We, the Ipswich Historical Commission, have just found a house that had been lost for centuries. We were called to inspect a house in order to determine its significance to the town. Records showed that it had been built in the 1830s but there was also an intriguing reference to a house built on the site in 1717. So off we went on a sunny Saturday morning to see if the house was or was not a significant historical asset worthy of preservation.
The outside did not look promising: an oldish house with nothing particularly significant about it. But when we went inside, we began to perk up: there was a brick hearth, rebuilt in the nineteenth century to take a cast iron stove, and beside it, hidden behind a paneled door in the wall, was a brick oven that looked much earlier.
Half way down the room were posts supporting a ceiling beam, all of which had been boxed in, but were in just the right position to have been the framing of the end wall of a small, early timber-frame house, or half-house. We started to think 1717, not 1830s: we started to think of a 1717 half-house buried in the middle of later construction. Exciting.
In the Attic
Narrow, awkward stairs took us up to the attic (more properly “garret”) where the evidence for 1717 became pretty well conclusive. Both the gable ends of a timber-framed house were clearly there, though the collar beams had been cut through and removed to make for easier access to the later extensions.
The tops of the posts flared outward in a crude form of what are now known as “gunstock posts,” an early method of accommodating two or more beams without compromising the strength of the post. On each of the top corners of the frame was a diagonal wind-brace, another strengthening device in early timber-framed houses.
The roof between the gable ends had been built with vertical boards supported by a horizontal purlin. Outside of the gable ends was a modern type of roof, with vertical rafters supporting horizontal boards. A wonderfully clear contrast between early and later ways of constructing roofs.
The wall under the early roof, of which only three or four feet were visible, was made of vertical, random-width boards that once would have reached to the ground-level sill – and perhaps still did: the current walls now hid whatever lay behind them. These vertical boards would have been sheathed with clapboards.
Down in the cellar the massive foundation of the fireplace also told of an early origin, as did the field stone walls and the floor joists that were 24” not 16” inches apart.
Where the Half-House lies
Now look again at the picture of the house today. Imagine it without the extensions on either end. What we are looking at, even if we can’t see it, is a classic half-house built in 1717 and extended in the 1830s.
One end of the half-house lies just to the right of the chimney and the front door: the other end is two windows along on the left. There are later extensions, two windows long, on each end, and a lean-to along the back. Notice, too, that the top of the cellar walls is made of fieldstone in the original part of the house, but of concrete under the extensions.
Behind the front door today is a narrow entryway: originally there would have been a tightly winding staircase between the entryway and the outer side of the brick hearth – despite the later alterations, the space for that original configuration of door, entryway, staircase, hearth still exists.
It’s a first period half-house alright, and as a bonus it is the only one-and-a-half story, first period house in town. Until we found this, the town didn’t have one. Even more exciting.
The Conant Family
And thanks to research by our town historian, we now know who built it and lived in it. In July 1717, Lot Conant sold his property in Beverly and paid £460 for Daniel Foster’s Ipswich house with 90 acres of upland and 17 acres of fresh meadow, “also one old common right in the common land of Ipswich.” (Essex Deeds, Vol. 33, p. 16.) Very little of that £460 value lay in the house: Conant clearly preferred to spend his money on good farmland than on a larger, more comfortable house: we hope his wife Elizabeth agreed. Lot Conant was, incidentally, a direct descendant of Roger Conant, who founded nearby Salem in 1626. His move to Ipswich appears to have sparked a family migration, for close to his house there is quite a cluster of homes built by the extensive Conant family.
A good Saturday all round: Ipswich now has 60 first period houses instead of the 59 already recorded.