To secure a competence

John Fiske, Ipswich MA
Ipswich Historical Commission chairman John Fiske

The following remarks were made by the late John Fiske, on accepting the 2014 Community Service Award from the Ipswich Democratic Town Committee to the Historical Commission on January 31, 2015:

As Chair of the Ipswich Historical Commission, I know how pleased and proud we all are that you have decided to honor us with the 2014 Community Service Award for our success in persuading the town to establish an Architectural Preservation District (APD). The award is a prestigious one and receiving it means a lot to us.

Thank you. In accepting this handsome plaque, I would like to say a few words about the social dimension of the houses we have now preserved. From the first settlement of the town in 1633 until the American Revolution, the basic design of the houses changed very little: they were symmetrical with a door and four windows on the first floor, five windows on the second, and possibly a lean-to along the back. The only variation was a half house, which actually was designed to be extended into a full house, but in certain cases, such as the house I live in, was not.

Today, the houses are painted in different colors, but in their period they were unpainted, the siding was of weathered pine – old, first growth, slow-growing, tightly-grained pine that could weather for two or three hundred years without paint. The houses were similar in size, style and color. They were the houses of people who wanted to fit in, not stand out. People did not want to display their wealth by ostentatious houses; There are no McMansions among them, and, thanks to our APD, there never will be.

John Fiske lived in a 1728 home on Water Street. Painting by Arthur Wesley Dow.

The men who lived in these houses (I’m sorry, ladies, but it was a male dominated period!) lived by two key values that I fear have dropped off the radar today. When we read men’s journals and the letters between fathers and sons, we find two words that recur frequently and that sound a tad foreign to modern ears: “competence” and “serviceable.”

The aim of a man in this period was to “secure a competence,” that is, to earn enough to support his family in comfort – no excess, but no hardship either. None of the men expressed a desire for great wealth. A competence was what men aspired to.

A man also wanted to be “serviceable,” that is, able to be of service to his community. He did not want to put all his efforts into improving his own lot in life, he wanted to help make his community stronger as well.

The houses we have preserved, then, were the homes of people who aspired to a competence and to being serviceable. Not a bad pair of values to live by.

Summer Street, by Arthur Wesley Dow. John Fiske lived in the house on the right.

One of my favorite quotations is from the English novelist L. P. Hartley, “The past is another country, they do things differently there.” I’m delighted that we have preserved a part of “another country” in the heart of our town. “They do things differently there” and the way that they did them then is well worth our attention today, for they remind us that the way we live now is not the only way to live, and that the values we hold today are not the only values by which people can live happy, satisfying and successful lives.

The houses we have preserved embody in their very architecture a point of balance between the individual and the community that is very different from the balance (or imbalance?) that we live by today. These are the houses of people who valued community.

Ipswich Historical Commission vice-chairman Gordon Harris and secretary Laura Gresh with the Ipswich Democratic Party service award.

And in our work over 2014 and earlier, we in the Historical Commission tried to emulate the values of the architecture we wish to preserve. The core of our efforts was a series of neighborhood meetings in the homes of members who lived in the proposed district. These meetings shaped the proposal that was presented at Town Meeting, and, most importantly, they demonstrated that the Preservation District was wanted by the people who lived in it and whose houses and neighborhoods would be most directly affected by it.

The Architectural Preservation District is a product of the community it preserves. It was not imposed from outside, but grew from within. The new APD is the result of our desire to be serviceable, to strengthen the community. I like to think that the townspeople of Ipswich who built our first and second period houses would have been familiar with the values that lay behind our efforts to preserve them. I enjoy imagining them lying in their graves applauding us.

1 thought on “To secure a competence”

  1. Wonderful article that made me think. That “tightly grained old growth slow growing pine ” that they built their life and their houses with sounds like a description or metaphor for The Puritans who went about building Ipswich. They build their homes their community and their families slowly and will not only to take care of themselves in the present but to create a future for those they would never know And you’re right , as I’ve been doing my research into my family’s past which led me to your town, I felt like I was visiting a foreign country with ideas that challenged my own. And then I saw how those ideas have lived on today in those towns and in the family I have and some of the people I know in similar old towns They grow slowly– well — and theyreach out to others and preserve the past to give to the future and to be certain there is one for their families to come who they will never know Thank you

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