Architecture and design of the Clarke House Museum


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The Clarke House was built by a local carpenter using readily available model books or building guides. These publications provided floor plans for the Greek Renaissance and other styles of houses, designs for moldings, staircases and additional details, as well as practical suggestions on the use of wood, stone and d ‘other materials. With such advice at hand, a skilled carpenter could produce a fashionable and well-designed home. AT Andreas, in the first volume of his History of Chicago (1884) wrote that the Clarke House was built by John Campbell Rye, a carpenter. Nothing more is known of Rye, but it may be the John C. Rue listed among the carpenters working in Chicago in 1839 in the book: Industrial Chicago: Building Interests, published in 1891. The house that the Clarkes built, however, is far from a stereotypical model book house.

Wood frame

In a letter to a relative, Ms Clarke wrote about houses under construction in Chicago:

“The buildings are now mostly small and seem to have been built as quickly as possible, many of them are what they call Ballon (sic) houses here, which are constructed entirely of planks – not a stick of wood. inside, except the thresholds … ”

The “balloon” house that Clarke referred to was actually one of Chicago’s major contributions to architecture. A balloon frame was constructed with two-by-four or two-by-six lightweight wood planks tied together with inexpensive, machine-made metal nails which were then becoming widely available for the first time. This type of frame system, which seemed so fragile to early observers that they thought it would fly away like a balloon, could be built faster and more cheaply than a traditional hand-crafted wooden frame. The technique swept across the country and continues to be the dominant method of building timber frame structures today.

Since the Clarkes apparently considered the balloon’s frame to be insignificant, they built a wood-frame house. In this traditional building technique, roughly squared logs are held securely together by tenons and mortises. The tenon, or tongue, of one wood is inserted into a corresponding slot, or mortise, in the other, both laboriously cut to fit. Wooden dowels are driven into the joints to prevent slipping.

The sturdy frame is covered on the outside with horizontal clapboards. The interior surfaces are finished with a hand split batten and plaster. To make the slat, a long, thin section of log was split several times at each end and attached to the wall. Each separate slat could then be pulled down, like an accordion, and nailed to the vertical wall studs. The result, when filled with a rough coat of plaster and then a smooth top coat, was strong and durable. This solid construction has enabled Clarke House to withstand time, two fires and two moves.

Today, visitors to the house can view the original building system through an open panel on the wall of an upstairs bedroom.

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