These old houses open up
Weekend benefit tour offers window into town’s rich past
HINGHAM — The Tower Homestead on Hingham’s Main Street was already more than a century old when talk around the kitchen table included discussions about whether to participate in the Boston Tea Party (great-great grandson Gideon Tower signed up) and, later, the Revolutionary War (also yes).
Conjuring up such moments of the nation’s formative years will be easy for those attending the Hingham Historical Society’s 86th annual house tour tomorrow and Saturday, with some of the oldest and least-altered homes in town open to the paying public.
“Many of these homes have been handed down through the generations of the same family,’’ said Hingham Historical Society executive director Suzanne Buchanan. “A number of homeowners of significant antiques will tell you that they see themselves more as stewards than owners, continuing to care for the home of those who once lived there.’’
This year’s attractions are a shift from past years’ lavish showcase homes, and a fitting emphasis for the tour, which coincides with the town’s 375th anniversary and also marks the advent of the Historical Society’s centennial in 2014.
“The Historical Society is sort of taking a step forward by stepping back to its intended focus on the past,’’ said tour organizer Jen Schwartz.
At least two of the seven homes on the tour — the Cushing Homestead on East Street, across from Weir River Farm and a stone’s throw from Route 3A, and the Tower Homestead on Main Street — might be considered the ancestral homes of many locals who bear those surnames.
Indeed, it is said that most Cushings in the United States and Canada are descendants of Matthew Cushing, who set sail in 1638 from Ipswich, England, on the ship Diligent for religious reasons.
And many Towers today can be found not only throughout Massachusetts but the entire nation, including the late Republican senator John Tower of Texas, who died with his daughter and 21 others in a plane crash in 1991.
Architecture enthusiasts, history buffs, and the merely curious will have plenty to explore.
The 1664 Tower Homestead, a clapboarded Cape Cod house set back from Main Street with a winding path leading to its front door, for instance, is said to be one of the oldest homes in Hingham.
The original cottage has been changed some over time, with a new chimney installed in the late 1890s and two rooms and a loft moved from another Main Street home and incorporated into the structure. Still, the home’s plain façade is in keeping with 17th-century homes.
Tower, like many of his contemporaries, farmed his own property, which had the typical narrow parcel stretching back 600 feet that some homes on Main Street still have today, said Hingham-based architectural historian and preservation consultant Monique Lehner.
The Cushing homestead was built in 1679 by Matthew Cushing’s son, Daniel, for his own son Peter, and remains in the family to this day.
It sits on almost 10 acres of orchards and meadow, with a barn built with timber that is said to have come from Hingham’s original meetinghouse, which served as the town’s church until Old Ship Church was constructed in 1681.
Just across the street are 5.3 acres where vestiges of the dam from Peter Cushing’s mill can still be seen.
The interior of the Cushing home contains wonderful 17th-century detail, including original molding on two walls of the original kitchen, very early decorative yellow and black sponge painting, and original trim on other parts of the home’s rooms.
“It is probably one of the most important homesteads in Hingham, beautifully maintained inside and out,’’ said Lehner.
The Elisha Cushing house, built circa 1715, is a classic new England saltbox-style house, painted an authentic muddy-red color with an amazingly unchanged interior. Many of the original old walls, stairs, and floor plan remain. For a brief time, Major Benjamin Lincoln took ownership of the home before returning it to the family. Lincoln’s sister, Olive, was married to one of Cushing’s sons.
The William Jones house, built circa 1889, is in the Queen Anne style. While all of the other homes have Federal or Colonial symmetry, this one is decidedly asymmetrical, with the Victorian love of irregularity seen in the many different kinds of shingles in which the house is sheathed and the irregularly placed windows, said Buchanan.
It’s not just historical architecture on display. The Ebenezer Lane Home documents particulars of 18th- and 19th-century life in leather-bound journals that can be viewed during the tour.
The house of cooper Stephen Gardner Jr. was also home to Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice Arthur Whitmore, as well as artist-illustrators Beatrice (Baxter) and Louis H. Ruyl.
And the Abraham Whiton Home was believed to have had one portion used as a shop during the first half of the 1800s.
Historical Society members Gail Litchfield and Lisa Reis are pulling together historical documents on each home to present to the homeowners as thanks for offering their dwellings to the society for the tour weekend.
“I love the idea that people could make do and be clever about handling things,’’ said Litchfield, who was particularly taken with a utilitarian yet charming doorbell at the Elisha Cushing Home that was operated by a single string that could be pulled from outside to make it ring within.
As in past years’ tours, some of the most historic buildings in town will open their doors for the event. These include the Old Ordinary, once a 17th-century tavern for travelers and locals and now a house museum owned and operated by the Hingham Historical Society; the 19th-century Old Derby Academy, which is now headquarters for the society; and the Old Ship Church.
Joining that roster is the former Central Fire Station, built in the neo-classical style in the 1860s on the Hingham Common where it first served as a schoolhouse and later a fire station.
Buchanan notes that part of Hingham’s treasure of more than 200 historic homes is that its shallow harbor made shipping difficult. So what was architecturally trendy at certain times didn’t catch on here and replace the classic styles.
That allows for a fascinating peek at how people very much involved in shaping the history of our country lived their lives. “Each home has so many details, and you cannot help but walk inside and think of all the untold stories that unfolded there,’’ said Litchfield.
The tour will be held tomorrow and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 on the day of the tour. All proceeds go to the Hingham Historical Society.
Constance Lindner can be reached at email@example.com.