Chicago's oldest house?

September 7, 2011

Chicago is gearing up to celebrate the 175th birthday of the Henry B. Clarke House. Located a mile south of the Loop, it's usually cited as the city's oldest building. But out in the Norwood Park neighborhood, at 5624 N. Newark Avenue, there's an even older house.

Mark Noble was English by birth. Along with his family he arrived at the little settlement near the mouth of the Chicago River in 1831. He operated a saw mill and helped organize a Methodist congregation.

In 1833 Noble claimed 150 acres of land a dozen miles northwest of town. He built a small frame house on the Waukegan Road and moved into the life of a gentleman farmer. But he died in 1839, and his widow sold off the property.

Noble's house passed through a series of owners. Thomas Seymour bought it in 1868. He was part of the company developing the new village of Norwood Park in the area. Since the Seymours were a large family, he added a two-story addition to the original building.

Seymour used the property as a country farm. He planted a vineyard, and an orchard with over a thousand apple and cherry trees. For a while he raised blooded short-horn cattle.

Chicago annexed Norwood Park in 1893. Waukegan Road became Newark Avenue. Thomas Seymour died in 1915, and the property to the north and west was subdivided. The house was sold again.

The new owner was concert pianist Stuart Crippen. He added electricity and indoor plumbing, converting the house into a year-round residence. It remained in the Crippen family for over 70 years. As the children grew up and got married, the house was divided into separate flats.

In 1987 the Crippens put the old homestead up for sale. Developers had their eyes on the 1.7-acre property, but the Norwood Park Historical Society beat them out. The purchase price was $285,000.

With aid from various sources, the historical society began renovating the Noble-Seymour-Crippen House. The goal was to restore it to an early 20th Century appearance. While the work was going on, the original provenance was confirmed--the southern section of the house dated from 1833, making it the oldest building within the Chicago city limits.

The house became an official city landmark in 1988. In 2000 it was put on the National Register of Historic Places. The house has even made it into the movies, appearing in John Goodman's film "The Babe."

Chicago's oldest house is operated as a museum. The historical society stages many events on the grounds, most notably the June yard sale. The house itself is open to the public on Saturday afternoons. Since the society is still paying off its mortgage, contributions are gratefully accepted.