SOUTH LOOP — Chicagoans familiar with the local highway system have undoubtedly heard of the Bishop Ford Freeway, a stretch of Interstate 94 from Interstate 57 to 170th street in South Holland.
Originally known as the Calumet Expressway, the highway was renamed for Bishop Louis Henry Ford in 1996. Ford was well-known as the presiding bishop of the 8.5 million member Church of God in Christ and eulogist at Emmett Till’s funeral.
He was considerably less well-known for being Chicago’s first historic preservationist.
In 1941, Bishop Ford purchased Chicago’s oldest-surviving building. Built in 1836 and known as the “Widow Clarke House,” it was then at 4526 S. Wabash Ave. in Grand Boulevard. He began a nearly four decade effort to preserve the home, fundraise for its upkeep and advocate for its importance.
The work of Bishop Ford, the Ford family and the St. Paul Church of God in Christ led to the house’s designation as a Chicago landmark and the transformation of the Clarke House into a city-run museum showing what life was like when much of Chicago was wild Midwest prairie.
“The Clarke House was purchased during a period when redlining had not become the ‘banner’ of blocking Black people from owning property,” said Kevin Anthony Ford, Bishop Ford’s grandson and third-generation pastor at the St. Paul Church of God in Christ. “My grandfather made history by buying Chicago’s oldest house in 1941.”
The Henry B. Clarke House was built for hardware merchant Henry B. Clarke and was originally at 16th Street and Michigan Avenue. After Clarke’s death in 1849, his widow lived in the home until 1872, when it was sold to John Chrimes.
Fearing a repetition of the Great Chicago Fire, Chrimes moved the home to 4526 S. Wabash Ave., far from the city center. The house was later sold to Chrimes’ daughter and her husband, William H. Walter.
The Chrimes/Walter descendants lived in the house through the early 20th century. In 1935, the Clarke House was extensively measured and photographed for the Historic American Buildings Survey, a jobs program created to create work for photographers and draftsmen unemployed during the Great Depression.
Bishop Ford began his ministry in the cotton fields of Lexington, Mississippi, before moving to Chicago in 1933. Preaching on the corner of 47th and Dearborn streets, Bishop Ford would walk by the Clarke House daily, then painted an olive green. He felt called by God to make the house the future home of the church he was growing.
“When you look at the Widow B. Clarke House — known as the Ford House to me — when you look at the people from the inception of transfer, it wasn’t an inanimate object,” Ford said. “It was a love place.”
The Chicago Defender covered the purchase of the Clarke House in November 1941 with a piece titled “Oldest house passes into hands of race” that detailed a gathering of church members, neighbors, relatives of the previous owners and members of the Chicago Historical Society, with a tour given by Lydia Walker and architect Earl H. Reed, who spoke on the house’s Greek Revival architecture.
In 1943, Bishop Ford, then a reverend, moved his wife Margaret, son Charles and daughter Janet into the house, joining tenants already residing there.
In 1948, Bishop and Margaret Ford began interior renovations to the house in earnest, caring for its ornamental marble fireplaces and Georgia pine pocket doors, while also making it a home for those moving to Chicago from the South, including Bishop Ford’s father, who occupied a room when he moved to Chicago from Clarksdale, Mississippi to work in the Stockyards. As the St. Paul Church of God in Christ grew, the uses for each room within the house were adapted, making space for community ministries, church services, equipment to print church bulletins, and further adjusting to fit the needs of the Ford Family as it grew.
In the late 1940s Margaret, a trained cook, opened Chicago’s Oldest House Dining Room, which served lunch weekdays.
In 1951, the St. Paul Church of God in Christ hosted its first birthday celebration for “Chicago’s Oldest House” to raise funds for restoration. The celebration included music, food and church members dressing in 1850s costumes serving tea, and was held in the backyard of the house, which was landscaped and open for use to the neighborhood.
“What caught my attention was the love that my grandfather lavished on the house,” Ford said. “He always had a keen insight on what should be preserved.”
