What does it mean to preserve something?

Sara Patton, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass History

This summer, I am interning with Historic New England, an organization dedicated to preserving and presenting the long and rich history of the region. As the oldest regional preservation organization in the country, their properties also illustrate the history of historic preservation, and, as I quickly learned, preserving something is often much more complicated than you might think. Preservation can be shorthand for many different approaches, including conservation, restoration, reuse, and public programming. My task this summer is to write an interpretive plan that will guide the kinds of events, tours and programs that will take place at the Swett-Ilsley House, located in Newbury, Massachusetts, in the future. At the heart of this task is considering what we should interpret at the site; that is, what are the time periods or big ideas, and who are the historical figures that will feature in programming? What will people learn or experience at the home? As it turns out, a closer study of Swett-Ilsley reveals that it not only has important stories to tell about Newbury in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but also about the history of preservation. As I begin to think about how to present this history of preservation, I am struck by how the Swett-Ilsley house offers many windows into different preservation philosophies, and, since, 1911, how the concept of preservation has changed.

Swett-Ilsley House, photo courtesy of Historic New England

Swett-Ilsley House, photo courtesy of Historic New England

Constructed circa 1670 for Stephen Swett, the Swett-Ilsley House was initially quite simple, containing one main room on the first floor and an undivided second floor room. Unlike many of his neighbors who were farmers, Swett kept a tavern, a center of life in a small community where informal gathering and drinking could occur and a place for travelers to stay. Swett eventually sold the property to Hugh March, who also kept a tavern. The home then passed through the hands of a variety of craftsmen, who used the building as both a home and a workshop. As Newbury grew, these craftsmen built several additions to the building. In 1797, Isiah Ilsley, a joiner, purchased the home which remained in the Ilsley family until 1911. For these owners, preservation might be better described as keeping the home habitable and in good condition. While it is likely they sought to reuse or repair when they could, conservation of historic materials would not become a goal until the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities made the home their first acquisition in 1911, and even then they were primarily interested only in the earliest material.

The Society for the Perseveration of New England Antiquities (SPNEA), today Historic New England, is the first regional organization dedicated to historic preservation in the United States. Formed by a group of wealthy, historically prominent New England families in 1910, the group sought to prevent the ongoing loss of buildings dating to the first century of European settlement in the United States. Headed by the zealous and energetic William Sumner Appleton, SPNEA moved quickly to save first period homes like Swett-Ilsley. By 1915, they owned four properties, and the 1915 SPNEA bulletin is filled with discussions of other possible acquisitions. At Swett-Ilsley, SPENA embarked on an ambitious preservation program to preserve the early history of the home. As such, SPNEA restorers sought to peel back latter additions. A report in the SPNEA bulletin contains a typical description of their work. “The walls of the four principal rooms were plainly plastered and papered and gave no evidence of the pleasant surprise [paneling dating to early occupancy] awaiting the restorer’s hand.” For SPNEA, preservation meant not only saving or preserving a historic building, but also making sure that the structure’s 17th century character, and, therefore, reason for preservation, was obvious. In seeking to expose 17th century finishes, though, restoration efforts also stripped away finishes from later periods. In this case, restoration work did preserve 17th century aspects of the house, but in doing so, also destroyed later additions. Given this, is restoration also preservation? Are preservation and restoration exclusive outcomes?

