When the Town of Ipswich was laid out in the 1630s, it was required that everyone live within a half mile of the Meeting House. Accordingly, long narrow lots were laid out on High and East Streets, extending up along Town Hill. There may have also been the wife’s herb garden in the front yard, and a vegetable garden, an orchard, a pen for animals, outhouse and barns and other outbuildings in the rear. The entire lot was needed for self-sustainability. Maps of East and Summer Streets show that even into the 19th Century, one side of the street had houses, and the land between East and Summer Streets had orchards and gardens.
Many of those houses are still standing, but Ipswich is facing an existential crisis. If the rear sections of these lots become crowded with condominiums, are we forfeiting our shared obligation to protect the streetscape and historic character of the community? The Historical Commission has previously approved converting existing barns into residential structures in order to save them, which is very different from constructing “barn-like” multi-family condos crowded onto the lots.
In most communities, this would be just a zoning question, but Ipswich is not just another town. Ipswich is recognized as America’s best-preserved Puritan town, and High Street has the greatest concentration of First Period houses in the country. Who could imagine Old Sturbridge Village, Historic Deerfield, Colonial Williamsburg or the McIntyre Historic District in Salem with condominiums squeezed behind and between their historic houses? Ipswich is no less important, and has the unique distinction that it is not a touristy reconstructed historic town with museum houses. Every historic home in the town, with the exception of the Whipple House, is lived in, primarily by the owners. At least one of our First Period houses has never been sold; the current owner being a direct descendent of the 17th Century builder. Ipswich is holding on to being a real town, but for how long?
It is the Historical Commission’s mandate to preserve and protect the houses, character and streetscapes of our four historic districts listed in the National Register of Historic Places. When we developed and promoted the Architectural Preservation District, we assured homeowners that the APD was designed to protect their investments in our exceptionally historic community. It is understandable and fair that a homeowner might want to add a small, compatible structure on a long narrow lot, but filling those spaces with multi-family condominiums threatens the historic character of Ipswich, the investments of homeowners, and the community.
The following is an excerpt from the book Ipswich Yesterday written in 1982.
by Alice Keenan
“Naturally when we moved to Ipswich my antiquarian cup ranneth over. This lovely old town, its long history, ancient houses and interesting people became almost an obsession — a most delightful one to be sure — and supported by an understanding if not occasionally bemused family, I merrily pursued my historic bent. We remember well on coming here a quarter of a century ago, driving endlessly up and down the by-ways of this old town in a state of pop-eyed wonder, passing 17th Century house after 17th Century house, modestly unmarked, and in some cases woefully uncherished.
We know we made a positive pest of ourselves by prattling on and on to whomever we met about the unbelievable wealth of history contained in our new-found community, and were properly and at time un-gently put in our place as one of those tiresome newcomers who “wanted to change things.”
We certainly didn’t want to change things — we just wanted to help preserve and protect what we had left. We embarked on what our family resignedly referred to as “Ma’s Madness.”
“Preserve and Protect” was the credo of the Historical Commission, the first in the state, formed in 1964, and it wasn’t until we inventoried what we had and noted what we had lost, that it became apparent that a wealth of 17th and 18th century houses and structures had been destroyed through neglect, avarice and sheer stupidity.
A member of the commission, the late Kay Thompson once jotted down some of our losses. The list goes on and on, way back to the turn of the century, until the writer wearily ends by commenting: “Within the last 50 years we’ve lost enough handsome old houses to stock a new Sturbridge Village.”
Much of what we have left we can give thanks, in part, to those frugal Ipswichites who never, never, destroyed or threw away anything if a modicum of use could be found for it.
Houses and parts of houses were turned back to front, moved all over town; paneling and nails were re-used where necessary, ells from one house were tacked on another a mile or two away; barns were moved and turned into comfortable dwellings, and alas, comfortable dwellings turned into barns.
It is the people who built and lived in these houses generation after generation, irascible, brilliant, dedicated, impossibly dull and surprisingly witty, that made Ipswich the fascinating place it was and perhaps still is.”