Clarke House
1827 S. Indiana Ave.

Clarke House
2003 NB
This Auld House
Chicago Journal
December 6, 2001 
By Nathan Bierma 

Shoppers weary of the Magnificent Mile's unrelenting blitz of commercialism and canned Christmas carols, especially grating in a holiday season that has taken on more meaning after September 11, may find meaningful respite two miles down Michigan Avenue. 

Modestly adorned with tasteful holiday trimmings from the Victorian era, the Clarke House Museum hearkens to a time in American culture when Christmas was more of a religious ceremony than a shopping festival, says curator Ed Maldonado. It was a time of family and faith rather than gifts and glitz, back when the historic house's back door opened to what was then called the Michigan Trail, a dirt path pounded out by Native Americans. 

The irony of Michigan Avenue linking two city standbys with very different spiritual cores--the Magnificent Mile and the Clarke House--is not lost on Maldonado. When the house was built in 1836 by New York merchant Henry Brown Clarke, "giving presents was a very minor thing." Maldonado said. Instead, December 25 brought a time of religious reflection. "The idea was to celebrate Christ's birth. It was a quiet time, rather than a celebratory time. There was a good deal more religious significance. It was an opportunity to get together for a quiet meditative moment of prayer." 

Maldonado paused and volunteered some social commentary: "I don't think people really say prayers anymore [on Christmas]," he said. "They don't remember it's a religious day." 

All of which is not to suggest that the Clarkes, or other typical families in the mid-nineteenth century, entirely eschewed holiday revelry. A tradition that is more recognizable in modern times is wine and merriment on New Year's Day, when the Clarke doors flew open to a swarm of guests. 

"The gentlemen would make calls on horseback," said Marilyn Scott, volunteer docent with the nearby Glessner House Museum. "There was an unspoken competition of how many calls you could make, and for the women, how many guests could you have. That was the custom of the time." The indulgent hospitality got so bad that local papers urged hosts to go easy on the alcohol for the good of the town. 

In a society with strict moral guidelines for behavior, Maldonado said, "Their holiday was New Year's; it was the one day people were allowed to let loose." 

In the Clarke House dining room upstairs from Maldonado's basement office, Scott points out the home's humble holiday trimmings: greens, ribbons and berries hugging the faux marble fireplace and trim, and a compact tabletop Christmas tree, which was in yuletide vogue long before the sprawling freestanding version. The 1850's era, the intended flavor of the museum's holiday season, was when Queen Victoria began to introduce Christmas customs for interior decorating, and Americans were cautiously trying them out, Scott said. 

The dining room and parlor in the southern wing, the focus of the seasonal decorating, reflect other Victorian transitions for the colonial East Coast family. The Widow Clarke completed the southern portion of the house after her husband's death from cholera in 1849, making for noticeable contrast between the Greek and colonial influences shaping the older northern wing and the more recognizably Victorian and Italianate southern wing. In the newer section, the walls are painted rather than hung with patterned wallpaper and contrasting borders. Gas fixtures replace candles, allowing for heavy draperies over the wall-length windows. The ceiling medallions hanging on to the chandeliers are painted in stark shades of navy, burgundy, green, and gold. 

The completion made the house almost obsessively symmetrical, appropriate for the Greek Revival style in which it was built, Scott said. Thus the rectitude of the four corner chimneys and aligned windows, doors, and hallways, and the religious allusion of the rooftop belvedere. 

"Everything is balanced," Scott said. "It's built to resemble a Greek temple." 

The Clarkes surveyed the flimsy "balloon" houses slapped together with planks and nails, which were sprouting around the prairie boomtown when they arrived in 1835, and opted for the more hardy mortise and tenon construction involving heavy wooden beams secured with dowels. 

The result is a sturdy house that stubbornly withstood two major moves. Subsequent owner John Chrimes, a Chicago tailor, first uprooted the house in 1872 and hauled it by horse and logs to the 4500 block of South Wabash, lured by the clearer country air and rattled by the Great Chicago Fire which blazed by (but around) his original neighborhood the year before. (The Clarke House is one of the oldest surviving structures in the city, and, because of post-1871 construction codes, about the only thing made of wood in the Loop area.) 

Early in the twentieth century the house was used as a parsonage by St. Paul Church of God in Christ. Mayor Richard J. Daley obtained and landmarked the house in 1972 and the city began a tedious restoration, the most astounding step of which was hoisting the house by hydraulic jacks over the El tracks one December midnight (pictured here at the bottom), and trucking it down to the Prairie Historical District (the house now stands at 1827 S. Indiana, a couple blocks from its original location at 1625 S. Michigan.) The exterior has been touched up and is intact, and the interior, with the help of the Colonial Dames of the State of Illinois, has been decorated with vintage items based on research about the Clarkes' time period, though it is devoid of any of the Clarke family's furnishings or photographs. 

The result is a historical experience to round out a more thoughtful holiday season than the usual Christmas rush enables, cleanly removed from the flurry of the Magnificent Mile. In December, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs offers holiday tours of both the Clarke House Museum and the neighboring Glessner House Museum with complimentary cider and cookies. 

-More about the Clarke House from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Landmarks Division


© Copyright 2001-2003
Nathan L.K. Bierma