Clarke House, the oldest house in Chicago, is suddenly starting a new life and a lot of people are wondering why

Clarke House, the oldest house in Chicago, is suddenly starting a new life and a lot of people are wondering why

Clarke House--180 years old this year--is starting a new life this week. It's suddenly and inexplicably under new management:  the City of Chicago.

Anyone who knows anything about Clarke House is flummoxed. Doesn't the Rahm administration have enough to worry about right now?  Why does the City suddenly want to run this very historic and very complex house alone?  It's been lovingly, professionally and very meticulously managed for years by Glessner House Museum, a world landmark just a stone's throw away.

Glessner provided curatorial services, spearheaded by a Clarke expert who spent her time researching, educating and preserving the home and artifacts in an award-winning way.   Glessner volunteer docents (of which I'm one) provided guided tours at Clarke--which were free on Wednesdays; a small admission was charged Thursdays through Sundays.  The city provided maintenance for Clarke only.  Glessner is involved in ongoing fundraising efforts and guided by a board of directors.

In exchange, the City, which owns the house--the oldest in Chicago--provided security personnel for both houses and a donation.  The National Society of Colonial Dames in the State of Illinois generously provided the period furnishings for the house.  And how appreciated that was!

Why did the City Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events move in on a relationship that was so perfectly crafted over the years?

One can only speculate.

The City, which bought and restored the house and moved it to its present location at 18th and Indiana in 1977 (it became a landmark in 1970) recently said that Clarke House wasn't a priority anymore.  Resources spent toward educating school children were more of a priority than folks who wanted to tour a historic house.  And with the finances of the city in such a tremendously dismal state, priorities had to be set.

Which was odd because many, many school children visit Clarke House each year, well prepared for a hands on lesson in Chicago history by their teachers beforehand.  The school kids took special tours geared for their particular age level.  And they all went home with a deeper understanding of their city and how people lived in it when it first became a city.

So be it.

Then the City hemmed and hawed and waited until just a few weeks ago to tell Glessner House that the relationship was over.  The City would be taking over.  And that was that.  A schism.  A break-up.

Clarke is on its own now, being run by novice city employees.  Visitor hours are cut back; there will be NO weekend tours.  And all the work that was done in recent years is now in the hands of DCASE.

And if that's all there is to it, that would be the best case scenario.

But what do I really think?

At first I figured some politically-connected builder wanted the land that Clarke sits on--adjacent to a beautiful park on a lovely street.  Could they possibly be thinking of tearing down the oldest house in Chicago?  Or moving it at great taxpayer expense like the nearby Rees House that made room for the new DePaul basketball stadium?

Or did someone just want to buy it outright--and do whatever with it? (Selling wouldn't be the worst idea in the world as long as a preservation not-for-profit group bought it and carried on the mission.)

But now--like so much else in the city that belongs to us, the taxpayers--I think that the home may become privatized in some fashion.  In the same way the Cultural Center is.  By event planners--and everyone gets kind of pushed around these days to make way for them.

The point is that no one knows what's really going on.  This is what happens in a city that lacks transparency.  We tend to think the worst.

I just have a feeling that there's another story behind the bright eyes and the bushy tales of those who say they'll be doing the job now.  And with the City's abysmal reputation for lacking transparency, who knows if and when we'll know what the real motivation is for the pouncing on Clarke House.

I, of course, will be watching.

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