— John A. Moore, Gwynn Oak, Md.
On an August morning in 1963, Helen Lunt of the Ipswich Historical Society stood in front of the timber frame house at 16 Elm St. in the Massachusetts seaside town. She clutched $50 in cash.
The money was to pay a bulldozer operator to not operate his bulldozer. The dozer driver had been hired to demolish the house to make way for a parking lot, but the historical society was in negotiations with the Smithsonian Institution to save the Colonial building. Lunt wanted to make sure the bulldozer operator earned his day’s rate, even if his blade was stayed.
Stayed the blade was, though the house did not stay.
“It came to the museum in 1963 as a truckload of beams, boards and bricks and was carefully reassembled in the museum,” said Shelley Nickles, curator of the Division of Cultural and Community Life at the National Museum of American History.
The house may have been old, but the museum was brand new. When it opened in 1964, it was called the Museum of History and Technology. And when the exhibit featuring the Ipswich house was unveiled, it was to highlight how the structure was built.
As with so many old houses, this one had been altered over the years, as owners adjusted it to meet their needs. It incorporated two different styles of architecture: so-called First Period, a post-medieval style of construction associated with houses built roughly between 1625 and 1725; and later Georgian-style architecture.
“They had two periods within one house,” Nickles said. “The curators were interested in telling the story of early 18th-century New England building techniques.”
Power tools did not exist when the house was erected, of course. Nails were cast by hand. And fewer nails were used than in a modern house. Instead, posts and beams were fitted together with mortise and tenon joints. This house featured wide plank flooring and a massive chimney.
When it opened in the “Growth of the United States” hall, the older part of the 2½ -story house was dated to 1690, the newer part to 1750. Those dates have since been adjusted to about 1710 and 1760. Also adjusted: the story the house tells museum visitors.
Make that stories. A house is more than inanimate wood and nails. It’s animated by all the people who lived in it. As the 20th century came to a close, Smithsonian curators began pondering how to use the Ipswich house as more than an example of construction. A greatly revamped exhibit called “Within These Walls” opened in 2001.
“One of our goals is to show how ordinary people are part of the great changes in their community — and in the nation,” Nickles said.
Just as curators had quite literally peeled back the physical layers of the house, now they peeled back its human history. They scoured deeds, newspaper stories and genealogical documents to discover who had lived in it.
“We picked five family stories out of the many,” Nickles said.
They hit the jackpot. Abraham Dodge fought British tyranny at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Living with the Dodge family was Chance Bradstreet, an enslaved African American. A later resident was Lucy Caldwell, who held meetings of an abolitionist society in the house. Catherine Lynch, an Irish immigrant and laundress, moved to Elm Street around 1870 when the house was divided into apartments. Mary Scott tended a Victory Garden while her sons fought in World War II.
The exhibit explores each of them, connecting them to events in our country’s history.
But what if curators had discovered that only boring people lived in the house?
“I think if you pick any house or any apartment building in any neighborhood, you’re going to find interesting stories,” Nickles said.
The pandemic has closed the museum, but you can find a presentation about the “Within These Walls” exhibit on its website: americanhistory.si.edu/within-these-walls.
“To me, this is an interesting moment to look at history from within the walls of a house,” Nickles said. “With the pandemic, we’re in this moment of uncertainty. And, also, the pandemic has really put a spotlight on home. I think it’s an opportunity to remind ourselves that history is nowhere near as clear as it appears in hindsight, that those [Ipswich house] people were in these moments that were unexpected, that were uncertain. They had to cope, adapt, take a stand. And the exhibit is showing that these people from all walks of life did that.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly