The Clarke House, frequently called the Widow Clarke House or the Henry B. Clarke House, is the oldest surviving building in the original boundaries of Chicago. It was built in 1836, only a few years after the departure of the Native Americans indigenous to the Chicago area, and at a time when Chicago was preparing for incorporation as a city. The long life of this Greek revival house encompasses almost the entire history of the city, from its beginnings to the present.
The house was constructed for Henry Brown Clarke and Caroline Palmer Clarke. Mr. Clarke, a merchant from Utica, New York, migrated to Chicago in 1835 at the suggestion of his brother-in-law, Charles Walker having heard of the prairie town’s economic promise. Engaged in the shipment of guns, boots, and leather, Mr. Walker had come to Chicago earlier that same year, not only to seek his fortune, but to buy land and settle in “the West.” Mrs. Clarke and two of her three young children soon followed her husband to Chicago.
In June of 1835, Mr. Clarke bought twenty acres of land along the south shore of Lake Michigan, reportedly for the price of $10,000. For the site of his family’s new residence, Mr. Clarke chose a section of land on what is now Michigan Avenue in the vicinity of 1700 south. To the west stretched the nearly limitless prairie, with its tall grasses and plentiful game. One and a half miles south of its nearest neighbor, the Clarke House could only be reached via an old American Indian path (today’s Michigan Avenue) that ran in front of the new home’s west entrance.
The Construction and Style of the Clarke House
The Clarkes knew what they wanted in their dwelling. In a letter to a relative back East, Mrs. Clarke wrote of the “good” houses that would soon be built in Chicago: “The buildings are not mostly small and look as though they had been put up as quickly as possible, many of them are what they call here Ballon [sic] houses, that is built of boards entirely- not a stick of timber in them, except the sills…” The “balloon” house to which Mrs. Clarke referred was in fact one of Chicago’s major contributions to architecture. A balloon frame was built of light weight two-by-four or two-by-six wooden boards fastened together with machine-made, inexpensive wire nails that were then becoming widely available for the first time. This type of framing system, which looked so flimsy to early observers that they thought it would ‘blow away like a balloon’, could be built more quickly and cheaply than a tradition hand-shaped timber frame. The technique swept the country and continues to be the dominant method of building wooden frame structures today.
The Clarkes, however, decided to build a large, heavy, timber frame structure. They modeled the house in the Greek revival style, resembling many of the houses in upstate New York where the Clarkes had lived before moving to Chicago. The Greek revival style flourished in America from about 1820 to 1860, appearing first in cities on the Eastern seaboard and then spreading gradually west as the young nation expanded. The words of writer James McConkey about another Greek revival house apply also to the Clarke House: “…a dream of order and balance and proportion set down in a rude wilderness to represent the original owner’s sense of himself and what he could achieve, as well as a spiritual attitude that justified his striving.” Encouraged by the idea that their own governmental ideals resembled those of ancient Greece, Americans saw the Greek revival style as an expression of their developing national character.
Prior to the emergence of the Greek revival as the style of choice, American architecture had been based largely on Western European styles, which themselves derived primarily from classical Roman antecedents. Both the Georgian and Federal styles which prevailed from the early eighteenth century through the early nineteenth were based on these models. By the 1820s, Americans were looking to other sources for inspiration. Beginning in the second half of the eighteenth century, accurate knowledge of the differences between Roman and Greek form emerged, primarily as a result of archeological explorations. The Antiquities of Athens, published in England in 1762, contained engraved illustrations of classical Greek buildings and had an important effect by encouraging the use of Greek architectural elements. Joined to this new understanding of antiquity was the sympathetic American response to the Greek Revolution of the early 1820s. There was a natural identification with their war of independence from the Turks, and relief funds were sent from American towns to Greece. These two influences fused into a desire to emulate the Greek traditional forms, and classical Greek decorative elements were thus used to create a distinctively American style.
The original classical Greek buildings were constructed of cut stone blocks: rectangular ones for walls, and round, stacked drums of stone for columns. In America, Greek revival structures were often made of wood and brick. A columned portico, or porch, topped by a triangular roof shape, or pediment, was the most prominent feature of both the classical temple and its wooden American counterpart. Nineteenth-century visitors to America marveled at the white “Greek” temples that appeared in the cities and dotted the countryside. When Alexis de Tocqueville, a French philosopher, traveled to America in 1831, he remarked on “a number of little white marble palaces, some of them in classical architectural style.” Upon closer examination he found they were all of whitewashed brick with columns of painted wood. These wood and brick Greek revival buildings were elegant in an understated way.