In 1955, an executive with Sears Roebuck and Co. donated exterior paint, and the house was painted white. Birthday teas were held on the property each year, with each generating funds for the upkeep of Clarke House and boasting attendance by senators, congressmen and mayors. Bishop Ford made it a priority to hire Black professionals to complete all skilled and non-skilled labor at the home, from carpenters to masons.
“The house brought a sense of belonging and it became so normal to see something so well maintained that the whole block reflected that image,” Ford siad. “Kids could jump rope and play jacks in front of Chicago’s oldest house.”
In August 1955, Bishop Ford and Bishop Isaiah L. Roberts of the Robert’s Temple Church of God in Christ comforted Mamie Till Mobley as she collapsed after viewing the casket containing her son Emmett Till’s body after it arrived at Illinois Central Station from Money, Mississippi.
Bishop Ford gave the eulogy at Emmett Till’s funeral at the Robert’s Temple Church of God in Christ. Emmett and his mother were members of the church and worshipped at Robert’s Temple.
As government-funded demolition cleared the way for the Dan Ryan Expressway and the Robert Taylor Homes, a few blocks west of the St. Paul Church of God in Christ, Bishop Ford continued to bring attention to the Clarke house as the neighborhood changed all around it.
During the 126th anniversary celebration in 1962, he was interviewed in the Chicago Tribune: “Chicago has often been referred to as the city which doesn’t have a place for landmarks. We will continue to fight off demands to tear down this building because we feel it deserves a place in Chicago on an equal footing with the Water Tower.” He looked to the future of the programming and stewardship of the Clarke House. “I hope the citizens of Chicago will help us relocate the building to its original site at 16th Street and Michigan Avenue, complete with a park and museum.”
“No one dared to challenge the Water Tower’s relevance in Chicago,” Ford said. “The church continually explored new opportunities for the Clarke House, like the annual teas, to keep it relevant in the city of Chicago’s eyes.”
The work to care and maintain the Clarke House by Bishop Ford and the St. Paul Church of God in Christ with a vision for its preservation occurred decades before any other actions to preserve historic buildings in Chicago, via movement or ordinance. The Commission on Chicago Historical and Architectural landmarks was not created until 1957, leading the way to the 1968 Chicago Landmarks Ordinance, which granted the commission the responsibility of recommending to City Council which historic landmarks in Chicago should be protected by law.
The work to save and maintain Clarke House predates the organized protest to save Louis Sullivan’s Garrick Theatre, demolished in 1961, as well as the effort by architects to save the Glessner House, designed by H.H. Richardson in, 1966. The National Historic Preservation Act, which created official standards for preservation and established the National Register of Historic Places, wasn’t enacted until 1966.
“It was the Ford family that illuminated the Clarke House,” said Ford who refers to the Clarke House by the pronouns “she and “her.”
“The beauty is how she was loved, cared for and maintained. What she did for the people.”
By 1969, Bishop Ford’s advocacy work on Clarke House had attracted the attention of then-Mayor Richard J. Daley, who attended the birthday celebration. Bishop Ford was interviewed for a piece in the Chicago Tribune: “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.”
In October 1970, Clarke House became one of the first buildings to gain local landmark status in Chicago, and conversations began in earnest regarding the future of the house, with Bishop Ford’s vision to move the house closer to Downtown becoming a reality. The Commission on Chicago Historical and Architectural Landmarks was put to task to study how the house could be moved, but also worked to trace members of the Clarke family, who had been obscured after the Great Chicago Fire.
By 1974, the city of Chicago had stated its intent to buy the Clarke House and move it to a new historic district in the vicinity of Prairie Avenue and 18th Street, an area occupied by turn-of-the-20th-century mansions and the newly landmarked Glessner House. The Illinois chapter of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, an organization composed of women who are descendants of an ancestor who resided in one of the original thirteen American colonies before 1776, signed on to furnish the house after its relocation and restoration in the style of the mid 19th century, when the Clarke family occupied the home.
