Time Travel: Explore a House That Helped Shape America

The National Assocation of Realtors continued its sponsorship with the Smithsonian to keep a historic house on display.

If you could take a time machine back and visit ordinary people striving to build a nation, would you? 

At the turn of the millennium Bob Goldberg, National Association of Realtors senior vice president, was given that opportunity.  Curators and staff from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History approached Goldberg and asked if the National Association of Realtors, or NAR, would be willing to sponsor an exciting exhibition that the museum was eager to undertake. 

A two-story, timber-frame home more than 200 years old in Ipswich, Massachusetts, was scheduled for demolition in 1963 to alleviate a parking problem on Elm Street. Preservationists in the area knew the significance of the home—built in colonial America and used as a home well after World War II—and fought against its destruction.

The house was saved by Ipswich citizens and it went to the Smithsonian, placed on view in the mid-1960s. Decades later, a new curatorial team wanted to research who lived in the house and curated a new exhibition based on their findings.

“Real estate is more than just a structure, it’s a home,” said Goldberg. “The stories of the occupants are what makes a house a home. We were particularly intrigued by this home as it provided an opportunity for NAR to share the importance of homeownership through the stories of the five families who called this structure home.” 

National American Museum of History exhibit

The House, The Exhibit, The Plan

The Smithsonian team approached Goldberg with a plan; the Ipswich house had been painstakingly preserved and the curators investigated the entire history of the house as home to several generations, over 200 years, to display the stories of these families and show how ordinary people participated in the great events and changes throughout American history.

Thus began a 15-year partnership in 2001 between the National Association of Realtors and the Smithsonian. The exhibit serves as a symbol of the role that NAR’s 1.2 million realtor members play in making property ownership and the American Dream a reality for millions of Americans. 

As a sign of that continued investment in the American Dream, NAR has extended its sponsorship with the Smithsonian through 2030. Additionally, the Smithsonian will make improvements to update the exhibition with new research, stories and interactive features.

One planned upgrade is an artifact showcase highlighting rotating curated content on various housing themes. In 2018, the content will feature artifacts commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, signed in April 1968, to protect the buyer or renter of a dwelling from seller or landlord discrimination. 

Immigrants, community activists and freedom fighters all lived in the house from Ipswich and, through their lives and stories, its preservation helps tell the history of a fledgling nation crafting an identity. The exhibition will continue to be an attraction in the Museum’s new wing “The Nation We Build Together,” unveiled June 28, 2017.

The families that lived in the house were unique and their stories are a small window into the history of American lives throughout the centuries. The Choates, the Dodges and Chance, the Caldwells, the Lynches and the Scotts filled the house with everyday courage and their own stories of our nation’s history. 

House interior exhibit

Understanding the Ipswich Families

In the 1760s, Abraham Choate commissioned this large and elegant house—just 30 miles north of Boston—for his young family with Sarah Choate. The parlor is particularly notable as it created a refined setting for new imported goods and genteel rituals like tea drinking that signaled the family and community’s prosperity within a growing British empire.

Choate sold the house in 1772. Abraham Dodge—a patriot fresh from the battlefield—purchased the house in the midst of the American Revolution where he lived with his family and an enslaved youth named Chance. While Dodge and other patriots achieved the liberty they fought for, what independence would mean for Chance and other enslaved people living in the New England house was not clear.

After the Dodge family, the exhibit looks at the Caldwells from 1822. Josiah and Lucy Caldwell had no children of their own but adopted their niece Margaret while simultaneously leading the Ipswich Anti Slavery Society and hosting meetings in their Elm Street home for the ladies abolition group, the Ipswich Female Anti-Slavery Society. From the parlor, they fought for the immediate abolition of slavery in the South, decades after slavery ended in Massachusetts.

The Caldwells remodeled their 50-year-old home in the Greek Revival style that’s displayed in the National Museum of American History today. Along with façade remodeling, the Caldwells also installed the latest home technology: heating stoves in the fireplaces and a square piano in the parlor. 

In the late 1800s, Ipswich was a mill-driven industrial area filled with immigrants pouring in from Europe. Catherine Lynch and her daughter rented half the house—the new owners had split the house into two side-by-side apartments—and bartered laundry services for part of their annual rent, totaling about $50. 

The Scotts moved in during the 1940s and helped with the World War II efforts: Mary Scott maintained a victory garden while waiting for news of her sons’ efforts in the service abroad. Her daughter, Annie Scott Lynch, and Annie’s husband Richard moved in with Mary Scott so that Richard could work at the local war materials plant. Annie Scott Lynch worked in a Sylvania factory in the area producing antiaircraft projectiles. 

These five families were part of nearly 100 people who lived in the house since its creation, each with their own role in America’s history. 

National Museum of American History exhibit

Understanding Your Home’s Historical Value

Every house holds clues to its history. A section of “Within These Walls” Exhibition website is dedicated to helping visitors understand the power to sleuth out the history of their own homes using tools like county registries, historical records, photos and more. These sources can help homeowners see the hidden value in everyday objects. This can be an entertaining activity for families to understand the history and unlock the hidden stories in their own home. 

The National Association of Realtors is America’s largest trade association, representing 1.2 million members involved in all aspects of the residential and commercial real estate industries.

National Museum of American History exhibit hall