The History of History



Spencer Pierce Little Farm in Newbury is a cherished historic site

Historic New England, which maintains 36 properties in the region (including nine on the North Shore), was founded by the country's first full-time professional preservationalist. 

The two properties couldn't be more different.

The Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm in Newbury sits isolated on 230 bucolic acres—the stone house is surrounded by fields, most of them leased out to local farmers. Flocks of geese honk their way through the clear blue sky, failing to draw the attention of Big Dave, an 800-pound pig placed here (along with a horse, a donkey, and a three-legged sheep, among others) by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Mostly, people come here just to be here—wandering the grounds with their pets or their cameras—but those who tour the house take a trip through its history, learning about its various occupants, from original settler to wealthy merchants to family farmers.

The Phillips House in Salem, by contrast, is frozen in time—1919, to be exact. Huddled among the other mansions on Chestnut Street, the 11,000-squarefoot house began as four rooms torn from another house and transported to Salem by ox sled in 1821, after Captain Nathaniel West’s divorce from his wife led to a literally divided house. But only the belongings of the Phillips family— their portraits, their books, their travel tchotchkes, their melon ballers—populate the rooms. The family remodeled the house when they bought it in 1911, and unlike the manor in Newbury, which feels firmly rooted in the realm of relics, the high ceilings and spacious rooms at the Phillips House have the power to inspire envy even in modern visitors.

The two properties seem to have only one thing in common: They’re still here. We tend to take for granted that buildings like these exist, not just in photographs and land-sale documents, but in actual fact, occupying the same space they have for hundreds of years. Walking through certain sections of certain towns on the North Shore, it can seem that every scrap of history has been saved, that every house comes adorned with its own plaque emblazoned with the name of some sea captain or lawyer who lived there centuries ago.

It can seem as though historic preservation is inevitable.

But it isn’t. Plenty of buildings come and go, making way for wider roads and shopping malls. The ones that are left are only here because someone spared them— because someone looked at them once and decided they came out on the favorable end of a simple, yet confounding, question: What’s worth saving, and what’s not?

A man graduates from  Harvard. Travels Europe. Goes into business. Has a nervous breakdown. (Or, a breakdown of some sorts, anyway. He blames it on eyestrain.)

What happens next? He can’t go back  to the rat race. And his family has enough money that he’ll never need to.

But he has to do something. (It’s the turn of the 20th century, and there are no parents’ basements equipped with Xboxes to retreat to.) But what? What’s worth doing, and what’s not?

William Sumner Appleton, the man in question, considered becoming a mining engineer, or perhaps taking over his family’s dairy farm in Newton. But he kept finding himself drawn toward another family business of sorts: history. His grandfather, a textile tycoon, helped establish the Boston Athenaeum library and archive, and his father wrote extensively on genealogy and numismatics (the study of coins) and helped found the American Historical Society.

Appleton’s interest, though, lay with historical buildings, an obsession he documented through countless newspaper clippings pasted into his scrapbooks. In 1905, he became involved with the effort to preserve the Paul Revere House in Boston’s North End, and the next year, he took the lead in thwarting plans to alter the Old State House. (To appreciate the nascent state of the historic preservation movement at the time, try imagining the uproar a person would face today if he proposed tearing down Paul Revere’s home.)

A few years later, when Appleton learned of planned alterations to a Lexington home with ties to the American Revolution, he became outraged and began taking legal steps to form the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (known today as Historic New England).

“It was really the catalyst for him forming this organization,” says Lorna Condon, Historic New England’s senior curator of library and archives, in reference to the Lexington house. “It was what he had been waiting for. If you think about people saying, ‘This is what I was born to do,’ [then] this is what he was born to do.”

Appleton, who Condon calls the country’s “first fulltime professional preservationist,” headed his organization (without drawing a salary) for 37 years, up until his death from a stroke in 1947.

In 1911, the society acquired the Swett-Ilsley House in Newbury—the first of 51 properties it would own by the time he died. Appleton also raised money and lent his time to organizations working to save buildings that his group couldn’t take on.

