made every effort to maintain it.
On October 4, 1970 Clarke House received an official designation by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, receiving legal protection and ensuring its continued preservation. The St. Paul Church of God continued to operate out of Clarke House, but eventually, the church needed the land for other purposes. The City of Chicago, under the leadership for Mayor Richard J. Daley and through the office of the First Deputy Commissioner of Public Works Elizabeth McLean, initiated negotiations to purchase the house in 1972. By 1977, the City owned what was considered the oldest structure in Chicago. The decision to save the house was influenced by the availability of an appropriate site for its relocation. With grants from the State of Illinois Open Space and Land Acquisition Act for historic and urban areas in 1974 and 1975, the City had purchased a plot of land near the original Clarke property for the Prairie Avenue Historic District, along Prairie Avenue between 18th and Cullerton streets. The Clarke House could be relocated to the east side of Indiana Avenue between 1800 and 1900 south, approximately one block south and one block east of its original site, and it could face east toward the lake as it had in 1836.
The Restoration of the Clarke House
Thorough architectural and historical studies of the house were conducted and procedures for its relocation we developed. There was no way to move the house to its new site without encountering the elevated train (the “El”) structure which had not existed at the time of the move south in 1872. The City Architect and architectural consultant Wilbert R. Hasbrouck studied ways of surmounting the obstacle of the El. Among the possibilities considered and rejected were slicing the house into sections, an airlift by helicopter, an overnight removal and replacement of an El span over one street, and an excavation that would allow the house to move under the El tracks.
The decision was made to lift the 120 ton structure over the El. The house was picked up and transported on wheeled dollies to the point where the El crosses 44th Street between Calumet and Prairie avenues. There the house was slowly jacked up twenty-seven feet on wooden cribs until it stood slightly above the El tracks.
At exactly one minute after midnight on Sunday December 4, 1977, when El traffic was at a minimum, all train service on the line was halted. Temporary rails were laid across the tracks, cables were attached to the house, and trucks on the street below pulled the house slowly across the tracks. Despite the very cold weather, about 2,000 people gathered to watch as the house moved over the tracks and onto another set of cribs on the east side of the El. Soon the trains were running past the house once more.
In the bitterly cold weather, the hydraulic equipment that would have lowered the house froze. When the weather finally warmed up on December 18, the house was lowered and moved to the new site and placed on the excavation prepared for it. A new foundation was then built up to fit the idiosyncrasies of a very old structure.
The Clarke house was to be not only the embodiment of Chicago’s past and a historical record in itself, but also a public museum. Steel reinforcements were added to floors and to the staircase. Air conditioning and security equipment were concealed in walls and fireplace flues. An elevator was added in former closet space. The basement was designed to include offices, restrooms, and a museum gallery. Daniel Majewski, Assistant City Architect, was in charge of all phases of the restoration of the Clarke house.
All of the original Clarke family furnishings had long since disappeared. The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in The State of Illinois undertook the refurnishing of the house as part of the organization’s national historic houses program. Furniture of the target restoration period of 1836- 1860 was purchased by the organization. Robert A. Furhoff, consultant to the NSCDA and to the City of Chicago, studied the evidence of original paint colors and wallpapers, bits of which were found under the woodwork. His research made possible an accurate recreation of the interiors as they appeared between 1836 when Clarke House was built and 1860 when Caroline Clarke died.
In 1998, Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and the Colonial Dames formed a public-private partnership and assumed the management of the Clarke House Museum. One year later, the Clarke House welcomed Cyrus Clarke to his ancestral home 127 years after the Clarke House passed from Clarke family ownership.
Restoration is on-going at the Clarke House Museum. In 2009, the Colonial Dames hired historic house museum experts Richard and Jane Nylander to reassess the furnishing and decoration of the Clarke House. Their report suggested many changes to enhance the visitor’s experience by refocusing the period of significance, reinforcing regional specificity, accurately reflecting the occupancy of the Clarke family during a specific period, and increasing authenticity of decorative treatments.
Changes began October of 2009 and are continuing today. The period of interpretation has been narrowed to the years 1853-1860 to reflect the changes made by Caroline Palmer Clarke following her husband’s death with the income generated from the sale of seventeen acres. Artifacts, programs, and exhibits at Clarke House now prominently feature 1850s Chicago, focusing on social, political, and economic issues of the period. Research is being done to learn more about what the Clarkes, specifically, were doing and experiencing during the 1850s. Visitors have an opportunity to find relevance to their own experiences through engaging, fresh historical perspectives.
The Clarke House, Chicago’s last remaining Greek revival structure, provides a unique link to an era when the city was just a small frontier town. It marks the beginning of Chicago architecture and history. We hope you will join us again and again for a unique experience you can only have in Chicago.