The Clarke House was probably built by a local carpenter using readily available pattern books or builders’ guides. Such publications provided floor plans for Greek revival and other styles of houses, drawings of moldings, staircases, and additional details, as well as practical suggestions on the use of wood, stone and other materials. With such guidance at hand, a skilled carpenter could produce a fashionable, well-designed home. A.T. Andreas, in the first volume of his History of Chicago (1884), wrote that the Clarke House was built by John Campbell Rye, a carpenter. Nothing further is known of Rye, but he may have been the John C. Rue listed among carpenters working in Chicago in 1839 in the book Industrial Chicago: The Building Interests, published in 1891. The house the Clarkes built, however, is far from a stereotypical pattern book house.
The House the Clarkes Built
For their own home, the Clarkes apparently considered the balloon frame unsubstantial and temporary, and so they built a timber frame house, the kind Mrs. Clarke considered a “good” house. The Clarke House thus demonstrates the survival of traditional construction techniques in which logs, roughly squared, are firmly held together by mortise and tenon joints: the tenon or tongue of one timber is fitted into a matching slot, or mortise, in the other, both laboriously cut to fit. Wooden pegs are driven into the joints to prevent slippage. Thus built, the Clarke House has withstood time, two fires and two moves.
The strong frame is covered on the exterior by horizontal clapboards. The interior surfaces are finished with hand-split lath and plaster. To make the lath, a long thin section of a log was split repeatedly at either end and fastened to the wall. Each separate lath could then be pulled down, in the manner of an accordion, and nailed to the vertical wall studs. The result, when filled with a rough coat of plaster and then a smooth finish coat, was strong and enduring. Visitors to the house can see the original construction system through an open panel in the wall of the upstairs middle bedroom.
In its general proportions, mass, floor plan, ornament, and detailing, the Clarke House is in the American Greek revival tradition. As in the ancient Greek temple, the façade is commanded by a large portico supported by tall columns and a well proportioned pediment. The Clarke House columns sit on a small pad or plinth and so it appears to have been modeled from a simple Roman Doric prototype, rather than from Greek precedents. A parapet or low ornamental railing defines the edge of the roof. The house is crowned by an unusual and somewhat Italianate lantern and finial. The lantern was added to the house in the 1850s, probably in an attempt to update the house in the latest fashion.
The symmetry and openness of the house are underscored by the placement and design of the door and window openings. The front door is tall, important, and welcoming with is transom and sidelights divided by delicate mullions. On either side of the door are two windows, reaching from the floor almost to the ceiling, and seeming to invite stepping from window to portico. Their sashes are triple-hung, with six panes of glass in each sash. Corner pilasters and ornamental cornices above the door and windows increase the feeling of grandeur. The north and south sides of the house are dramatized by three first floor windows with six-over-six sashes and by a handsome arched window at the middle of the second floor. On the south side of the house, the central first-floor exterior window is positioned only for symmetry; it is not cut through to the interior and serves only as an element of design. All the windows have shutters that not only contribute to the overall design but were also part of a highly effective 1830s cooling system.
As in most Greek revival houses, there is a wide central hall. With its graceful walnut-railed staircase and wallpaper printer to resemble cut stone, the hall provided elegant entries to the house from the east and the west. Because of the openness of the hall, it was badly damaged in 1977 by a fire that swept up from the basement furnace, shortly before the house was moved to its present location. The woodwork was deeply charred and might have been wholly destroyed had it not been for the multiple layers of paint that protected it. Other rooms, particularly those at the northeast corner, also suffered serious damage.
On the south side of the hall is a spacious double parlor that can be divided into two rooms by sliding doors. The east room of this double parlor, with is high ceiling, long windows, and deeply carved woodwork, served as the family’s parlor; the identical west room was used as a dining room. Completed in the 1850s, the finishes and ornamentations in these rooms are more elaborate than in any other part of the house. The fireplace surrounds and mantels in both rooms are finished in a reproduction hand-grained black and white imitation marble.
The most exacting research, sometimes through as many as twenty-seven layers of paint, revealed a rich original color scheme. Two sections of the parlor ceiling, divided by a band of beading, were painted two shades of gold. Stronger colors were used on the band of ornament at the top of the walls and on the ceiling medallion from which an elaborate brass chandelier was suspended. The floral elements of the medallion were painted in intense but muted shades of blue, green, pink, gray, and brown, highlighted with touches of gold and encircled by gold leaves.
