In 1963, Kay Thompson and Helen Lunt, two housewives, recognized that chapters of American history, written within the walls of a simple clapboard house slated for destruction in Ipswich, Massachusetts, were in peril. Through their efforts, the historic house was relocated to the Smithsonian where it still resides as the Museum’s largest single artifact on permanent display.
This house formerly stood next to the Ipswich Police Station on Elm Street and is now the largest exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
For 200 years this Georgian-style timber-framed house stood at 16 Elm Street in Ipswich. Abraham Choate built the fashionable main section of the house in the 1760’s, and attached part of an older structure, built around 1710, to the rear of the house to create more space for his eight children.
Josiah and Lucy Caldwell bought the house in 1822, and hosted meetings of the Ipswich Female Anti-Slavery Society in the home. The house was purchased as an investment in 1865 by the wealthy Heard family and was divided into rental apartments for workers at the town’s hosiery mill.
In 1942 Mary Scott and her family owned the home, and in 1961, Mary’s son Roy Scott moved out. The house stood empty and in 1963, the town of Ipswich planned to replace the house with a parking lot, but members of the Ipswich Historical Society saved it from the bulldozer on the day it was scheduled for demolition. When a backhoe arrived at the site to begin tearing down the house, they paid the crew chief to hold off while they called the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian agreed to take the house and the contractor, A. B. C. Mulholland, donated it to the museum. The house was dismantled, trucked to Washington and reassembled in the National Museum of American History and became the centerpiece of an exhibition on two hundred years of American home-building technology.
Today, the house is the centerpiece of “Within These Walls” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington DC.
Families who lived in the 16 Elm St. house
- In the mid-1760s, Abraham Choate had this 10-room house built in Ipswich, Massachusetts, for his wife, Sarah, and their growing family. The Choates were wealthier than most colonists, but not among the most fashionable or powerful. The house announced the family’s prosperity. Over the years, Abraham established himself as a miller and maritime merchant. The Choates also benefited from a growing economy that brought fabrics, china, and other goods that were once exotic and expensive. But running a well-to-do household still demanded an enormous amount of work from Sarah, her eight children, and a servant or two.
- Abraham Dodge, a patriot who fought in the Revolutionary War, bought this house in 1777. A few years later, he married his second wife, Bethiah. The Dodge household also included an African American man named Chance, who most likely was a slave during the war. The American Revolution transformed this household. By 1786, the year Abraham died, the Dodges were no longer British subjects and slavery had legally ended in Massachusetts. Still, Chance remained tied to the Dodge household as a servant in the transition from slavery to freedom.
Josiah and Lucy Caldwell bought this house on Elm Street in 1822. The Caldwells believed in the moral power of home and family, and their beliefs inspired a radical mission. The Caldwells were local leaders in the international struggle to end slavery.The Caldwells had no children. In 1836, they brought their young niece Margaret into their home and later adopted her. They were a family of reformers. Josiah led the Ipswich Anti Slavery Society. Lucy held meetings of the Ipswich Female Anti Slavery Society in the parlor. Margaret attended the Ipswich Female Seminary, which prepared her for a career as a teacher.
In the 1870s and 1880s, Catherine Tracy Lynch, an Irish immigrant, and her daughter, Mary, rented one side of this house. Catherine took in laundry. Mary was one of hundreds of workers employed by Ipswich Mills. Together they made ends meet. The house was more than a century old now, and the neighborhood part of an industrial mill district. For Catherine and Mary Lynch, renting meant sharing space with boarders, other renters in the house, and probably relatives recently arrived from Ireland. Nicholas Donovan, a young millworker from Ireland, boarded here in the 1880s. He probably paid Catherine a few dollars a month for room, meals, and laundry.
By the end of 1942, Mary Scott and her family were part of the war effort. Mary shopped with ration coupons, planted a victory garden, preserved vegetables in the kitchen, and waited for word of her sons, Roy and Arthur, both in the armed forces. In the 1940s, By the 1940s, the house was still divided into apartments, but now one was upstairs and one was downstairs. Downstairs, the Scotts’ kitchen, heated by a coal-and-wood cooking range, was the center of their household. Roy Scott installed the house’s first indoor toilet in the mid 1940s.
Location: 2nd Floor, West Wing. This exhibition tells the history of the re-created, 2 1/2-story, Georgian-style house that stood at 16 Elm Street in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and five of the many families who occupied it from the mid-1760s through 1945. The exhibition explores some of the important ways ordinary people, in their daily lives, have been part of the great changes and events in American history. Walking around the exterior of the house, visitors can view—through open walls, windows, and doorways —settings played out against the backdrop of Colonial America, the American Revolution, the abolitionist movement, the industrial era, and World War II. Near the exit is a list of all the families who lived in the house through the 1960s.
Read from the Washington Post: This might be Washington’s oldest house, but it came from New England
The play below was presented in Ipswich Massachusetts on the former site of the house.