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Swett-Ilsley House History

1670-1715:  Stephen Swett: Tavern

1715-1797:  Commercial Endeavors

1797-1911:  Ilsley Family

1911-Present:  Becoming a Museum


1670-1691: Stephen Swett: Tavern

The Swett-Ilsley House was built c. 1670 by Stephen Swett. It originally had a southern orientation, with the original front door in the location of the current western window. The house was a single room with two stories. Houses were often enlarged shortly after their construction, since they were built quickly if there was an immediate need for shelter. Houses typically evolved longitudinally east/west, becoming two rooms with a central chimney. At the Swett-Ilsley House, however, the house was added on to the north (in two major phases), because of the limits of the site and the property line. The entire roof changed so that the entryway faced road. The final configuration of the house, with the addition to the north and west, occurred sometime between 1756 and 1820.

Stephen Swett apparently built this house on the lot he reserved for himself in the southern corner of a larger lot he had sold to Hugh March Sr. just to the north. At this other location was the ordinary, or tavern, for Newbury.


1715-1797: Commercial Endeavors

In about 1715-1720, the house was enlarged by the addition of a second single-room household (with its own door) north of the original block. A new roof — made in part with salvaged rafters of the older roof — was built over the whole, changing the ridge pole direction from an east-west to a north-south axis. The chimney, then located at the northwestern corner of the main block, was retained, but its upper stack was probably modified at that time. The 1720 addition contains one of the largest fireplaces of the period, measuring: 10' 3" wide, 3' deep, and 4' 8 ½” high, and it sits atop a solid stone boulder base measuring 18' x 8' x 7' high from the cellar floor.

The Swett-Ilsley House has served as the locus of small business, craft, or industry for most of its existence. The lot has always been small. Evidence suggests that many of the owners carried out their trade on the site. Occupants listed or industries associated with the site include carpenter, coordwainer, saddler, joiner, shopkeeper, innholder, chocolate milling, tallow chandlery, tobacconist, and blacksmith. The owners did not apparently acquire extensive land holdings elsewhere to supplement their living with agricultural pursuits. The central location of the house across from the meeting house and, from 1734 to 1780, just south of the Town House where Essex county courts were held, must have been an advantage to people pursuing these trades.

In 1756, the house's irregular shape was somewhat squared when the purchase of land to the north yielded an opportunity to build a final northern addition of single-room plan with stair-hall and separate chimney.

1797-1911: Ilsley Family

Multiple generations of the Ilsley family lived in the house through the nineteenth century, and partitions and additions built throughout the house reflect their changing family configuration.

1911-Present:  Becoming a Museum

In 1911, the house was purchased by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, now Historic New England, its first architectural acquisition. With advice from restoration architect Henry Charles Dean, Historic New England removed layers of lath and plaster to reveal original timbers, early eighteenth-century paneling, and one of the largest fireplaces in New England. Restoration stopped when funds were exhausted, before any long-gone original features like diamond-paned casements were recreated, resulting in a house with an unrestored eighteenth-century exterior and a partially restored interior reflecting both the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. After restoration, the house was rented to a series of tenants, who operated a tea room there until 1965 when the house became a study museum.

Swett-Ilsley House History