Old House, New Home

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

The old house, once neglected and sagging, has moved center stage. Saved from a bulldozer almost 40 years ago in Ipswich, Massachusetts, this 18th-century Georgian-style dwelling has itself found a home as a permanent exhibit at the National Museum of American History. The exhibit combines old-fashioned gumshoeing with high-tech probing to reveal the many secrets within the house’s walls.

"In my opinion, it’s the greatest artifact in the museum," says Lonn Taylor, museum historian and one of the curators of the show. The timber-framed house is also the museum’s largest single item, standing two-and-a-half stories tall, with a massive brick chimney that climbs through its floors and towers above the roof. Inside, ordinary Americans lived nearly 200 years of history.

Its builders were wealthy colonists who wanted the house to reflect their status. A subsequent owner risked everything, including the house, by taking up arms against the British during the American Revolution. One of the residents was an African-American servant, likely a former slave, and later, a family of abolitionists lived there. In the 1870s and ’80s, a mill worker and her Irish mother rented space within its walls. The last inhabitants were frugal Yankees, fighting World War II on the home front.

The five families whose stories are told here were not famous, but they remind us that history happens in parlors and kitchens as well as in the halls of Congress. "It should inspire people to realize the connections between themselves and their home lives and something greater," says Shelley Nickles. She and William Yeingst are the other curators of the exhibit. "It will surprise visitors how much history can be found by traveling through time and the lives of people in one house."

Located some 30 miles north of Boston, Ipswich flourished in the 1700s. Among its residents was Abraham Choate, a farmer, miller, merchant and, finally, a "gentleman." With a wife and growing brood, Choate built this ten-room house with its large windows of expensive, imported glass around 1768. He cut some costs by attaching part of an older dwelling, built about 1710, onto the back. But on the facade and in rooms visitors might see, Choate spent lavishly, ordering ornate woodwork for the front door and crown molding for the parlor, where guests could sip tea in warm, comfortable surroundings.

Residents made do with an outhouse until 1946, when Roy Scott, a returning war veteran, finally put in a toilet, though blocks of ice in an icebox continued to provide the only refrigeration. By 1962, the town government wanted the ground under the run-down house for a parking lot.

At the last minute, as a bulldozer and a backhoe revved their engines, a local group’s call to the Smithsonian saved it. Painstakingly dismantled and shipped to Washington in 1963, it became the centerpiece of an exhibition on colonial house-building technology. For most of the past 20 years, however, the skeleton of the house has been out of view behind a wall. A $2.44 million grant from the National Association of Realtors in 2000 gave it new life.

Although visitors can’t wander into the house, they can peer through windows and cutaways at a series of vignettes to get a sense of what it must have been like for 18th-century resident Sarah Choate as she served tea in the dimly lit parlor. In a nearby display, a rare Revolutionary War coat hangs as a reminder of the sacrifices made by later owner Abraham Dodge, a veteran of Bunker Hill. His family had to sell this house after his death in 1786 to satisfy debts. Behind an attic door was the room where Chance, Dodge’s African-American servant, probably lived. Well-to-do social reformers who bought the house in 1822, Josiah and Lucy Caldwell dared to host meetings of the Ipswich Female Anti-Slavery Society and the occasional itinerant lecturer. To raise money for the cause, members worked antislavery messages into items to be sold. The inked words on an Evening Star cradle quilt pricked the maternal conscience:

Mother! when around your child You clasp your arms in love, And when with grateful joy you raise Your eyes to God above— Think of the negro mother, when Her child is torn away, Sold for a little slave—oh then For that poor mother pray!

Even children got the message. A handkerchief, typical of items sold at antislavery fairs, bears a legend of "The Thankful Girl" who pledges to eat no more sugar from cane grown by slaves.

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."

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.