On the same day I visited Eleazer Arnold House in Lincoln, RI, I stopped by its “little sister”, Clemence-Irons House in Johnston, RI. Now operated by Historic New England (HNE), this smaller building was a standard, upper middle class family home in its day. Like its “big sister”, Clemence-Irons House is a unique stone-ender found only in Northern Rhode Island and one of the oldest surviving houses in the state. The house underwent extensive renovation in the past three hundred years and more, so its current state reflects the research of multiple generations of restorationists.
Many families lived in Clemence-Irons House over the years. Thomas Clemence purchased eight acres, including the location of the house, in 1654. For many years, historians believed he built the house on the property right after the purchase. However, he was too busy buying up other land from local Native Americans to build the house. By the time he left the property to his son, Richard Clemence, in 1681, he had amassed around 110 acres. Richard built a version of the current Elizabethan style house around 1691. The style is also known as English Tudor cottage, because Queen Elizabeth I was the last monarch in the Tudor dynasty. Like his father, Richard was a land collector and tripled the size of the property by his death in 1723.
Richard’s son Thomas Clemence, named for his grandfather, sold the property to the Angell family in 1740, who treated the building as a rental property. The house stayed in this family until 1826, when they sold it to Steven Sweet. His granddaughter, Ellen Irons, was the last owner of the house. Throughout her life, Ellen used the building as a boarding house open to anyone who wished to stay there. One resident was foster child Wilhelmina Peppers, who lived in the house for the first seven years of her life.
Unfortunately, Ellen had no means of supporting herself other than the boarding house. She sold all of the property except for the small piece of land associated with the house. Although beloved by her community, Ellen died in debt, and the house was sold to repay it. Fortunately, the wealthy Sharpe siblings, who were interested in New England history, purchased the house for restoration.
Just like at Arnold House, Rhode Island architect Norman Ishman led the restoration of the building along with architectural historian John Hutchins Cady. They tore off the two hundred years’ worth of additions and tried to recreate interior details like wood paneling, so visitors could not tell the difference between old and new architecture. Oddly, Ishman and Cady took creative license when creating historical furniture reproduction. They included a child’s chair and bedframes that were invented during a later period.
The Sharpe siblings opened the restored house as a museum and led tours until 1947. They donated the building to HNE, back when it went by a longer name, the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA). Since then, further restoration to the house has followed different rules than the ones set by Ishman and Cady. Modern restorationists preserve the current state of the house and encourage visitors to find the differences between original pieces and reproductions. During the tour, the guides pointed out clues that the building was restored, including nail marks in the main beams and plaster on the walls where wallpaper was hung in the 19th century.
Clemence-Irons House is open for tours on Sundays, June through early October, with tours on the hour from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Tours at the house cost $10 for adults, $9 for seniors, and $5 for students. Old house enthusiasts can easily tour both houses in the same day. Just like Arnold House, Clemence-Irons House has a step up to the entranceways, a narrow staircase, and low lighting, making the property inaccessible to those with limited mobility, using a wheelchair, or with a visual impairment. No restrooms are available onsite, although the property does have a replica outhouse now used as a tool shed. Parking is on the street near the house. The grassy front yard is perfect for a picnic and for young history enthusiasts to burn off extra energy before taking the tour.
* * *
Abigail Epplett leads a dual life as a freelance digital marketing consultant for small humanities-focused organizations and as a customer experience design creative specialist at lab equipment manufacturer Waters Corporation. She holds an MA in Museum Education from Tufts University, where she researched the history of New England from Plymouth to the Civil War. To learn more about her adventures with museums, visit her current blog at abbyeppletthistorian.blogspot.com.