Read an Excerpt
"Built 1737 by Thomas Hancock. Destroyed 1863. The fate of [the John Hancock House] has become a classic in the annals of vandalism. Governor Hancock is said to have intended to bequeath his home to the Commonwealth, but he died without giving effect to this intention by will. In 1859 a strong effort was made to have the Commonwealth purchase the house at a low valuation. This effort failed, and later the heirs offered the house with some of its contents to the city as a free gift, the house to be moved to another site. This plan also failed, and in 1863 the house was destroyed."
William Sumner Appleton,
Bulletin of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, May 1910
Forty-seven years after John Hancock's Beacon Street house in Boston was demolished, William Sumner Appleton could write as passionately about the loss as if it had just occurred, denouncing it on the first page of the first issue of the Bulletin, the quarterly journal of his newly founded Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. As the nineteenth century headed for the twentieth, most historical societies and preservation efforts, lacking the vision or sufficient funding to have an impact throughout the region, attempted only to salvage single buildings. No laws existed to protect any historic sites; acquisition was often the only way to guarantee long-term preservation and sensitive care.
In 1905 a movement began in Boston to save the Paul Revere House, built 1676-82 and the oldest remaining building in the city. The house wassaved by Jonathan Phillips Reynolds Jr., a Revere descendant who purchased it and formed the Paul Revere Association to oversee its restoration. Appleton, then thirty-one years old, became the association's secretary. Thus began his formal interest in preservation, which became his life's work.
In 1910, using his own resources and those of a few friendsCharles Bolton, Ernest Gay, Alice Longfellow, and othersAppleton started SPNEA to establish "a large and strong society, which shall cover the whole field and act instantly wherever needed to lead in the preservation of noteworthy buildings and historic sites." Appleton and the other SPNEA founders saw buildings as the framework for creating an understanding of daily life and cultural values of earlier times. The organization moved quickly to purchase several early Massachusetts houses, beginning with the Swett-Ilsley House in Newbury, built about 1670; the Fowler House in Danvers, built in 1809 (no longer owned by SPNEA); and the Cooper- Frost-Austin House in Cambridge, built about 1690. The collection grew rapidly; over the years SPNEA has owned more than one hundred historic properties, some of which it purchased outright and some of which were donated. SPNEA also found time to counsel those who wished to preserve and care for other buildings.
During its first fifty years, SPNEA's aim was to preserve buildings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Standard practice during this time was to remove later additions and evidence of successive architectural changes (although restoration work was carefully documented through photographs and written field notes). In 1969, however, SPNEA acquired the Codman House in Lincoln, Massachusetts, which had been altered and expanded at least four times since 1740 and contained furnishings, paintings, clothing, photographs, and manuscripts spanning more than two centuries. That year the organization adopted a policy of keeping buildings and their contents intact, retaining all the evidence of changes, new ideas, and various personalities that had left their imprint through the years, rather than recreating what the buildings may have looked like when first constructed. It was thus among the first preservation groups to eschew "restoration" and to carefully preserve and cherish all the layers of history at its sites. Since 1969 no SPNEA building has been accepted without a full complement of family furnishings and related documentary material, and the organization has made many successful efforts to recover items removed before acquisition.
The evolution of SPNEA and its collection reflects changes in historic preservation techniques and parallels the growth of professional and popular interest in architectural, landscape, and social history. SPNEA's historical focus has also expanded. Appleton apparently never seriously considered acquiring a Victorian building or a more modern one, even though he himself could not resist collecting brand-new objects that he believed were documents of life in his own day-art pottery, household furnishings, clothing, stationery, photographs, and postcards. As late as the mid-1950s his successors at SPNEA discarded some furnishings of the Victorian and later periods. Within fifteen years, however, the pendulum had swung back, and SPNEA acquired and began to preserve both Henry Bowen's 1846 Gothic Revival Roseland Cottage in Woodstock, Connecticut, and Walter and Ise Gropius's 1938 Bauhaus-inspired house in Lincoln, Massachusetts, along with their entire contents.
Today, the SPNEA collection, which the American Association of Museums has called perhaps the country's most significant for the interpretation of New England, encompasses 125 buildings on forty-five historic sites in five New England states: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. These houses and outbuildings are located on slightly more than 1,300 acres of land, which ranges from upland woodlands to coastal salt marshes and shows evidence of prehistoric occupation and agriculture by Native Americans as well as nearly four hundred years of changing historic agricultural and horticultural practices and taste.
At twenty-five sites the houses are furnished and are regularly open to the public as historic house museums (for a complete listing, see pages 198-203). A meetinghouse and nine study houses may be visited by appointment or for special programs. Lacking original furnishings, SPNEA's seventeenth-century study houses make no attempt to re-create crowded, smelly, and dynamic domestic interiors of the time. Instead, they offer an unparalleled opportunity to examine the origins of New England architecture and its old housewright traditions in examples that reflect the local abundance of wood, changes in building technology, regional variations, and the evolution of new architectural forms. Some of its properties have been leased to tenants, and some have been transferred to other owners, usually with the protection of easements ensuring long-term preservation of buildings and significant features.
SPNEA also owns more than 110,000 artifacts closely associated with New England families or artisans, half on view in the historic properties and the rest carefully stored but available for formal exhibition and research. The library now contains more than one million historic images and other primary materials in the form of books, manuscripts, photographs, negatives, postcards, stereo cards, daguerreotypes, architectural drawings, and illustrated ephemera.
Because of its extraordinary size and scope, the SPNEA collection offers far more insight into the history of New England and New Englanders than can be explored in this book, whose focus is the twenty-five furnished SPNEA houses that are open as house museums. The families who built these homes were, for the most part, wealthy and privileged, and the houses express their status. SPNEA properties do not yet include examples of the simplest dwellings or wholly vernacular styles of New England houses or represent every architectural style or geographic region. Still, the diversity of the New England experience is reflected in SPNEA's buildings, furnishings, and landscapes. Beyond a review of architectural styles and building techniques, they provide settings for the intimacies of family life, relating the stories of husbands and wives, boys and girls, clever bachelors and lonely old maids, enslaved Africans, hopeful Irish girls, and eastern European immigrants. They tell us of merchants, lawyers, ministers, farmers, politicians, housewives, teachers, authors, and preservationists as well as the architects, interior designers, carpenters, masons, furniture makers, landscape designers, plumbers, and others employed by the owners. To open the door to one of these houses is to open a door onto their lives, which reflect both their individuality and the commonality of human experience.