One House, Many Stories

June 1, 2001

Chipped paint, a nick over the door--year after year, the history of a house is etched in its walls by the families who make it home.

Now REALTORS® are helping keep alive the history of a house whose story is a snapshot of America itself.

In May the Smithsonian Institution, in partnership with the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® , opened “Within These Walls . . . ,” an exhibition at the National Museum of American History chronicling the story of one home and five families whose lives intersected with American history at different crossroads.

“This exhibition is a wonderful vehicle for REALTORS® to celebrate the way our homes create the backdrop against which all of us become a part of American history,” says NAR President Richard A. Mendenhall.

“It’s also a celebration of REALTORS®as the people who help preserve the stories that make each house a home,” he says. “In doing that, we’re stewards of history in our communities.”

The exhibition is built around a 240-year-old house from Ipswich, Mass. In the early 1960s, the Ipswich House was saved from the wrecker’s ball by a handful of local citizens literally hours before it was to be razed.

Smithsonian staff took the house apart piece by piece, transported it, and reassembled it inside the National Museum of American History on the National Mall.

Throughout the 1970s the house was displayed to showcase its timber framing. But for the past dozen years or so, it’s been sealed off as historians dug deeper into its construction and tracked down the stories of the people who lived in it.

“Forty years ago, the Ipswich residents and Smithsonian curators saved not only a great old house but also family stories reflecting 200 years of American history,” says Bill Yeingst, exhibition cocurator.

Because of their roles in the country’s unfolding historic events, five families that lived in the house are being highlighted by the exhibition curators.

1. American colonists--Abraham and Sarah Choate, a prosperous merchant couple, built the house in the 1760s. To them, its stately architecture signaled their place in Colonial American society, says Shelley Nickles, exhibition cocurator.

They would have filled the two-and-a-half-story house with the trappings of elegance--such as Chinese tea ware and imported wallpaper--that reflected the growing availability of luxury items in the Colonies and the increasing importance of fashion during the 18th century, Nickles says.

2. Revolutionaries--To Abraham and Bethiah Dodge, who owned the house in the 1770s and 1780s, the house was in the eye of the storm.

Like other towns throughout the Colonies, Ipswich was roiled by Revolutionary fervor, and Dodge, a young merchant, was needed on the war front. He fought as a captain at the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, and Bethiah, curators believe, did her part by boycotting British goods.

The Dodge family maintained the house in an elegant manner, but the war took its toll. Dodge incurred heavy debts to help finance his military unit, and his family sold the house in 1789 after his death.

3. Reformers--In the 1800s, the antislavery movement was growing, and the new owners, Lucy and Josiah Caldwell and their adopted daughter, Margaret, opened their parlor to the crusade.

Caldwell, a prosperous businessman and real estate dealer, was the first president of the Ipswich Anti Slavery Society, and Lucy was equally involved. She hosted meetings of the women’s counterpart organization and was busy producing antislavery materials, says Nickles.

Meanwhile, with Ipswich transitioning from a seaport to an industrial center, Caldwell’s real estate activities thrived. He was involved in more than 150 property transactions during his lifetime.

4. Immigrant workers--By the time the industrial revolution rolled in, the house had lost its place in the fashion center of Ipswich and was purchased as an investment property and turned into rental apartments. Among its renters were Catherine Lynch, a widow from Ireland, and her daughter, Mary, who struggled to create a comfortable life for themselves in the growing country.

The life of renters during the period’s wrenching social changes wasn’t easy. Mary worked in a nearby hosiery mill, and Catherine took in laundry to pay the rent and make ends meet.

5. World War II ‘home fronter’--From the Great Depression to the war, the house was home to hardship.

After weathering the economic turmoil of the 1930s, the last resident of the house, Mary Scott, helped the country’s war effort. The widow held down a job, cared for her grandchild, and kept a frugal house. Like others on the home front, she also planted a victory garden, preserved vegetables in her kitchen, and saved tin cans, foil, and leftover fats for recycling into war material.

The house has been many things to many people--approximately 100 people are believed to have lived in the house over the years--and now it’s an emblem of the central place of the home in American history, says Spencer R. Crew, Ph.D., director of the National Museum of American History.

“This house and NAR’s affiliation as the exhibition’s sole sponsor will reinforce for millions of people the importance of the home to the family, the community, and the nation,” Crew says.

A little history, a lot of fun

You don’t have to have a nose for history to get a lot out of the Smithsonian Institution’s “Within These Walls . . .” exhibition, now open at the National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Washington, D.C.

The exhibition--sponsored by NAR to highlight the central place of the home in the American experience--is full of hands-on activities and interesting artifacts. Start with the house itself, all two-and-a-half stories of it. It’s the single largest artifact in the museum’s collection. The house was taken down from its original location in Ipswich, Mass., in the 1960s.

In about half the exhibition, the thick timber framing is left exposed to show the framing technique that the American colonists imported from the English. The rest of the walls have been restored and the rooms decorated with artifacts from different periods. Look for Colonial-era Chinese tea ware and a Revolutionary War coat--one of the few authentic coats remaining in the country.

There’s also John Heard’s rental account book. For 20 years, Heard, a wealthy merchant who owned the house during the industrial revolution, rented the house to Catherine Lynch, an Irish immigrant who helped defray her rent by doing the Heard family’s laundry.

“The account book is one of the exhibition’s key artifacts because it tells us so much about the renters and the times in which they lived,” says Shelley Nickles, exhibition cocurator.

Vital stats: “Within These Walls . . .” will be on permanent exhibition beginning May 16, 2001. NAR is the sole sponsor.

  • The National Museum of American History is at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest, Washington, D.C.
  • The museum is open daily, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except Dec. 25. Admission is free.
  • Numerous programs are scheduled, including a folklife festival beginning June 27 and a family day on July 14. For more information, call 202/357-2700 or visit the museum online: (museum info); (“Within These Walls . . .” info).
Robert Freedman

Robert Freedman is the former director of multimedia communications at NAR.

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