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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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,
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.
is balanced," Scott said. "It's built to resemble a Greek temple."
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.
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.
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.
the Clarke House from the Chicago Department
of Cultural Affairs and Landmarks