The Clarke House was built by a local carpenter using readily available pattern books or builders’ guides. Such publications provided floor plans for Greek Revival and other styles of houses, drawings of moldings, staircases, and additional details, as well as practical suggestions on the use of wood, stone, and other materials. With such guidance at hand, a skilled carpenter could produce a fashionable, well designed home. A.T. 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 further is known of Rye, but he may have been the John C. Rue listed among carpenters working in Chicago in 1839 in the book: Industrial Chicago: Building Interests, published in 1891. The house the Clarkes built, however, is far from a stereotypical pattern book house.
In a letter to a relative, Mrs. Clarke wrote of the houses being built in Chicago:
“The buildings are now mostly small and look as though they had been put up as quickly as possible, many of them are what they call here Ballon (sic) houses, that is built of boards entirely—not a stick of timber in them except the sills...”
The “balloon” house to which Mrs. Clarke referred was in fact one of Chicago’s major contributions to architecture. A balloon frame was built of lightweight two by four or two by six wooden boards fastened together with machine made, inexpensive wire nails that were then becoming widely available for the first time. This type of framing system, which looked so flimsy to early observers that they thought it would blow away like a balloon, could be built more quickly and cheaply than a traditional hand shaped timber frame. The technique swept the country and continues to be the dominant method of building wooden frame structures today.
Since the Clarkes apparently considered the balloon frame unsubstantial, they built a timber frame house. In this traditional construction technique, roughly squared logs are firmly held together by mortise and tenon joints. The tenon, or tongue, of one timber is fitted into a matching slot, or mortise, in the other, both laboriously cut to fit. Wooden pegs are driven into the joints to prevent slippage.
The strong frame is covered on the exterior by horizontal clapboards. The interior surfaces are finished with hand split lath and plaster. To make the lath, a long thin section of log was split repeatedly at either end and fastened to the wall. Each separate lath could then be pulled down, in the manner of an accordion, and nailed to the vertical wall studs. The result, when filled with a rough coat of plaster and then a smooth finish coat, was strong and enduring. This solid construction has enabled Clarke House to withstand time, two fires, and two moves.
Visitors to the house today can see the original construction system through an open panel on the wall of an upstairs bedroom.