Old House, New Home

For 200 years in Ipswich, it sheltered all manner of Americans; now it informs and delights them

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As industrialization brought waves of immigrants to Ipswich in the late 1800s, the house’s new owners, the Heard family, divided it into rental apartments. Two renters were Mary Lynch and her widowed mother, Catherine. Mary labored in the nearby hosiery mill, while Catherine washed clothes for wealthy neighbors.

To Richard Lynch, the last living link to a house that sheltered more than a dozen families during two centuries, 16 Elm Street will always be his World War II boyhood home. His mother worked in a nearby bomb-fuse factory, and his grandmother, Mary Scott, helped the war effort through strict rationing at home.

The tinfoil wrappers from Lynch’s sticks of gum went into the balls of scrap metal that families saved for the war effort. Leftover fat was used in explosives, though Scott saved hers to make soap. "You could take only a real thin slice to use on your face because it was so strong," recalls Lynch today.

Curators at the Smithsonian enlisted experts to determine when the major oak timbers for this house were cut. By matching the tree rings in pieces of the frame with samples from oaks in New England, scientists were able to peg the age of the house accurately. Examining chips of paint under a microscope, experts learned that Abraham Choate splurged on an expensive pigment, verdigris, to get his front hall to shine a glossy green.

But much of the house’s story unfolded through plain old detective work with census records, old deeds, diaries and maps—all proof of inevitable, if bittersweet, change. "Every time you build something modern in amongst the old, you’re losing something," says Richard Lynch, referring to the asphalt parking lot where his house once stood. "And when the old is gone, it’s gone forever."

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