More Chicago History: Clarke & Glessner Houses

Since I’m delving more and more into Chicago history these days, I thought I would comment on my most recent visit to two historic house museums in Chicago, the Clarke House, and Glessner House.

I took a 2 hour tour, one hour for each house. The Clarke house is said to be the oldest remaining intact structure in Chicago, long before the Chicago Fire of 1871, and even built one year before the incorporation of the City of Chicago in 1837. Although it’s no longer at its original location, the house is now part of the Prairie Avenue historic district, and stands as a monument of the fastest growing city in the nation.

Clarke House

Our extremely knowledgable tour guide went on to say that Clarke had brought his family from New York to Chicago in 1835 hoping to make his fortune. He built his mansion in the “country” south of Chicago on speculation of his coming fortune, but the Panic of 1837 soon hit, many banks failed, and Clarke’s finances never recovered. Our guide painted a mental picture of Clarke using his estate property to grow crops and animals, and hanging meat from ceiling hooks in his parlor, anything to make ends meet.

The Glessner mansion just around the corner, was designed by Henry H. Richardson, a genius architect who inspired our favorite Louis Sullivan, and whose picture still hangs proudly in the mansion’s hall. While the neighborhood residents thought his Romanesque revival building was an eyesore, and looked like a fort or prison block.

Glessner House

In fact George Pullman (of the Pullman train cars, who also lived on the block) was quoted saying “I don’t know what I have ever done to have that thing staring me in the face every time I go out my door.” However, another comment our guide shared followed that “if the Glessner house is a prison, I would like to be incarcerated here.”

Glessner was a partner in a farm machinery manufacturing firm, and after moving to Chicago, joined with others to form the giant corporation International Harvester, which is how he is connected with the McCormick family. The mansion is very Victorian and well decorated, but unlike the McCormick mansion in Winfield, also feels very livable. One other feature it shares with the McCormick mansion is a 24k gold leaf ceiling, in the dining room of the house. But like McCormick’s ceiling, the gold peeled away over time and was later replaced with gold wallpaper to achieve the same look.


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