Beams in the Swett-Ilsley House, photo courtesy of author

Beams in the Swett-Ilsley House, photo courtesy of author

As the home Historic New England has owned the longest, Swett-Ilsley reveals not only the early ways SPNEA chose to put preservation into action through restoration, but also later, different approaches. Leaving behind the main rooms of the home and climbing to the attic, reveals preservation reflecting current Historic New England preservation practices. Looking carefully in the dim light, some of the roof beams are supported by newer wood, painted green. The need for additional support stems from the first addition to the home when the house was literally turned around on the lot—the ridge of the roof, which in 1670 ran east-west, was turned north-south to take advantage of where there was space to build an addition. In doing so, the entire roof was lifted off, repositioned, and reused. By the 1980s, pressure on the walls pushed these repurposed roof beams outward and they were struggling in some places to support the home. Reflecting more recent trends in preservation, Historic New England sought not only to conserve the older materials, but also to make the repairs clear to other others in the future studying the house or trying to preserve it. In this sense, then, preservation is clearly a balancing act. On one hand, if repairs are not completed, the house could fall down, defeating the purpose of preservation. On the other hand, if all the wood is replaced or the repairs not clearly marked, future students of the home might not be able to learn from old materials or confuse old and new, adversely impacting their ability to read the historic structure. Reviewing these repairs, then, is the heart of preservation conservation?

While a key aspect of preserving a home is keeping it structurally sound, simply keeping a house standing is not enough. Again, Swett-Ilsley’s history is instructive. After SPNEA ran out of money, they approached the Nathaniel Tracy Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, who were interested in the property. The two organizations made, what is in retrospect, a very forward thinking agreement: the Daughters of the American Revolution would support ongoing restoration work, but would also use the space for meetings and to operate a tearoom. Today, such an arrangement would be considered adaptive reuse, and preserves the character of a building, while allowing it to meet current community needs. These reuses can help meet the costs of maintaining historic buildings, while allowing the public to visit and these structures. Today, Historic New England carries on this practice with tenants, including one living in a small apartment located in the final addition built onto the Swett-Ilsley House in the late 1750s. These tenants, while requiring modernized spaces, also provide incalculable preservation assistance. By simply living in the historic space, tenants are well equipped to let Historic New England know of electrical problems, water leaks, or pests before they become a larger problem. Further, their presence gives others the sense that someone lives in the home, therefore discouraging vandalism or break-ins. These tenants also serve as ambassadors for the organization to the community and others about the importance of preservation from personal experience.

Tales and Ales at the Swett-Ilsley House, photo courtesy of Historic New England

Tales and Ales at the Swett-Ilsley House, photo courtesy of Historic New England

If, as outlined above, preservation also includes reuse, a final important piece of preservation is public programming. In an often quoted passage, Baba Dioum argued, “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” As such, physically preserving a structure alone is not enough. Unless people learn about the structure and why it is worthy of preservation, historic buildings run the risk that if they are threatened by local construction, changes in zoning, a catastrophic environmental event, or limited funding, that their community will not step up to help save them because they do not understand their significance. Therefore, public events are essential to creating a community of people who will stand up for the house if it faces such challenges. At Swett-Ilsley, one of those programs is “Tales and Ales.” Participants are invited to step back in time and discover what tavern life in early Newbury might have been like, sampling local ales, and enjoying a meal punctuated by historic toasts. Participants also learn that taverns often served as courts, too, through readings from actual legal proceedings from the Essex County Quarterly Courts. In these cases, visitors encounter people who faced many of the same problems we do today—uncooperative neighbors, divorces, debt, and abuse. And, ideally, the experience leaves them convinced that the house is indeed, a place well worth preserving.

In short, preservation is a complex blend of conservation, restoration, and public programming that not only keeps a structure “safe” and standing, but also insures that its community values it as well. Preservation cannot only be saving a house—it also must be showing people why saving the house was a worthwhile endeavor. Preservation is a balance—to some degree, all historic structures need conservation, restoration, maintenance and public programming, yet if any of these elements are out of balance, the home’s value as a historic structure and asset to its community are imperiled. While preservation methods have changed significantly since 1911 when Appleton and others first purchased the Swett-Ilsley house, the challenges of preservation, as history shows, are not new. This history of preservation, change, and adaptation is one I hope to fully bring alive at the house this summer and in the interpretive plan as goals for the future.


This post is part of a series of blog posts written by Dr. Charles K. Hyde Public History Fellows about their internships in museums, historic sites, archives, and more. The Dr. Charles K. Hyde Public History Fellowship offers financial support for Public History students to complete their internships. Stay tuned for more posts from this year’s Hyde Fellows about their internships.

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