Lots of towns say they’re shining a spotlight on their history. This month, Ipswich is doing it literally.
The celebration called Ipswich Is First . . . Period, running through next Sunday, will show nearly all of the town’s First Period homes illuminated each night.
Organizers hope visitors and locals alike will drive around to see the bounty of history here, much as families drive around to look at Christmas light displays.
“In the early dark of the holiday hubbub, when people are bustling about, we’re hoping that by highlighting these houses, people will be reminded of days gone by, and how fortunate we are to have our harvests, and that whatever we call home is a place to be respected and restored,” said organizer Kerrie Bates.
Bates lives in the 1720 Wilcomb Pinder House at 43 Summer St., and said “I’m going to put a proud light on it.”
First Period homes were built before 1725, and only about 250 exist nationwide, Bates said. There are 59 in Ipswich, she said, the most of any town in the nation. All but a handful are still private homes, and about 50 will be lighted up nightly during the celebration. It’s up to each homeowner how they do it, Bates said, with spotlights from their lawns or candles in the windows.
“I’ve delivered invitations [to participate] to all of the homeowners, met with many of them, and as a group they were thrilled with the idea,” she said. “Instead of blasting down Route 1A, I’m hoping that people will slow down and take the scenic route . . . and just take in these houses, and reflect on holidays past and what they’re grateful for and what it all means to them.”
They’ll also be lighting up the town’s three historic stone-arch bridges — the Choate Bridge, the County Street Bridge, and the Green Street Bridge — as well as the Alan Pearsall mural of Ipswich history on the side of the Ebsco Publishing building, a former mill on Estes Street.
Bates, the executive director of the Ipswich Visitor Center, is optimistic that the celebration will catch on. She hopes that next year some First Period homeowners in adjoining towns will join in, and she’s already spoken to folks in Newbury, Rowley, Hamilton, and Wenham. She has visions of eventually spreading the project throughout the region and even to all First Period homes nationwide.
So many of the homes survived here in part because Ipswich businessmen never built the fleets and fortunes of their counterparts in Salem, Newburyport, and other area ports, where many of these homes were torn down and replaced by federalist mansions.
“Ipswich is unique,” said resident Paul J. McGinley, a nationally known preservation planner and historical consultant. Ipswich was a very early settlement in Massachusetts, in the 1630s, but by the post-Revolutionary period, he said, “It kind of went to sleep economically. It was overtaken by other communities.”
McGinley worked on the restorations of downtown Newburyport and Gloucester City Hall, among many other projects in a long career. He said he and his wife are only the fifth family to own the 1658 Philip Call House at 26 High St. in Ipswich, which they bought in 1966 and will have spotlit throughout the event. Last Monday, McGinley was taking advantage of one of the last warm days of the season to finish up some painting on the house.
The town’s appeal is “not only the houses, it’s the streetscape,” he said. “The individual houses and the way they are on the streets . . . it’s an architectural splendor, and shows the evolution of history from day one here.”
Ipswich Is First . . . Period is “important for Ipswich residents, especially the new residents, and for educating the younger people about what is here.”
A variety of events are being held through the month, with the remaining schedule including an Ipswich-centric art exhibit by Stoney Stone and Johanne Cassia Friday through next Sunday at the Hall-Haskell House. Many Ipswich stores and galleries will be holding extended hours on Friday night.Free maps to First Period houses can be picked up at First Ipswich Bank, 31 Market St. For more details, go to www.ipswichvisitorcenter.org.
Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.