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Home > Publications > Historic New England Magazine > Spring 2001 > America's First Preservationist

America's First Preservationist

Coffin House today. The original structure, a two-room, two story house built c. 1654, is visible at left. What is now the main portion of the house, facing the road, was added in the early eighteenth century.

Newbury, Massachusetts
Collecting Houses

Three old houses cast their spell on America's first preservationist, William Sumner Appleton.

Ninety years ago, SPNEA acquired its first property, the c.1670 Swett-Ilsley
House, in Newbury, Massachusetts. William Sumner Appleton, who had founded SPNEA only a year before, chose this rambling structure with a seventeenth-century core and later additions as his first preservation project. Appleton was especially interested in houses of the earliest colonial era, later dubbed the First Period, because these humble dwellings were vulnerable to drastic remodeling or even demolition. They were less likely to be rescued by private restoration efforts than grander Georgian or federal houses, and they could be purchased at modest cost. Further, these houses possessed a post-medieval aesthetic that appealed to Appleton, who had studied with Charles Eliot Norton at Harvard, had traveled extensively in Europe, and was familiar with the teachings of John Ruskin and William Morris. Appleton valued hand craftsmanship wherever he found it, whether in an ingenious seventeenth-century door latch or a contemporary Boston-made Arts and Crafts vase.

With the advice of restoration architect Henry Charles Dean, Appleton set about peeling away layers of lath and plaster at the Swett-Ilsley House 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.



Left: The Swett-Ilsley House in 1918, photo by William Sumner Appleton. Appleton looked for ways to make historic properties self-supporting. After restoration, this house was rented to a series of tenants, who operated a tea room there until 1965. Right: Early handmade finishes in the Swett-Ilsley House interior alerted Appleton to the building's overall importance. Chamfers (decorative moldings) embellish structural beams, and painted dots and decorative graining accentuate walls and other woodwork. The fireplace, built before 1739, measures over ten feet wide and is one of the largest of its period.

While working in Newbury in the summer of 1915, Appleton visited the neighboring Coffin House, c.1654, in an attempt to inform the Swett-Ilsley restoration. There he encountered a family still residing in their ancestral home and profoundly imbued with awareness of old-time tradition. Newbury's centennial had been celebrated in their front yard in 1735; a forebear, Joshua Coffin, had written the town's first and still definitive early history, in 1845. Appleton cultivated his relationship with the family, and fourteen years after his first visit, they gave the Coffin House to SPNEA to be preserved as a family memorial.

When Appleton undertook restoration of the Coffin House, he brought to the project a nuanced understanding gained from work on several other First Period properties during the 1920s. He had come to distrust the widely accepted practice of taking a house back to its presumed earliest appearance, which he termed more a memorial to the restorers than to the original builders. Instead, he chose to preserve the building's countless accretions so as to reflect the evolution of domestic life over three centuries. This approach, which can be seen at many of SPNEA's house museums today, has since become a distinguishing feature of SPNEA's preservation philosophy.

Also in 1915, Appleton made his first visit to Newbury's fabled Spencer-Peirce-Little House. He immediately recognized the importance of this imposing stone mansion and knew the two-story brick porch to be unique in New England. Thereafter, he kept in touch with the Little family with some regularity in hopes of securing the preservation of the property. Appleton remarked in a 1943 letter to Miss Eliza Little, "Every time I see this fine family home I find myself wondering what its future is to be and whether or not this Society could in any way assist in assuring the preservation of the property and protect it from alienation and alteration." Although Appleton died in 1947, his thirty-year relationship with the Little family bore fruit in 1971, when Amelia and Agnes Little arranged for the land, buildings, and furnishings to come to SPNEA upon their deaths.

-Maggie Redfern, Site Manager, Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm

Join Maggie Redfern for the SPNEA Experts On-Line chat,
"The History of Historic Preservation," May 22, 6:30 - 8 pm at



Left: By the late nineteenth century, antiquarians identified Coffin House as a relic of colonial times, as this stereo view, c.1875, attests. Right: The entrance porch at Spencer-Perce-Little Farm reveals mannerist style in this sequence of three arches. An exaggerated keystone at the door arch provides a pedestal for the decorative niche above; whatever the niche once contained remains a mystery. The sash windows and brick pier in the second story were added in the eighteenth century, probably replacing a casement window.

America's First Preservationist