The Little House Redux

Once upon a time there was a little house.

Virgina Lee Burton, 1942

…and this little house

The Little House, written by Virginia Lee Burton in 1942, is the sweet, sweet cradle song of Historic Preservation. The Little House is a perspective of a century of change from the viewpoint of a lovely little Victorian cottage. Originally built on a small hill in the countryside, the Little House views the bright lights of the city from afar and as the aggressive machine of progress pushes on, the Little House eventually finds itself decades later in the middle of the big, bad city. Neglected. Sad. A relic from the past that couldn’t possibly be needed or wanted.

Watch Walt Disney’s charming 1952 cartoon of the story featuring the ebullient voice of Sterling Holloway.

In Burton’s tale, the little house is saved by a familiar hero in preservation; a homeowner who won’t settle for something with a thin brick face, cinderblock sides and a rectangular floor plan. In the case of the real life ‘little house’, Chicago’s 1836 Henry B. Clarke House, the hero is an unlikely one, but endures as one of the most important unsung characters in Historic Preservation.

Image courtesy The Chicago Defender, 1976

Who’d believe, up on the north shore and such places, that here, in the heart of the ghetto, grass is growing all around, and flowers. So many people think the black community is supposed to destroy everything…Destroy everything? Here we have preserved the oldest house. This is our message.

Bishop Louis Henry Ford, Chicago Defender, August 26th, 1976.

Bishop Ford, a migrant from Clarksdale, Mississippi, came to Chicago in 1933 and began preaching on street corners. Bishop Ford founded the St. Paul Church of God in Christ three years later on Chicago’s South Side. He gained a reputation of compassion and community leadership and worked hard against poverty, violence and promoted racial tolerance. Bishop Ford served as a member of the executive committee of the N.A.A.C.P and moved thousands while delivering the eulogy at the funeral of Emmett Till at Roberts Temple C.O.G.I.C on September 3rd, 1955. He was also the proud owner of ‘Chicago’s Oldest House’ from 1941 to 1977. Bishop Ford understood the tremendous power of using history as a tool to inspire community pride, for both people within his congregation and in the surrounding neighborhood.

The Clarke House was the showpiece of the St. Paul Church of God in Christ. Bishop Ford and his congregation began to rehabilitate the house in 1943, and continued with regular improvements over the years, removing decayed lumber, repairing the cupola and providing the house with a fresh coat of paint each year. Bishop Ford threw annual teas for the Clarke House each August, and the donations from these teas played a substantial role in the upkeep of the building and grounds. The St. Paul Church of God in Christ proudly displayed the Clarke House on church newsletters and fliers, with images of the ‘little house’ printed under the assertive phrase, ‘Jesus Never Fails’.

As Chicago’s best surviving example of Greek Revival architecture, the 1836 Clarke House has endured almost as much turmoil and change as the city itself, and even holds boasting rights for being a year older. After watching Chicago grow exponentially over four decades, the Clarke House witnessed the catastrophic Great Fire in 1871, lying south of the infamous O’Leary barn and the conflagration that burned aggressively to the north. In 1872, the Clarke House was moved from 16th Street and Michigan to Wabash and 45th Street, by its second owner, John Chrimes, where it would quietly observe Chicago grow up around it into the 20th century.

After surviving past centenarian, the Clarke House found itself under the ownership of two retired schoolteachers, Lydia and Laura Walters. The Walters became owners of the house after the death of their father, William Walter, who purchased the home from John Chrimes in 1878. Tired of the houses’ upkeep, the Walters sisters urged the City of Chicago to purchase the house in 1940. The city declined, and the Walters considered demolition. Bishop Ford, in a savvy move for history, bought the house in 1941 for $7,000.

Uses for the Clarke House varied over the years it was owned by Bishop Ford, from housing Ford and his family to providing room and board to African-Americans who had recently migrated from the South. The St. Paul Church of God in Christ used the house as social space for various years, and a café was run by the Bishop’s wife, Margaret Ford in the basement of the house from around 1949 until 1953. The café served “soul food with flair” and Mrs. Ford’s famous strawberry shortcake. Bishop Ford also broadcast a weekly radio show from the Clarke House on WVON. The Clarke House was designated a Chicago Landmark in 1970, and was given National Register status in 1971, both under the watchful stewardship of Bishop Ford.

It was always Bishop Ford’s intention to find an owner for the Clarke House that would have the means to restore and maintain the building in perpetuity, and in 1977 the City of Chicago purchased the home. Plans were made to move the house from 45th and Wabash to its current location at 18th and Indiana. The house rolled slowly north until it hit the Englewood-Jackson Park ‘L’ tracks, where it was hoisted over the tracks using 27 feet of wooden cribs.

In an unfortunate stroke of weather-induced bad luck, the cold caused the hydraulic equipment required for lowering the cribs to freeze, and the ‘little house’ spent two weeks gazing at the cities’ skyline from beside the Green Line. Many Chicagoans fondly remember the sight of the house hovering in mid-air during that frigid December.

Once the Clarke House made it to the site, it was placed on a modern foundation and integrated into the newly created Prairie Avenue Historic District After five years of carefully conducted research and reconstruction, the Clarke House opened as a museum in 1982, reflecting the period of time in which Henry B. Clarke and his family lived in the home. The following year the St. Paul Church of God in Christ celebrated its 147th birthday with a commemorative tea on the grounds.

Bishop Louis Henry Ford passed away in 1995, and is remembered as a civil rights activist, educator and spiritual leader during his nearly fifty years as a minister. Bishop Ford was further commemorated by the dedication of the freeway that bears his name.

Much ado is made about the life and times of Henry Clarke and his family, middle-class migrants from New York State who came to Chicago for the promise of making a better life out on the prairie. But bookended between the house’s ‘period of significance’ and the contemporary throngs of tour-goers leaning eagerly over velvet ropes lies the story of an uphill struggle to acknowledge history and recognize its significance within a community.

Almost every Historic Preservation story has a Bishop Ford; someone that played a crucial role in identification or stewardship that has no direct link to the buildings’ most significant period, but nevertheless felt the need to assist in securing it for the future. Bishop Ford understood the importance of Chicago’s architectural heritage decades before any local or national landmarks laws were even a pipe dream in the minds of historians and lawmakers. Bishop Louis Henry Ford was a true pioneer and a champion of history.

It’s amazing what a little house can do.

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One thought on “The Little House Redux”

  1. Thank you for this posting. My father was Bishop Louis Henry Ford and at the age of three our family moved in to Chicago’s oldest house. Of course, we are very disappointed that the mainstream media never mentions the fact that had it not been for Bishop Ford the house would probably have been demolished years ago. It still stands for us to celebrate its 175th year because of his dedication. Thank you for this article

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