The house at 103 High Street dates to approximately 1670, but the right half may contain timbers from a previous structure on this site which was built in 1639. That simple story and a half cottage is believed to have been built by William Merchant who arrived in Ipswich with John Winthrop and the first settlers. The section on the left was added in 1672 and has finer woodworking. The two sections were often occupied by different families, the Russells and the Lords. The house is also known as the Merchant-Choate house and formerly as the Austin Lord house. In Colonial days this was the last house on the road; common land was fenced off beyond it for livestock. The Merchant house, the 1655 Whipple House on South Green and the 1640 Hart House on Linebrook Road are believed to be the three oldest houses in Ipswich.
The following is taken from “A Walking Tour and Brief History of Early Ipswich Massachusetts“ produced by the Ipswich Visitors Center, Marjorie Robie and William Varrell.
“Research indicates that this house contains portions of the oldest house known to still exist in Ipswich. Early houses were frequently built with one large room with fireplace on the ground level with a matching room above. As they were able to afford a larger house, a matching set of rooms was added on the opposite side of the fireplace and stairway. This house was formed by combining two such houses. The rooms to the left of the front entrance were built with fine woodworking and panelling. The rooms to the right, originally a story and a half house, were much simpler, the kind that most early residents would have built.
The left part of the house was possibly built by William Merchant. He left his house to his only child, Mary, and her husband, Henry Osborn. Later, it became the home of another Lord family. The right portion of the house became the home of Henry Russell and his wife Katherine Sutton in 1787. They were the great grandparents of William Russell who built the Queen Anne House at 12 High Street. They lived there 45 years and died within a few hours of each other. They were buried in separate coffins in a single grave.
A fence was built at this location and cut off all roads (from this point). Those who lived nearby were required to pay the costs and maintain the fences. The land beyond the fence was common land. This was divided up later on as the population of the town grew and need for land increased.”
Thomas Franklin Waters wrote a history of the ownership of the house in Volume 1 of Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, published in 1905:
“The stately mansion, now owned by Russell heirs and Mr. Austin Lord, is in itself, evidence that people of substance built their comfortable houses against the hillside. On or near this spot at an early period lived William Merchant. At his death, he left a widow and a daughter Mary, his only child, wife of Henry Osborn, between whom the Court divided the estate. The widow bequeathed her portion to her daughter, at her decease, for the benefit of her daughter’s children.
On April 20, 1694, Henry Osborn conveyed the estate to his son, John, on condition of being supported by him (11 : 147). On Nov. 29, 1705, Peter Barbour of Boston, sold James Lord, the west side of this estate, bounded northwest by Major Wainwright (21: 188), and John Bartlett of Newbury sold Lord the other half, July 4, 1709 (21 : 140) It seems to have passed from Lord’s hands temporarily, perhaps by mortgage, as Anthony Lowden deeded to James Lord, “the house where he now lives and two acres, bounded by Thomas Safford northwest,” June 26, 1730 (57: 20).
James Lord, by his will, bequeathed his real estate to his son James, 1734; and this James, in turn, sold to his son, James Jr., laborer, the west end of his dwelling, April 24, 1762 (132: 209). James Lord sold to Samuel Sawyer, April 13, 1789 (159: 2.50). Sawyer sold to Benjamin Lord and Henry Russell. Upon the death of Mr. Lord, his administrator sold his half to John Lord, 4th, grandfather of the present owner. May 16, 1819 (247: 195). Henry Russell and his wife, Katherine Sutton, came here to dwell in Jan. 1787, it is said. They lived fifty six years together. He died, Dec. 16, 1843, aged eighty-six ; she, on Dec. 17, aged seventy- eight, and the two coffins lay side by side, and were buried in a single grave. Nine of their children grew to mature age.”
As a result of the dendrochronology testing of the Merchant-Choate House, the construction date of Phase I of the building has now been identified as 1671 and of Phase II as 1672. Samples were taken during three different attempts at tree-ring dating, the first two by Dr. William Robinson in June 1975 and Paul Krusic of the Lamont-Doherty Tree-Ring Laboratory in August 2001. The third research team, in November 2001, consisted of Daniel Miles and Michael Worthington of the Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory, England, with Anne Grady of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA) acting as liaison.
Their report, cited below, included analysis of samples from all three attempts and presented the following results and conclusions. In 1975 William Robinson took three samples from the southern section of the house, and dated a sample from the chimney girt to 1669. In 2001, Paul Krusic dated the northern end of the house to 1672, possibly into early 1673. He also took some samples from the southern end of the house and dated a timber identified as the “left frame, right end girt” to 1670. However, this timber was actually the chimney girt that was sampled and dated by Robinson in 1975.
To settle the confusion this girt was sampled a third time in November 2001. This sample produced a precise felling date of winter 1670/71. Five additional samples were taken from the southern end, one from the summer beam, three from ceiling joists, and one from the rear first-floor girt. The summer beam also dated to the winter of 1670/71 and the three ceiling joists to 1638, 1640, and 1643, dates which are consistent with a 1670/71 felling date for the rest of the frame, assuming that they were cut from inner sections of large timbers. Therefore, a construction period commencing in 1671 is most likely. A sample from a rear wall brace of the northern frame gave a felling date of summer/autumn 1672, indicating that the house was finished in 1672 or 1673.
The attic has rafters reused from the earlier structure that once held clasped purlins, a fairly common ancient framing technique used in England, but this is the only known example of their use to survive in New England.
The authors of the report also note, “One previous interpretation of the building has been that at least the right-hand [southern] end of the house was moved in from another site. The sequence of construction on the site remains unclear, but the physical evidence suggests that the left and /or right components could have replaced earlier portions of the building. This could explain the documentary reference to a house on the site as early as 1639.”
The full results of the analysis are presented in: D. W. H. Miles, M. J. Worthington, and Anne Andrus Grady, Development of Standard Tree-Ring Chronologies for Dating Historic Structure in Eastern Massachusetts, Phase II, Massachusetts Historical Commission Survey and Planning Grant Completion Report, Interim Report 2002/6, Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities and Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory, May 31, 2002. An abridged version of the report can be found on the website http://www.dendrochronology.com. The full report can be found at SPNEA, now known as Historic New England.
William Merchant House, 103 High St. Preservation Agreement
This house is protected by a preservation agreement with the Ipswich Historical Commission. Protected elements include:
- Front and side facades of the original building
- Central frame, including primary and secondary members
- Central chimney
- Wooden architectural elements including stairway, doors, paneling and molded detail of the front hall.