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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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In December 1977, Annette Barbier, currently the chairperson of interactive arts and media at Columbia College, documented the move of the Clarke house to Indiana Avenue. This is her 30-year-old video of that event.

 

Not so fast, says Judy Rustemeyer, the president of the Norwood Park Historical Society, which bought the Noble-Seymour-Crippen House for $285,000 in 1987. Not only is the society’s house indisputably older, she says, but “the Clarke house is not even on its original foundation.” In fact, it’s not even on its second foundation—which makes for a wonderful story, even if it does undercut the claims of Clarke partisans.

In 1872, the children of Henry and Caroline Clarke sold their family’s house to John Chrimes; worried about whether another horrific fire might ravage the city (as one had in October 1871), Chrimes moved the house to a more remote locale at 45th Street and Wabash Avenue. In 1941, his grandchildren sold the place to a young African American minister named Louis Henry Ford, who used it as a family home and as a parish center for his St. Paul Church of God in Christ. (The Bishop Ford Freeway honors the memory of this crusading cleric, who died in 1995.) Thirty-six years later, looking to expand his church and worried that he didn’t have the resources to maintain a historic landmark, Ford sold the house to the City of Chicago, which decided to move it to Indiana Avenue near the recently created Prairie Avenue Historic District.

Things got off to a smooth start as the house was partially dismantled and carried by a 64-wheel truck up Wabash to the elevated tracks on 44th Street (between Prairie and Calumet avenues). Around 2 a.m. on Sunday, December 4, 1977, after power had been shut down on the el, workers used a winch to pull the 120-ton house across the tracks. There it sat, safely perched on the other side, when a severe winter front moved suddenly into the city, freezing the jacks that were meant to lower the house 22 feet to the ground. It hung there for two weeks until the temperature warmed up enough to thaw out the hydraulic equipment.

On December 18th, the house continued its slow journey to its new home, traveling by truck up King Drive to 31st Street, then west to Michigan Avenue, where it headed north again. Before crossing over the bridge above the Stevenson Expressway, the truck added another 64 wheels (so as to distribute the weight more evenly) and then moved on to Indiana Avenue, where the house settled into what is presumably its final resting place.

These, then, are the essential arguments on either side. With that information (and with the additional evidence in the timeline above), people can form their own opinions as to whether Clarke or Crippen is champ. As for Maldonado and Rustemeyer, they ultimately prefer not to enter the fray. “It seems to me [the argument] can go back and forth,” says Maldonado. “I’m not convinced one way or the other.” And Rustemeyer? “For me, the important thing is that we saved [the Noble-Seymour-Crippen House] from the wrecking ball.”

So let’s give the last word to the historian Ann Keating. “We have very few examples of 1830s buildings in the region,” she says, “so we are lucky to have these two"—a judgment that should bridge the divide between this pair of houses.

* * * 

In addition to being significant local landmarks, the Henry B. Clarke House and the Noble-Seymour-Crippen House are both museums. Go to their Web sites for information about museum hours and about special tours during the holiday season: the Crippen and five other Norwood Park houses on December 1st (norwoodparkhistoricalsociety.org) and the Clarke and John J. Glessner houses on December 8th and 9th (clarkehousemuseum.org).

 

Photography: Nathan Kirkman

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