By Ipswich Historical Commission chairman John Fiske:
Don’t we all get a slightly guilty thrill at peeking into someone else’s room? It’s a bit like listening to their secrets. Now here’s a room that is actually meant to be peeked into – you can tell that by how neat and tidy it is. It is a room from the 1640 Hart House in Ipswich that is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is the very first thing that visitors see when they step out of the elevator in the American Wing.
Tucked away in the northeastern corner of the country, we New Englanders are architecturally privileged: It’s not often we go for a drive without seeing first or second period houses (i.e. ones built between 1635 and about 1785). It’s far too easy for us to take them for granted, far too easy for us to overlook the fact that the vast majority of Americans will never see a first period house standing on the spot where it was built – unless of course, they come to visit us in Ipswich: welcome, all of you, please come.
These thoughts were at the front of my mind recently. As Chair of our town’s Historical Commission, it was my job to take the microphone at Town Meeting and present the case for establishing an Architectural Preservation District. I used this room in the closing points of my argument. (I spoke also of a similar room in the MFA in Boston and of the Ipswich house that is the largest single exhibit in the Smithsonian Museum of American History.) National institutions place front and center what we locals are prone to take all too casually, merely the background to our daily lives.
Twenty years ago the town rejected a proposal to preserve its historic district, but last month this one was voted in, and at last Ipswich has the means to preserve in perpetuity 200 or so of its houses built before 1900, of which about 100 are from the first and second periods.
In 1800, Ipswich had a population of 3,305 (about one quarter of what it is today), and according to my very rough calculations, it would have needed 350 to 400 houses (which, of necessity, would have been first and second period.) Thank heaven (or actually the town voters) that we can now preserve the 25 percent that is left.
But why is this important? Look at the 1645 room in the Met. It was the main living room of the house and many times a day would have had all nine or ten members of the household in it. It was sparsely furnished (people lived, quite happily, with far fewer things than we do) and some of the furniture was multi-purpose – the piece on the right was used as a chair or a table as well as for storage (see the drawer under the seat?). The bed would have held the head of the household, his wife and probably two of their older children. Their youngest child would have slept in the cradle till he or she was about three years old – that’s why it was big. This was a public, communal room holding many people throughout the day and the night (the bed is the most sumptuous thing in the house, so visitors had to see it!). At that period, there was no privacy, but people didn’t miss it because the concept hardly existed: Americans lived lives in which the communal mattered more than the individual.
Most of those who opposed the Architectural Preservation District did so because they thought it gave the community too much power over the individual and his right to do to his house whatever he wanted to, including demolish it because he was fed up with living with low ceilings (as happened to the oldest house in Dover, N.H, earlier this summer).
Throughout our history, we Americans have struggled to find a comfortable balance between the rights of the individual and the rights of the community. That point of balance has varied over time, though generally trending toward the individual, and it varies still by region; some regions are very individualistic, others less so.
Look around the room you’re in as you read this. How many people are in it right now? How many hours out of 24 does it lie empty and unused? How many pieces of furniture are in it? Then look at the 1645 room, a room where there were more people than things; a room in full use 24/7 where people had little privacy, but were never lonely; a room where the balance between the communal and the individual was at a very different point than it is your room – and mine. The 1645 room reminds us of the foundation laid by the early settlers upon which much of America is built; a hard working, God fearing community, not a bunch of individuals.
I think Ipswich got that point of balance between the community and the individual just about right when it decided to preserve its historic district. I’m delighted and proud that the Met is showing the rest of the world a tiny piece of our architectural heritage, and, by doing so, is nudging them to think about how the community and the individual relate to each other and how they can work out ways of living together.