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English: Clarke House. I took this photo mysel...

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176 years ago, on the outskirts of what is now downtown Chicago, Henry B. Clarke built his family home. Spanning from Michigan Avenue east along 16th street to Lake Michigan the expansive property was plenty suitable for farming and hunting, thereby keeping the Clarkes afloat as they suffered financially in the panic of 1837.

As the house was built during the height of the Industrial Revolution it displays an interesting blend of old and new techniques. The decorations inside the home represent a forward moving, modern family, of the time. However Mrs. Clarke was wary of the new style of construction and opted to use the old standard timber frame method of building the house rather than the newly adopted balloon frame method, which later became the standard for house construction.

The decorations, of course, are not original, but studies of the Clarke family and of the paint on the house have allowed preservationists to make close approximations to how the home may have been furnished and utilized.

Mrs. Clarke’s decision to use the more structurally sound timber frame method may have played a large part in the fact that Clarke House is not only the oldest home in Chicago, but it has been moved two times!

Moving the Clarke House in 1977

Clarke House being moved in 1977 - Courtesy of the Clarke House Museum

Originally situated just south east of the destructive pathway of the Chicago Fire the house survived the 1871 catastrophe. The home was sold in 1872 to the Chrimes family who, not wanting to live in the city, moved it to the country, which is now the neighborhood of Bronzeville, to 4526 S. Wabash.

Three generations of the Chrimes family cared for the house until 1941 when they sold it to the St. Paul Church of God in Christ. The church kept the house until 1972 at which time they sold it to the city. In 1977 the city moved the home back to the South Loop, where it now stands at 1827 S. Indiana.

The Clarke House is a spectacular piece of history showing Chicagoans what life was like for an average family with a comfortable lifestyle living in a forming city destined to become a metropolis.

Almost fifty years after the Clarke house was constructed the incredibly wealthy Glessner family built their urban fortress on the corner of Prairie Avenue and 18th Street.

[Charles] Hutchinson—not one to modify his aesthetic standards, even for friends—was among those who first indulged, as Frances Glessner wrote in her diary, in ‘some rather rugged criticisms [of the house].’ However, on touring its interior, he was reportedly ‘enthusiastic over everything,’ particularly its charming library and ‘home-like air.’

There’s no denying that Glessner House dominates the street corner and demands attention. The north side of the home is unwelcoming with only a few windows, designed like Arrow Loops in a castle, and entrances for the servants.

The front of the home is broad with prominent Romanesque features, an obvious contrast to the tall slim homes neighboring the property.

As Hutchinson learned, when touring the inside of the home the look of the outside begins to make sense. The north side of the building is corridors for the servants. It is the coldest part of the house, but it serves as a buffer to help insulate the rest of the home.

The south end of the home faces an expansive, private courtyard. The home was designed with nature in mind. Light pours in from the south making the home bright and warm, while the north side keeps the warmth in with its insulating ability.

Aerial view of the John J. Glessner House

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While the Glessners didn’t live in the home for a long time before it became a museum the children of John and Francis Glessner kept most of the furniture and the son, a photographer, kept pictures of how the home looked when the family occupied it. As a result the home is now furnished much as it was when the family enjoyed it.

The Glessners played an important role in bringing culture to the city. As well as being involved with institutions such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Art Institute Mrs. Glessner organized Monday morning reading sessions for women.

Chicago’s extensive history is found in both its famous architecture and its dedicated citizens. Touring the Clarke and Glessner houses is a fantastic way to get close to a small part of this history. Tours are available on a first-come first-served basis Wednesday–Sunday. Interior photography is not allowed, so the only way to see the homes is to visit them! Check out the Glessner House Museum for more information.


Quote from Museum Studies, the Journal of the Art Instiute of Chicago Vol. 36 no. 1 “The Prime Mover” Charles Hutchinson and the Making of the Art Institute of Chicago

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