Chicago's 'Little House'

September 26, 2011

The Little House, by Virginia Lee Burton, is a classic children's book. A sturdy frame cottage is built far out in the country. But as the years pass, the city grows up around it, making the house sad. Finally, the house is put on rollers, moved further out into the country, and is once again happy.

Chicago has its own version of the Little House. Except that the Chicago house was moved twice--and the second time, it was moved back downtown. The city is now celebrating its 175th birthday.

Henry B. Clarke was one of Chicago's early settlers. He operated a hardware business and was a director of the city's first bank. In 1836 he built a house on the outskirts of town, near what is now Michigan Avenue and 16th Street.

Clarke's home was no little cottage, but an imposing mini-mansion with pillared portico and high cupola. When Henry died, his wife Caroline continued to live in the house. That's when it became known as "The Widow Clarke House."

At the time of the Great Fire in 1871, the house was owned by a tailor named John Chrimes. Though the fire didn't come anywhere near the property, Chrimes wasn't taking any chances. He had the house moved four miles south onto the open prairie.

Settlement eventually grew up around the Clarke House. Hyde Park Township was organized, and the City of Chicago later annexed the township. The house got an official Chicago address, 4526 S. Wabash Avenue.

Because of its remote location, there was no rush to tear down the Clarke House in the name of progress. It sat on Wabash and got older. By the 1940s guidebooks were calling it the oldest building in Chicago. It was now the rectory of St. Paul Church of God in Christ.

During the 1970s Chicago developed plans to restore what was left of historic Prairie Avenue. The Clarke House seemed to be an appropriate addition. The city bought the house in 1977 and prepared to move it again.

There was one obstacle that hadn't existed the last time the house went traveling--105 years before, there was no 'L'. Because the building wouldn't fit under the tracks, it had to go over them.

In the dead of one December night, power was shut off on the South Side 'L'. The ancient cottage was carefully lifted on hydraulic jacks and pulled across the tracks. They began to lower it down the other side--and it got stuck! The machinery had frozen. The house hung in the air next to the 'L' for two weeks, until the weather got warmer.

The new address was 1855 S. Indiana Avenue. After three years of restoration, the Clarke House Museum was opened to the public in 1980. The interior furnishings reflect the 1850s.

Today we know that Mark Noble's home in Norwood Park is a few years older than the Clarke home. But a visit to Chicago's "Little House" is always fun. So enjoy the party!