Battle of the Ages

For decades, the Henry B. Clarke House on South Indiana Avenue enjoyed the uncontested honor of being called the city’s oldest home. But over the past few years, a contender for that title has quietly emerged: the Noble-Seymour-Crippen House in Norwood Park.

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Dueling domiciles: Since 1836, the peripatetic Henry B. Clarke House (left) has settled in at three different addresses. The Noble-Seymour-Crippen House (right) comprises the original 1833 farmhouse on the south (far left) and the two-story 1868 Italianate addition on the north.

 

 

In December 1977, while riding an elevated train toward the South Side, Edward Maldonado encountered a strange apparition: a big white house floating in the air above 44th Street at Calumet Avenue. “It was very surreal,” recalls Maldonado today.

“I didn’t know what it meant.”

What it meant was that the Henry B. Clarke House, a local fixture since 1836, was on the move—again. Maldonado had happened to catch that roving residence in the midst of its second city trek, this time as it headed toward the site at 1827 South Indiana Avenue where it sits today. As for Maldonado, he has since had a chance to become better acquainted with the place, having served since 1999 as the curator of the Clarke, long considered the city’s oldest house.

But Ann Durkin Keating unequivocally challenges that claim. “The Noble-Seymour-Crippen House [in Norwood Park, on Chicago’s Northwest Side] is the oldest extant house in the city of Chicago,” insists Keating, an editor of The Encyclopedia of Chicago and a professor of history at Naperville’s North Central College.

At the most basic level, there would appear to be no contest. Mark Noble, an English immigrant, built his farmhouse in 1833 (today the house is at 5624 North Newark Avenue). Henry B. Clarke, who had traveled to Illinois from New York State, didn’t begin work on his house (in what would today be the 1600 block of South Michigan Avenue) until 1836, three years later. So how can there be any dispute?

Members of the Clarke camp base their claim on several things. Neither house, when built, was within the limits of the town of Chicago, but the Clarke property became part of the city when it was incorporated in 1837. Chicago did not annex the village of Norwood Park until 1893. That 56-year difference is crucial—"I feel we got there first,” says Maldonado—as are Clarke’s and Noble’s motives in building their homes. The rurally inclined Noble, says Maldonado, came to Illinois to establish a 150-acre farm. “The Clarkes were pioneers who had come here to help establish a city,” he says. 

What’s more, adds Maldonado, when you look at the Clarke house today, you see the house its builder envisioned. Though Clarke died from cholera in 1849, his wife, Caroline, added the final touches to their home a few years later—in the process providing the place with its unofficial moniker: the Widow Clarke House. Visitors to the house today are essentially stepping into the same residence that existed in the 1850s.

The Norwood Park house, on the other hand, is far different from the home Mark Noble built. Following Noble’s death in 1839, the place went through several owners before Thomas Hartley Seymour, a member of the Chicago Board of Trade, bought it in 1868. Seymour modernized the house with a stylish, two-story Italianate addition, and it is this new wing, says Maldonado, that today gives the place its “standup identity.” Without question the house is a city treasure, but it’s not the house Noble knew. (Even its current interior evokes a much later era, the 1920s, when Stuart Crippen and his family lived there.) Advantage: Clarke.

 

Photography: Nathan Kirkman

 

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