Elizabeth Clarke Carney
The History of The Clarke Hotel is steeped in Waukesha history. Its name commemorates a prominent family of the Waukesha Springs Era and the woman who was one of Waukesha’s most successful developers.
Elizabeth Clarke Carney was born in Ireland in 1815. Her family immigrated to the United States and arrived in Waukesha in 1846. Her father, William Clarke, operated a dry goods store on Main Street. In 1861, after his death, she took over the operation of the store.
It was on her farm property that her brother-in-law, Col. Richard Dunbar “discovered” Waukesha spring water in 1868. This began the Waukesha Springs era that brought international fame to the community as “The Saratoga of the West.” She was partial owner of the Bethesda Spring and she developed the J.L. Bean home at Grand and Wisconsin into the Mansion House Hotel.
In 1874, Elizabeth built the Opera House, a two story limestone building with retail shops on the first floor and a 600 seat opera house on the second floor. The Opera House included a full stage, orchestra pit and private boxes. It became a major cultural attraction, competing with the fine hotels built to accommodate tourists flocking to Waukesha for the waters.
She died in 1895, considered to be the wealthiest woman in Waukesha. The four downtown buildings she owned at the time of her death: Alexander Block (site of the Clarke Drug Store), Commercial Block (the family dry good store), the Opera House and Kinzie Block became known as the Clarke Block. These are the historic roots of the Clarke Hotel.
In 1916, the buildings known as the Clarke Block were purchased and given a façade which created an illusion of one building. In the 1930’s the opera house was converted to offices and apartments. Over the years the tenants of the Clarke Block included Clarke Drug Store—part of the Walgreen System, the Army Surplus Store and Cuddles, a store offering stuffed animals which remains part of the Clarke Hotel complex.
Photographs provided from the archives at the Waukesha County Museum
This article is an excerpt from “A Visit to Aunt Betty” by John Schoenknecht from Landmark Magazine, Summer 1996