On the second floor are six bedrooms, the middle room on either side of the hall being distinguished by a tall arched window. The lantern (commonly referred to as a cupola) above the second floor hall is yet another element in the cooling system of the house. Its open windows, combined with the cross ventilation achieved on the first floor, kept most of the hose cool and comfortable even on the hottest summer days. The lantern also brought sunlight into the otherwise dark upper floor hallway.
The Clarke Family
After the Clarkes arrived in Chicago in 1835, Mr. Clarke not only acquired the land he wanted, but also became partner in the wholesale hardware firm of Jones, King, and Co. The firm dealt in construction, farming, and trapping implements that were in great demand in the rapidly growing city and throughout the Midwest.
When the Clarkes settled in Chicago, it was still a small frontier town. In a letter to her sister-in-law, Mrs. Clarke wrote: “I am far better pleased with Chicago than I expected. The situation is, I think, very pleasant and the town is laid out handsomely. When the streets come to be built up with good houses… it will be very pleasant indeed.”
The influx of European- Americans started in 1833 when the departure of Native Americans opened the area to new settlement. At that time, the population was 350 people; by 1837, the year Chicago was incorporated as a city, the population had already grown to 4,000. Some of the necessary services for a developing community were becoming available. “Good tasting” water was brought in from the lake and sold by the barrel for a price Mrs. Clarke considered negligible “in Chicago’s way of doing business.”
In the fast-rising Chicago economy, Mr. Clarke had also become a director of the city’s first bank, the Illinois State Bank, which had opened in 1834 at the corner of LaSalle and South Water Streets. His brother-in-law, Charles Walker started shipping wheat from Chicago to New York and, it is said, was well on his way to becoming one of the city’s first millionaires. The expansive years of the early 1830s ended in the Panic of 1837, when almost overnight the Illinois State Bank failed and Jones, King and Co. foundered. As a result, the Clarkes did not have the money necessary to finish the interior of their new house.
During these hard times at the end of the 1830s, Mr. Clarke turned to farming, dairying, and hunting. Alice L. Barnard, a teacher who lived with the Clarkes, wrote to a friend that the unfurnished south parlors were hung with “half a dozen deer, hundreds of snipe, plover, and quail, and dozens of prairie chickens and ducks.” The game was used by the family and also sold. The first city directory in Chicago, published in 1844, listed Clarke as “farmer, lake shore below Michigan Avenue.” Economic conditions improved during the 1840s. Mr. Clarke served as city clerk from 1846 to 1848 for a salary of $600 and fees. During the 1840s, the Clarke family continued to grow, and by 1849, there were six Clarke children living (three had died in infancy): James, Mary, Robert, Caroline, Edward, and Cyrus. In 1849, however, the Clarkes again suffered hardship that affected the entire city. After a severe winter, spring flooding contaminated the city’s drinking water. Cholera broke out in epidemic proportions, killing nearly three percent of the city’s population. Henry Clarke then 47 years old, contracted the disease and died on July 23, 1849.
By the 1850s, the city was beginning to spread southward close to the once-remote Clarke property. The State Street stagecoach made daily trips to the city limits at 22nd Street. After Mr. Clarke’s death, Mrs. Clarke subdivided and certified a significant portion of the land and created “Clarke’s Addition to Chicago.” The twenty Clarke acres were divided into four blocks and the blocks subdivided into lots that were sold except for a plot of three acres on which the house stood. The Clarke family was able to secure its financial position, and in the early 1850s, the lantern was added to the house. Michigan Avenue was opened all the way to the Clarke House, and a favorite Sunday excursion for Chicagoans was a carriage ride to see what had come to be called the Widow Clarke mansion.
In 1860, Mrs. Clarke traveled to Buffalo, New York, probably to visit her late husband’s younger brother Cyrus. While there Mrs. Clarke died, and her body was returned to Chicago for burial. She was interred next to her husband on the family’s land. When Graceland Cemetery opened, both Henry and Caroline Clarke and their eldest son James, who had died in 1856, were reburied in a Clarke family plot. The Clarkes’ youngest child, Cyrus, was only twelve years old when his mother died. Mary, the oldest of the surviving children and her husband Frank B. Williams moved into the Clarke House to care for Cyrus and the other children.
By the 1860s, the pioneer era in Chicago had ended. The village had grown into a city of more than 100,000 people. The Clarke children continued to live in the house their parents had built until 1872, when it was sold.