Bishop Ford had an ask for the city as it proceeded with the plans for the Clarke House, telling the Chicago Defender in 1973, “Our guidelines specifically ask that a complete segment of Negro arts and culture occupy a prominent section within the renovated structure. Black culture must be a factor in the move since a black man was the first person to erect a home on Chicago’s site.”
In 1977, the Clarke House was bought by the city for $250,000. Using a 64-wheel trailer and 1.5-ton truck, the house left the care of the St. Paul Church of God in Christ and traveled north, moving at grade until it reached the “L” structure at 44th Street. It was then hoisted up over the tracks using jacks and support cribbing. A cold snap required the Clarke House to hang in mid-air for a week before it moved to its permanent location at 16th Street and Prairie Avenue, in the center of a garden next to the Glessner House.
After the renovations were completed and the rooms were filled with 1850s furnishings, the city opened the Clarke House Museum in June 1982. Neither Bishop Ford nor the St. Paul Church of God in Christ were invited to the official proceedings, as the Chicago Defender noted at the time. Bishop Ford was later added to the program.
Bishop Ford’s request for the Clarke House to help tell the story of Black achievement in Chicago was also never fully realized. Instead, the history of the Ford family’s stewardship of the house is relegated to one panel in the basement gallery, within a room where Margaret Ford once served fried chicken and strawberry shortcake when she ran Chicago’s Oldest House Dining Room.
“I can just imagine how that must have felt to my grandfather … the love and care that was given to the building, sold to the city of Chicago, and then the obfuscation of its history began immediately,” Ford said. “When the building opened up for tours, I was one of the first ones to go through the building. I had to stop the tour because there was no mention of the Ford family. The tour guide said, ‘Well, this tour is about what makes this house historic.’ I grew up in this house. I slid down the bannister. The cupola was our clubhouse. That was a place we played.”
The St. Paul Church of God in Christ continued work in the spirit of their care of Clarke House.
“My grandfather honed that love, that skill for preservation,” Ford said. “He would travel this country helping pastors to help preserve their churches so that spirit of preservation and uplift so that folks would start to appreciate their buildings and their surroundings — he did that everywhere he went.”
That love was also honed at home in Chicago, even after Bishop Ford’s death in 1995. Following in the spirit of using Black skilled labor to restore and maintain Clarke House, Bishop Louis Henry Ford’s son (and Kevin Anthony Ford’s father), Bishop Charles Mason Ford, began a construction apprenticeship program to assist plumbers, roofers and electricians in joining unions. Margaret Ford Manor was constructed in 1997, providing supportive housing for the elderly just north of the church.
While the home sits on a modern foundation at 18th Street and Prairie Avenue, original foundation bricks of the Clarke House line the walls of the contemporary buildings that house the St. Paul Church of God in Christ.
Despite the move, “Clarke house is still here,” Ford said.
With the recent designation of the Emmett Till and Mamie Till Mobley Home as a Chicago Landmark, and the push to establish Robert’s Temple Church of God in Christ as a National Monument, the importance of Bishop Ford’s role in saving Clarke House but also launching the grassroots historic preservation movement in Chicago becomes vital to telling the full story of not only what becomes a landmark, but who worked to keep buildings around long enough for them to get there.
“Skipping the importance of Bishop Ford further divides the city,” said urban historian Dilla Thomas, who uses TikTok as a platform to share unexplored stories of Chicago’s past. “Joseph Hudlin was a janitor at the Board of Trade, and as the Great Chicago Fire was raging, he ran up into the fire and saved all of the records he could. African Americans have always played a role in saving Chicago history. Bishop Ford did the same thing for ‘Chicago’s Oldest House.’”
“She [Clarke House] is a story of resurrection, patience and growth,” Ford said. “It’s shameful what people did to hide her history. Now we go in, open the doors again, lets revisit the oldest house in Chicago.”
Elizabeth Blasius is a Chicago-based architectural historian and co-founder of Preservation Futures. She is the former midwest editor of The Architect’s Newspaper, and has had her writing on architecture and historic preservation published in The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, and Bloomberg CityLab.
Check out more of Colin Boyles photos of the Clarke House: