If you’ve arrived at this blog through the “Historic Ipswich and the Massachusetts North Shore” blog (via historicipswich.org), and if you’ve read its content on the Shatswell House, then you’ve seen an old sketch of our house, printed in the Antiquarian Papers.
I have a copy of the article from the Antiquarian Papers, including the sketch of our house, with the notation: From a Drawing by Arthur W. Dow.
Arthur Wesley Dow was an Ipswich native and an internationally renowned artist and educator. He overhauled the way art is taught in the western world and made space for the vanguard. One of his students was Georgia O’Keeffe. Dow also helped found the Ipswich Historical Society in 1890.
Dow had a deep concern for the oldest houses here in Ipswich, and he drew the houses that needed to be preserved. Ours is one of those houses.
When we bought our house in 2014, we set out to restore and preserve every bit of it, not realizing how profoundly momentous this task would become.
At first we focused on preserving the interior of our house. That was the easy part. But we soon realized that it is impossible to preserve our home without being able to protect it. And it is impossible to protect it from the street where it sits, which, although thickly settled and residential, is actually a state highway. In May, 2019, we learned at the Ipswich Town Meeting that this street is also the oldest surviving colonial village. That is, its land lots had been laid out in accordance with 17th century English law, and these lots can still be seen along this street.
Nevertheless, this village – this street – is also a high-volume heavy-traffic state highway; a route filled with 18-wheeler tractor trailer trucks that, night and day, quickly pass (often speed) within a few feet from these historic houses, including our house, which is known to be one of the oldest in Ipswich. There are no speed monitoring devices or other traffic controls along our state highway village street, and so, our house, which strong evidence indicates is the oldest in Ipswich, suffers from deep stress, every day.
For example, in the center of our house, described in 1881 as “very ancient” (Antiquarian Papers), we discovered what appears to be pure ancient “clayboard” (an early First Period construction practice that used clay-coated brick to create interior walls; the concept of “clayboard” was later reimaged in wood and renamed “clapboard”). The “bricks covered with clay” building method is described in the book History of Ipswich, Essex, and Hamilton by Joseph Barlow Felt.
The photo of our clay-covered-brick interior wall, shown below, fits Felt’s description of clayboard. Note the layer of clay along the top of the photo.
Unfortunately, many of the bricks within our early First Period clayboard wall are becoming unstable and even dislodged. We believe this is being caused by the heavy seismic vibrations and wind vibrations resulting from our home’s sad placement along the highway.
In the interest of raising consciousness around the details concerning the historical importance of our home and the others along this highway, it is necessary to document and to clarify information written about our house. For example:
- The “First and Second Period Historic Ipswich Houses” chart lists the date of construction of our house as 1640. See page 5 of 11: https://ipswich.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/ipswich_houses.pdf (However, this chart appears to be absent from the discussion of our house on the blog historicipswich.org.)
- * Updated April 14, 2020: I’ve just noticed that the link above: (https://ipswich.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/ipswich_houses.pdf) is currently, mysteriously, unavailable. Here is a cropped image of the relevant text from that missing link:
- There is no evidence that “the original” John Shatswell House “burned” nor is there any reason to suggest that possibility. That is, it was the Simon Tuttle House, which adjoins, but was never identical to the John Shatswell House, that, according to family tradition, was burned. The Waters, Thomas Franklin manuscript Ipswich In the Massachusetts Bay Colony states that the family tradition of the Simon Tuttle House is that the original house (of Simon Tuttle) was burned. The John Shatswell property was deeded as of 1634, and the Shatswell family (not the Tuttle family) owned this property until the early 20th century.
- The Tuttle House may have also been called “the Shatswell House” at some point in history, if one of John Shatswell’s sons had actually built or owned the original Tuttle house (which burned and was rebuilt by Tuttle), or had, at some point in time held the title to that property, also known as the Tuttle House (this may also explain the confusion regarding the May 28, 1881 article, below).
- It would not be possible for the north end of the John Shatswell House to have been built any time in the 19th century, as architectural details of the John Shatswell house indicate it was built during the early First Period of colonial construction.
- The May 28, 1881 Ipswich Chronicle report that in 1806 Joseph Smith took down “the original” Shatswell House may be accurate if it calls the structure “the Shatswell House” because a son or descendant of John Shatswell had held the title to the adjoining lot at some point in time (see above). Or it might be true if the “original” John Shatswell House had been a temporary shelter built around 1634, to provide lodging for John Shatswell while he built his permanent house, which we believe is our current house. (The Shatswell Planter’s Cottage may have been another of those early, temporary lodgings.) Again, based on the numerous early First Period architectural features in our home, we believe that our house, which is known as the John Shatswell House, was built before 1646 (or perhaps before 1643), which would make it the oldest house in Ipswich.
- The MACRIS (Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System) is inconsistent in its references to the Shatswell House; in one listing it refers only to the Simon Tuttle/John Lord House, while erroneously conflating our address with the Tuttle/Lord House.
One thing is clear. Our house is exceptionally old; so old that its history is difficult to discern.
More than 100 years ago, Arthur Wesley Dow expressed deep concern that the historic and aesthetic character of Ipswich was being sacrificed for the sake of efficiency, and he was troubled that old houses were being destroyed and cleared away.
His commitment to protecting the historic integrity of Ipswich was as important as his devotion to the arts.
Ipswich needs him now.
Ipswich needs at least one person from at least one of its Commissions, Boards, or Committees, to champion its most vulnerable oldest houses; to speak publicly and bravely about the need to protect these houses from the state highway. These houses are national cultural treasures.
Currently, on our state highway section of High Street, more than 3,300 cars and an untold number of 18-wheeler tractor-trailer trucks pass within a few feet of these most vulnerable, most historic houses, at unmonitored* speeds, every day.
These kinds of odds simply don’t look good. The risk for catastrophe is very high.
* Updated March 6, 2020:
Around seven-ish yesterday morning a small truck was pulled over on our street by a police officer, about halfway between Lord Square and the bridge over the railroad tracks.
In the five years since we’ve owned this house, this is the first time I’ve seen a truck pulled over along this street, except for August 19, 2019, when a truck was pulled over at the clearing afforded by the intersection at Town Farm Road.
To have even a small truck pulled over mid-street created a remarkable event. It resulted in a contiguous line of traffic, backed up beyond the railroad bridge, while people heading toward the bridge were driving on the sidewalk to pass the police officer and the truck he had stopped.
We are most grateful to the police officer who recently provided traffic law enforcement on our section of High Street.
We sincerely hope that traffic enforcement here will continue.