“Without people like William Sumner Appleton, New England would look very, very different from how it [looks] today,” says Bethany Groff, Historic New England’s North Shore regional manager. “A lot of things we think about when we think about quintessential New England would be gone.”

Historic New England now owns 36 properties, nine of which are on the North Shore. The organization also runs a program that helps private owners protect their historic homes through preservation easements. The organization’s properties largely lack connections to boldfaced historical names; even if you paid extra-close attention in history class, for example, you probably can’t identify the Spencer, Peirce, or Little who gave the Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm its name. That’s partly due to Appleton’s unique (at the time) preservation philosophy—his answer to the question of what’s worth saving, and what’s not. Earlier preservationists had primarily been concerned with buildings tied to famous historical figures or events, but Appleton was interested in the buildings for their own sake— their architecture and aesthetics. He was also interested in the stories that buildings had to tell, not necessarily about great men or epic battles, but about the buildings themselves, and the quotidian lives of their occupants. He avoided making changes that would beautify a property to conform to modern standards, and he also resisted the urge to artificially turn back the clock by reversing earlier modifications.

“The more I work on these old houses, the more I feel that the less of W.S. Appleton I put into them, the better it is,” he  wrote in reference to the restoration of the Coffin House, a 1678 Newbury dwelling still owned by Historic New England.

Appleton explained his decision to leave an 1850 porch, and other details, standing alongside older construction at the house, writing, “It shows the process of evolution during 280 years and it seemed to me that it should be continued to show this process, which was of infinitely more interest than a restoration of the old appearance…could have been.”

The spencer-peirce-little farm and the Phillips House have one more thing in common other than the fact that they were preserved, and that’s why they were preserved. They both meet Appleton’s criteria (Historic New England’s criteria, really—both came into the fold well after Appleton’s death) for what’s worth saving.

The two properties are both of architectural interest— the Newbury house because it is a rare example of Englishstyle masonry from a place and time when wood construction was the norm (“There’s no other house like it in New England,” says Groff); and the Salem mansion because of its Federal-style architecture and Colonial Revival remodeled interior. But also, details about the lives of the two homes’ inhabitants have been preserved, allowing the properties to become vehicles for storytelling.

Anna Wheatland Phillips, who bought the Salem house in 1911 and lived there with her husband, son, and a domestic staff, was a meticulous documentarian of her own family’s life, keeping diaries, a detailed social calendar, and even notes about where particular objects had been displayed in the house over time. “They are probably the only traditional Salem family that has the stuff all here, and it’s all researchable, and all able to tell the story to a wider public,” says Julie Arrison, the property’s site manager.

At the Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm, Groff jumps from family to family, rewinding and fast-forwarding through time. In one breath, she’s talking about Jacob Stekionis, who came to the farm as a hired hand from Lithuania in 1912 and ended up raising his family in the farmhouse attached to the manor; in the next breath, she’s raving about Offin Boardman (a “book waiting to happen,” she says), who bought the property in 1796 and who, before he came to live on the farm, gained local fame for capturing two British ships on the same day and for escaping from English prisons—twice.

“When an old house goes down, people don’t understand why it’s such a sorrowful thing,” Groff says. “I think of this house, and I know all of the people who’ve lived here based on what they left behind—whether it’s a mark on the wall, or a written history, or an oral history. The house sort of encapsulates all those lives.”

“People come here and say, ‘Is it haunted?’” she adds. “And I say, ‘No, but it’s filled with people.’” historicnewengland.org

Edit ModuleShow Tags

You May Also Like

Pete Holmes Shares His Insights on Comedy and More

Our author catches up with the star of the HBO hit "Crashing" and former Wenham resident.

Signs of Spring

Two sanctuary directors tell us what to look out for on the North Shore.

Kitchen & Bath Trends Sip and Learn

On May 1, get ideas and inspiration to revamp the heart of the home.