17th-century house moved to new home

The slow journey to transport a 17th-century munitions depot from Fort Hill Street to Lincoln Street in Hingham drew curious spectators.
The slow journey to transport a 17th-century munitions depot from Fort Hill Street to Lincoln Street in Hingham drew curious spectators.
Bill Brett for the Boston Globe

The 17th-century building sat last Wednesday morning on Fort Hill Street in Hingham, but by the end of the day it had entered a new chapter in its history, 1½ miles away on Lincoln Street.

As crews shepherded the 19-foot-tall building along the journey to its new site, drivers in passing cars watched with open mouths, and spectators trailed alongside the slowly moving structure.

“It’s been very interesting,” said Andrea Young, Hingham’s preservation administrator. “The real story is how people came together and volunteered their time. That was most gratifying.”

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Moving the historic munitions depot from 99 Fort Hill St. to the property of the Old Ordinary Museum on Lincoln Street has been the focus of history-loving minds since the house faced demolition last fall.

Yet a demolition delay bylaw, mandating a waiting period before historic buildings would be razed, enabled the town to come together to act.

“Probably without that delay, we wouldn’t have been able to save the house,” said Tom Willson, chairman of the Hingham Historic District Commission. “The delay gave us the possibility, the likelihood that we could bring the coalition together. Someone ultimately came up with the idea that it would fit [on Lincoln Street] wonderfully as a museum of a 17th-century house. The historic society was enthusiastic about keeping it. It just worked out.”

The building had been hoisted onto a flatbed truck by Tuesday. Then on Wednesday, with police escorts to stop traffic, a bevy of utility crews normally seen only during storms, and professional movers, the house made its way through several winding Hingham roads, squeezing under moved wires and knocking down a few skinny branches along the way.

The house finally came to rest behind the Old Ordinary Museum, and will remain closed until funding can be found to place the property on the lot and turn it into a museum.

The fate of the house is a fitting one.

Previous owner John Richardson was a noted Hingham historian, who dedicated his life to the study of the small South Shore suburb.

He lived in the old fort from 1965 until his death in 2011, and his collection of antiques, town records, photos, and notebooks lined the house wall to wall.

“I’m thrilled it’s being preserved. It’s what he wanted,” said Sarah Asnes, Richardson’s niece. “He wanted it all turned into a museum. We couldn’t do it all ourselves. We’re normal people. So we worked with the historic society and the historic commission to preserve the oldest part of the house. We donated tons of his stuff so they can set it up with all his antiques.”

The house will be Richardson’s legacy, said his sister Joyce Ciccolo. Still, it was both weird and rewarding to see the house start down a new path — literally.

“It’s really wonderful. It was happy and sad both today,” she said.

Interestingly enough, the house had been moved before.

Constructed in 1685 by Captain Thomas Lincoln, the building was a munitions depot within what is now the Fort Hill Cemetery, serving to fend off natives during King Philip’s War. By 1730, the building had been moved to 99 Fort Hill St. and converted into housing.

A number of owners would pass through its doors, including the Stowell, Hersey, Binney, Manuel, Spring, and Cain families. The Bouve family owned the property from 1938 to 1965, but did not live on the premises.

From fort to home, the building will change uses once again to become a museum and an example of first period architecture. The building is also the only remaining fort from early settlements in the United States, local historians say.

Yet the value of the building is bigger than its singular place in history.

“That story of Hingham is a story that isn’t often told, I think, in New England and the US, because we tend to focus on exceptional histories,” said Suzanne Buchanan, executive director of the Hingham Historical Society. “We focus on Salem and the witch trials; on the East Indian trade; Plymouth, the whole history of the Pilgrims. But here is Hingham, this little working town, fishers, farmers, builders, plugging away, for centuries in a very Yankee kind of context. People rarely moved out of their houses.

“That stability is a story in and of itself. And walking around Hingham you get that snapshot sometimes, with a little imagination, what it was like to live in a community.”

The house is part of that context, and the documents compiled by Richardson, put side to side with genealogies and thousands of historic photographs, create a fascinating glance at daily life, Buchanan said.

Though a master plan for the building is still in the works, and neither a funding source or timeline has been specified for the building’s permanent location and renovation, those involved in the process are optimistic of what future history books will say about the property.

“I think they all really want it to happen,” Ciccolo said of the plans. “They worked really hard.”