Swett-Ilsley House (c. 1670)

The house that started it all

Newbury, Massachusetts

In 1911 Swett-Ilsley House became the first property acquired by Historic New England, just a year after our founding. The original portion, built in 1670 by Stephen Swett, was one room deep, and later additions more than doubled the size of the house. Over the centuries the building served as a tavern, chocolate shop, chandlery, and press room, in part due to its location on Newbury’s most traveled road.

Swett-Ilsley House was brought to the attention of Historic New England founder William Sumner Appleton by an acquaintance who believed it to be one of the oldest surviving houses in the region. After the house was acquired for $2,400, nineteenth-century building layers were removed to expose the earliest architectural features. It has one of the largest fireplaces in New England, more than ten feet wide, and containing three beehive ovens.

Plan Your Visit

Location

4 High Road
Newbury, Mass. 01951

Days & Hours

First Saturdays
June 1 – October 15
11:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.

Admission

$6 adults

$5 seniors

$3 students

Free for Historic New England members and Newbury residents.

Directions

Swett-Ilsley House is on Route 1A just over the Newbury border from Newburyport.

Parking

There is no lot, but on-street parking is permitted for short periods of time.

Contact Information

A former tavern

Tales and Ales nights at Swett-Ilsley House are a reminder of when the building served the town as Swett's Tavern in the late 1600s.

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  • A former tavern

    Tales and Ales nights at Swett-Ilsley House are a reminder of when the building served the town as Swett's Tavern in the late 1600s.

  • Swett-Ilsley House in the 1800s

    Swett-Ilsley House began as a south-facing, two-room house. Additions were made to the north in two major phases.

  • Saltbox

    The house evolved into a typical saltbox with a long, sloping rear addition. The term "saltbox house" is inspired by the shape of this household item.

  • Fireplace

    The 1720 addition contains one of the largest fireplaces of the period, measuring 10' 3" wide, 3' deep, and 4' 8 ½” high.

  • A locus of small business and craft

    Many of the owners carried out their trades on site: carpenter, saddler, shopkeeper, inn-holder, tobacconist, blacksmith, and more.

5-1670hall_-_364_x_253Stephen Swett’s Tavern

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 to west, becoming two rooms with a central chimney. At Swett-Ilsley House, however, additions were made 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.

4-rearofhouse_-_364_x_253Commercial Endeavors

In about 1715 to 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.

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.

8-sink_-_364_x_253Ilsley 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.

img_0458_powerlines_partially_edited_out_-_364_x_253Becoming 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.

Property FAQs

Find out about parking, accessibility, photography policy, and more.

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  • Are there restrooms at Swett-Ilsley House?

    Visitors are welcome to use the restrooms at Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm, located approximately a half mile down the road.

  • Is the museum accessible to people with disabilities?

    A tour of any Historic New England property requires a considerable amount of standing and some walking. Folding chairs can be provided for visitors who would like to use them during a tour. Swett-Ilsley House has not been equipped with handicapped accessible ramps, elevators, or chair lifts. We are glad to offer guests a visual tour of the museum. Visitors with limited mobility may be able to enjoy a first floor tour of the house and grounds. Service animals are welcome. We encourage visitors with concerns to call ahead. We are happy to work with you to make your visit an enjoyable one.

  • Can I take photographs of the museum?

    Interior and exterior photography for personal use is allowed at Historic New England properties. For the safety and comfort of our visitors and the protection of our collections and house museums, we ask that you be aware of your surroundings and stay with your guide. Video, camera bags, tripods, and selfie sticks are not permitted. Professional/commercial photographers and members of the media should visit the press room for more information.

  • Do I need to take a tour or can I just look around?

    All visitors to the house receive a guided tour.

    When can I visit the Swett-Ilsley House grounds?

  • When can I visit the Swett-Ilsley House grounds?

    The museum grounds are open daily from dawn to dusk.

  • How do I become a member of Historic New England and get more involved?

    Join Historic New England now and help preserve the region’s heritage. Call 617-994-5910 or join online.

  • When can I take a tour of Swett-Ilsley House?

    Swett-Ilsley House is open on the first Saturday of every month from June through October from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

  • Why did Historic New England choose Swett-Ilsley House as its first acquisition in 1911?

    William Sumner Appleton, who founded Historic New England (then known as the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities), chose Swett-Ilsley House as the organization’s first preservation project because he was interested in saving the earliest examples of humble residential architecture that were the most vulnerable to drastic remodeling or demolition. Such modest houses were less likely to be rescued by private restoration efforts than grand Georgian or Federal houses.

  • Why isn't the house restored and furnished?

    The original restoration ran out of money and, later, Appleton’s outlook on preservation vs. restoration changed. The original work, funded by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, peeled away 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. Today the house is one of Historic New England’s study properties, and is purposely left unfurnished to allow architectural historians and preservation craftsmen easy access to the building’s original features.

Related to this Property

Visit nearby Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm in Newbury.

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Visit nearby Coffin House in Newbury.

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Become a member and tour for free.

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