Visit Chicago's oldest home and time travel to the urban frontier of the mid-1800s. The Clarke House, built in 1836, has been through multiple owners, several fires and two moves – including a short period where it was suspended mid-air for two weeks. Now completely restored to its Greek Revival style glory complete with period furniture collections, the Clarke House Museum offers a look into the city's early history through docent-guided tours, educational programs and special events.
The Clarke House was built as a residence for the merchant Henry B. Clarke and his family, transplants from upstate New York who came to the prairie town of Chicago one year before it was incorporated as a city. On 20 acres of land near the lake, they chose a site amidst tall grasses and wild game around what is now 16th Street and Michigan Avenue. Mr. Clarke supported his family by trapping, hunting, farming, as selling dairy products and serving as City Clerk until he died in the 1849 cholera epidemic. By then, the city boundaries had expanded to incorporate the family property, and Mrs. Clarke divided and sold portions of the land to support her family and finish building the house.
In October 1871, the Great Chicago Fire swept across the city, but didn't reach this south side area, sparing the Clarke House. In 1872, the Clarke children sold their home to John Chrimes, who moved it to Wabash Avenue and 45th Street, away from the dirt and noise of the city. This wouldn't be last relocation or change of ownership for the house. Generations later, after it was sold by the Chrimes to Bishop Louis Henry Ford, the St. Paul Church of God in Christ used the house as a parish hall, parsonage and community center until 1877, when the City of Chicago purchased it.
The City of Chicago decided to move the house again to its present location in the Prairie Avenue Historic District, close to its original location. Moving the Clarke House required that it be lifted over ‘L' tracks that had not existed at the time of the first move. The house was raised on hydraulic jacks, and on December 4, 1877, all train service was stopped while the house was pulled across the tracks. Unfortunately, the weather was so cold that the lifts froze and the house was left suspended for two weeks before it could be set down on its new foundation.
ARCHITECTURE & HISTORICAL COLLECTIONS
Walk through the South Loop neighborhood and along this stretch of new housing developments, the grand portico and elegant columns on the Clarke House façade stand out as a striking reminder to a time in history over 175 years ago. The symmetry and openness, done in the style of Ancient Greek temples, are highlights of the architecture and design.
With restorations in 1977 and 2004, as well as furnishings from the period when Clarke House was built, you'll see what it was like to live as a middle-class family in Chicago during the mid-19th century. Everything within the house museum – from the tablecloths in the dining room, to the kettles in the kitchen, to the side chairs in the sitting room – has been carefully curated. Discover beautiful antiques like a child's porcelain doll and a delicate pink tea set in the rotating exhibit collections.
Outdoors, enjoy the surrounding Chicago Women's Park and Gardens with its central fountain and gardens filled with culinary and medicinal herbs, dye and scent plants, heirloom vegetables and prairie grasses – all indigenous to the era when the Clarke House was built.
PROGRAMS & EVENTS
Immerse yourself in history and celebrate the oldest surviving residential structure in Chicago with a Clarke House Museum guided tour, offered every Wednesday through Sunday year round, or plan a visit for upcoming events and special programs. Annual favorites include:
- Edgar Allen Poe Readings, a spooky Halloween tradition for over 25 years, which will have you squirming in your seats as Poe's terrifying stories and poetry come alive during staged theatrical reading (October)
- Shadows on the Street: Haunted Tours of Historic Prairie Avenue, evening Halloween adventures through the neighborhood that uncover Chicago tales of strange sounds, unexplained sightings and untimely endings (October)
- Historic Holidays at Clarke House Museum, when seasonal décor like festive greens and simple, homemade decorations fill the home with warmth and Yuletide cheer (November through December)
- Candlelight Tours, 90-minute walks led by docents through the historic Clarke House and neighboring Glessner House Museum that highlight Christmas customs and decorations of the 19th century (December)
For the complete schedule of events, visit clarkehousemuseum.org.