The history a house holds

Have you ever wondered about who lived in your home before you lived in your home? Though almost all of us currently reside in houses or apartments previously occupied by other inhabitants, few of us give much thought to who those inhabitants were, or what milestones they may have encountered during their residency. The National Museum of American History addresses those sorts of questions about one specific house in an exhibit that may just get you wondering about your own home's chronology. Architectural genealogists and grassroots historians can view this exercise at Within These Walls.

The building in question is slightly older than its host nation, originally occupied a lot at 16 Elm Street, in Ipswich, Mass., and was inhabited continuously until 1961. In 1963, as it was about to be torn down to make room for (you guessed it) a parking lot, it was carefully dismantled, moved, and later reconstructed on the second floor of the Museum of American History. (Not surprisingly, it is the largest artifact on the premises.) It never housed great inventors or future presidents, but as such, 16 Elm serves admirably as a three-dimensional (two-and-a-half story) record of the lives of ordinary people through more than two centuries. After all, even the common folk had to deal with such pivotal events as the American Revolution and World War II.

In deference to surfers with slower connections or older computers, Within These Walls opens with a choice of touring the site with either Flash or HTML - though if you have Flash installed, both links may take you to the Flash version of the site. Seized by a fit of obstinacy, I actually went all the way back to a 3.0 version of Netscape Navigator so that I could confirm the existence of the HTML version of the production. And while the HTML pages contain the same information, the interactivity of the Flash pages will probably be worth the wait for most. What was considered a graphics-intensive presentation when this site was launched in 2001 is well within the capabilities of most computers today.

After the Flash version's intro, Within These Walls' home page features a photograph of 16 Elm Street that, as you move your cursor around the building, reveals images related to the assorted featured inhabitants. Click as an image appears, and you'll be presented with a brief introduction to the family in question, a jarringly abrupt sample of period music, and an invitation to move on to a more detailed examination of their time in history. Five families are featured, starting with the man who built and first occupied the house in 1757. The subsequent families featured include revolutionaries, abolitionists, and 19th century Irish immigrants, ending with a typical "home front" family from World War II (complete with Victory Garden).

Each family is given their own page, which includes a bit of personal and historical background, a small scrolling collection of contemporary artifacts, and a floorplan showing which section of the house has been restored to their period in history. A more complete version of the introductory music launches with each family's page, and each exhibit also gives an example of how personal documents can be used to learn about the larger history around each subject.

After sampling the story of one family, visitors can move on to the other families via links at the top left of each page, or explore additional options provided near the top right. This House briefly recounts the acquisition of the building, and supplies a more complete list of about thirty inhabitants between 1757 and 1949. Resources provides a reading list and classroom activities. House Clues explores the ways in which historians learn about a house's past, and Go Back In Time allows surfers to test their observational skills. Finally, if all this gives rise to a curiosity about your own building's previous tenants, House Clues also includes a downloadable PDF Research Guide, with advice on how to investigate your home's past. Perhaps you'll find out who thought it was a good idea to use that Paisley wallpaper and make it look like the hallway was infested with giant paramecia.

The pages themselves are highly interactive, and while many discrete elements were employed in their construction, the result is visually engaging - and not as confusing as it would sound if I tried to describe it here. That said, this is a far-from-perfect site. A sparse photo gallery only provides one image per family, the Flash-based navigation sometimes leaves you stranded, and considering the vintage of the site, the promise of the "Coming Soon" Virtual Tour is probably long forgotten.

Perhaps most frustrating, the exhibits barely scratch the surface of each family's story. While the website states that 16 Elm "shows how much history a single house can hold in 200 years," very little of that history is revealed here, and the result has the feel of something that might have been a preview or prototype for a later, more complete production. (Though I have no reason to think that is the case.)

Yet the idea the site promotes - that of learning a bit more of your own home's history - is an engaging one, and there is more than enough content here to plant that seed. And you don't need to be living in a 200-year-old house to make the investigations worthwhile. Even if you're the first tenant in a new high-rise apartment building, there was something on that lot before, and no doubt, stories connected to it. Personally, I already know one interesting fact about the immediately preceding residents at all of my dwellings over the last 20 years. None of them cleaned the ovens before they left.

Within These Walls can be found at http://www.americanhistory.si.edu/house/.

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