The Clarkes modeled the house in the Greek Revival style, resembling many of the houses in upstate New York, where they had lived before moving to Chicago. The Greek Revival style flourished in America from about 1820 to 1860, appearing first in cities on the Eastern seaboard and then spreading gradually west as the young nation expanded. The words of writer James McConkey about another Greek Revival house apply also to the Clarke House: “...a dream of order and balance and proportion set down in a rude wilderness to represent the original owner’s sense of himself and what he could achieve, as well as a spiritual attitude that justified his striving.” Encouraged by the idea that their own government ideals resembled those of ancient Greece, Americans saw the Greek Revival style as an expression of their developing national character.
In its general proportions, mass, floor plan, ornament, and detailing, the Clarke House is in the American Greek Revival style. As in the ancient Greek temple, the facade is commanded by a large portico supported by tall columns and a well proportioned pediment. The Clarke House columns appear to have been modeled from a simple Roman Doric prototype, rather than from Greek precedents. A parapet or low ornamental railing defines the edge of the roof. The house is crowned by an unusual and Italianate cupola and finial. The cupola was added to the house in the 1850s, in an attempt to update the house in the latest fashion.
The symmetry and openness of the house are underscored by the placement and design of the door and window openings. The front door is tall, important and welcoming with its transom and sidelights divided by delicate mullions. On either side of the door are two windows, reaching from the floor almost to the ceiling and seeming to invite stepping from window to portico. Their sashes are triple hung, with six panes of glass in each sash. Corner pilasters and ornamental cornices above the door and windows increase the feeling of grandeur. The north and south side of the house, the central first floor exterior window is positioned only for symmetry; it is not cut through to the interior and serves only as an element of design. All the windows have shutters that not only contribute to the overall design but were also part of a highly effective 1830s cooling system.
As in most Greek Revival houses, there is a wide central hall. With its graceful walnut railed staircase and wallpaper printed to resemble cut stone, the hall provided elegant entries to the house from the east and west. On the south side of the hall is a spacious double parlor that can be divided into two rooms by sliding doors. The east room of this double parlor, with its high ceilings, long windows, and deeply carved woodwork, served as the family’s formal receiving hall; the identical west room was used as a dining room. Completed in the 1850s, the finishes and ornamentation in these rooms are more elaborate than in any other part of the house.
On the second floor are six rooms, the middle room on either side of the hall being distinguished by a tall arched window. The cupola above the second floor hall is yet another element in the cooling system on the house. Its open windows, combined with the cross ventilation achieved on the first floor, kept most of the house cool and comfortable even on the hottest summer days. The cupola also brought sunlight into the otherwise dark upper floor hallway.
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