Big House on the Prairie (Avenue)
By Dave Wischnowsky
The WISCH LIST
Sept. 17, 2011
In 1836, Darwinism was born and Betsy Ross died. Down south, Arkansas was named the 25th state and up north, Wisconsin was declared a territory. In Washington, Martin Van Buren rose to the presidency, while in Texas, the Alamo fell to Santa Ana.
And on the southern outskirts of the fledgling prairie town of Chicago, Henry B. Clarke built a house.
Today, that building – called the Clarke House – still stands as the oldest home in Chicago, built one year before Chicago was even incorporated. And last weekend, during the 5th Annual Festival on Prairie Avenue, it celebrated its 175th birthday.
While I didn’t bring a cake, I did head down to 1800 S. Prairie Ave. in the South Loop on Saturday to give the Clarke House – described by a tour guide as a “Greek Temple once dropped in the middle of nowhere” – my regards, while also regarding the decadently rich history of the neighborhood in which it resides.
But before we get to the Clarke House’s neighborhood, let’s first home in on the house itself, which, quite remarkably, has managed to survived two fires, two moves and darn near two centuries to preserve a fascinating piece of Windy City history.
Its owners, Henry and Caroline Clarke, originally came west from upstate New York to seek their fortune. When Henry found it in the wholesale business, he built a home on 20 rustic acres around present-day 16th Street and Michigan Avenue, from which the Clarkes wrote that they could see Native American campfires in the distance.
In 1872, the Clarke children sold the house (separate from the land) to Chicagoan John Chrimes, who moved it away from the noise of the city by rolling it on logs three miles south to Wabash Avenue and 45th Street.
There it stood until 1977 when the City of Chicago purchased it and decided to move it back to the Prairie Avenue Historic District, near its original location. To do so, though, the entire two-story home – towering Greek columns and all – had to be lifted over the Green Line “L” tracks, which hadn’t existed a century prior.
In a marvel of mechanics, the house was raised on hydraulic jacks. And on Dec. 4, 1977, one minute before midnight, all train service was stopped as the house was pulled across the tracks. It was then set on a new foundation and restored as a museum, which offers guided tours of its age-old luxury Wednesdays through Sundays at noon and 2 p.m. For more information, visit ClarkHouseMuseum.org.
Just as interesting as Clarke House, though, is the area surrounding it, as leafy Prairie Avenue was once considered the ritziest address in all of Chicago.
By the mid-1870s, the city’s three wealthiest men – Marshall Field, Philip Armour and George Pullman – all resided on the street, which became known as the mainstay of 19th-century Chicago society with its lavish dinner parties and receptions.
In 1882, Mrs. H.O. Stone of 2035 Prairie hosted a reception for author Oscar Wilde at her home. Later that same year, John Doane completed his residence at 1827 Prairie, establishing the first house in Chicago to be illuminated with electric lights.
In 1886, Marshall Field hosted at his mansion a “Mikado Ball,” a lavish party reported to have cost $75,000 – the equivalency of about $1.8 million today. And by 1893, the same year Chicago’s Columbian Exposition opened largely through the efforts of Prairie Avenue residents, journalist Everett Chamberlain identified a whopping 77 millionaires living on the street.
How many live there today, I couldn’t say. But exploring the Clarke House and its beautiful historic neighborhood?
It’s still worth a million bucks.