In the late 1800s, there were just pockets of interest in preserving historically significant architecture. Widespread preservation movements didn’t gain momentum in the US until the 20th century, but before that there were some who recognized the historical importance of buildings of the earliest settlers and the need to save them before they were torn down or beyond repair. Ipswich, Massachusetts, was one of those places.
White settlers, mostly from Ipswich, England, began to settle an area known as Agawam in 1633—it’s about 30 miles north of Boston. They had the recommendation of Captain John Smith, who had called it, “an excellent habitation, being a good and safe harbour” in 1614. Word is there was no native resistance to the settlement after several plagues had devastated the region’s once-populous Indian tribes. So the nascent town of farmers, fishermen, and shipbuilders was incorporated as Ipswich in 1635. In that year one of the original land grants, plat 140, was made to Henry Wilkinson.
It wasn’t long before the good folks of Ipswich protested a tax imposed by the King’s governor, arguing that, as Englishmen, taxation without representation was unjust. This was in 1687—almost 90 years before the Boston Tea Party—and it’s why the town now calls itself the “Birthplace of American Independence.”
Ipswich thrived and grew through the next century as the rest of the country caught up with this independent-minded region. Prosperous citizens built simple post and beam houses with clapboard siding and central chimneys, steeply pitched roofs, sometimes with a second-floor wall overhang called a garrison, and usually with exposed, chamfered summer beams in the front rooms. They now call this the First Period of colonial American architecture: structures built in the 1626-1725 period.
By the time the trade and fishing centers in the deep water ports of Salem and Newberyport eclipsed Ipswich in the early 19th century, the town’s farmers and fishermen inhabited a rich inventory of early architecture—which many couldn’t afford to replace. By the mid-1800s, if these houses weren’t being preserved—sometimes being “remodeled” in a Georgian style—they were falling into disrepair.
So it was that sometime around 1890, Arthur Wesley Dow bought a house on Turkey Shore Road in his home town of Ipswich to save it from demolition. Combining an appreciation for craftsmanship with the local interest in saving early architecture, Dow bought this house along the Ipswich River and turned it into the Ipswich Summer School of Art, founded in 1891. For the next fifteen years the school enrolled up to 200 students a year.
Academically trained in Boston and Paris, Dow had turned his back on academic theories and embraced the revolutionary idea that, rather than copying nature, art should be created by elements of composition: line, mass and color. Today his work is in some of the country’s most important collections. But his greatest influence was as an art teacher—his students included Max Weber and Georgia O’Keefe, who studied under Dow at Columbia University and later said that she had already mastered technique but “Dow gave me something to do with it.” In fact he’s best known as an art teacher’s teacher—his legacy is that many of his students at Pratt, Columbia, the Art Students league, and his Ipswich Summer School were inspired to become art teachers themselves. His influential 1899 book Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers is still in print today.
The house that Dow saved and turned into an art school is now known as the Emerson-Howard house. William Howard built the house in 1680 on the original plat 140, which he bought from Thomas Emerson (an ancestor of Ralph Waldo Emerson).
William, born in about 1635, was a father of seven or eight children, an Ipswich hat maker—an important industry at the time—and a man who acquired significant property. You can still visit his headstone in the Old North Burying Ground; it reads, “Here Lyes ye Body of William Houeard who died July ye 25th, 1709 in ye 74 year of his age.”
His house still stands today. After Dow died his family gave it to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, but it was returned to private ownership in 1981; it’s now on the historic register and is still lived in. We visited the house because its builder, William Howard, is Bruce’s 7th great grandfather. On the day we were there we knocked, but no one was home.
It’s remarkable how the act of standing before a simple house can evoke such a strong sense of connection to your personal history. Bruce was awe struck, imagining William opening the door and entering this same house some 300 years ago. The bridge in front of the house (updated many times hence) still crosses the Ipswich river and forms the path he would have walked—up the hill to church and the town center. You wonder what thoughts consumed him as he crossed this bridge, his observations, his worries, his joys. Bruce confessed to goosebumps at his luck—at being able to make a connection with his ancestor who created this home and lived here so long ago.
Today the area around Ipswich boasts more surviving First Period homes than anywhere else in the country, thanks to Dow and others like him. And Dow (1857-1922) is considered a force in the American Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; his work is in collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY; Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts; the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C.; and other influential public and private collections.
But the Ipswich Museum, within walking distance of the Emerson-Howard house on Turkey Shore Road, owns the largest single collection of works by home town boy Arthur Wesley Dow.
All Arthur Wesley Dow photos used by permission, from the excellent Stories From Ipswich blog at ipswich.wordpress.com. Emerson-Howard house photo: from “The Celebration of the 250th Anniversary of the Incorporation of Ipswich” on openlibrary.org. All other images shot in Ipswich and the Ipswich Museum, © 2014 Sue Cummings and Bruce Howard. All rights reserved.