The oldest building in Chicago is…surprisingly difficult to determine

Chicago's oldest house, circa 1836, becomes a highrise as it is jacked up to begin inching across an elevated track, seen Dec. 1, 1977. The Clarke house is being moved to a new site where it will be restored to original condition. The el train at right is not blocked. (AP Photo/Charles E. Knoblock)

Chicago is by no means an old city. But have you ever wondered what is the oldest building in the Windy City?

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Before we get into that, let’s go over a quick timeline about the history of Chicago with a little help from the public library.

  • 1673: Marquette and Joliet explore the site of Chicago. The city as we know it today, and its history, begins.
  • 1779: Jean Baptiste Point DuSable settles in Chicago.
  • 1803: Fort Dearborn established.
  • 1833: Chicago incorporated as a town.
  • 1837: Chicago is incorporated as a city.
  • 1871: The Great Chicago Fire.

So now the answer to the original question. Before the Chicago Tribune, before the Chicago Board of Trade, before City Hall, the Chicago Police Department and before the Water Tower, there was the Henry B. Clarke House.

“Built in 1836 for Henry B. Clarke, the Clarke House Museum is Chicago’s oldest house,” says the city’s website.

The building was originally located on Michigan Ave. between 16th and 17th Streets. It was moved to 4526 S Wabash Ave. after the 1871 fire sparked concerns to the building’s residents at the time. Today, the house and museum are back in the South Loop at 1827 S Indiana Ave.

So I guess that answers that question. Oh but wait. There’s more.

The Noble-Seymour-Crippen House in the Norwood Park neighborhood was built in 1833. So doesn’t that make it the oldest building in the city? Well…

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.

That’s from an article written by Whet Moser in Chicago Magazine. So the answer comes down to how one wants to define “the city” and how one wants to define “time” which unfortunately is too grand of a concept to explore right now.

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But what we do know is that no structure existed before either of these two, unless someone is holding out on DuSable’s original settlement. But considering the fire burned away a large section of what we know today as downtown, odds are no building besides these two will contend for oldest in Chicago.

What do you think?

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