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Sunday, August 3, 2014

Step into the past at magnificent Barrett House in New Ipswich

Accepting a challenge can sometimes be dangerous, or at least expensive.

According to family tradition, when Charles Barrett Jr. became engaged to Martha Minot around 1800, her father, Jonas Minot, told Charles Barrett Sr. – whether seriously in jest – that he would “furnish however as large and fine a house as Barrett could build.” ...

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Accepting a challenge can sometimes be dangerous, or at least expensive.

According to family tradition, when Charles Barrett Jr. became engaged to Martha Minot around 1800, her father, Jonas Minot, told Charles Barrett Sr. – whether seriously in jest – that he would “furnish however as large and fine a house as Barrett could build.”

The wonderful result of that challenge was Forest Hall, now known as The Barrett House, a magnificent, well-preserved, three-story Federal mansion in New Ipswich.

It is said the entire complex of ells, attached barns and carriage house was completed about 1814.

Owned by Historic New England, it has been closed from time to time for upkeep and renovations, but is now open from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. on the second and fourth Saturdays through Oct. 15. Tours are on the hour, with the last one at 4 p.m. Entry is $5 for adults.

Charles Barrett Sr. was a wealthy mill owner with ties to the founder of Concord, Mass. By 1800, the family was well established financially through agricultural and industrial enterprises in Massachusetts. In 1804, he entered into a partnership to establish the first textile mill in the state. That enterprise, now known as Warwick Mills, manufactured cotton cloth and brought prosperity to the town.

Charles Jr. inherited and continued the business and expanded it, establishing textiles as the town’s main industry.

Power looms, the latest in textile machinery, were installed in 1819. Warwick Mills continues to be a leading innovator in the textile industry, producing, among other specialty fabrics, bulletproof Kevlar.

Forest Hall remained in the Barrett family for several generations.

Charles Jr. and Martha raised their five children in the house and maintained an elegant lifestyle, entertaining lavishly. Their son, Charles III, inherited the house in 1842 and lived there several years before moving to Cambridge, Mass.

In 1848, George Barrett, oldest son of Charles and Martha, and his wife, Frances, raised their family in the house. He died in 1862, and the house was taken over by his son Edward and his wife, Elizabeth. They lived in Boston and made Forest Hall their summer home.

By then, the fortunes of New Ipswich were declining. As with many towns bypassed by the railroad, industry and people left, much of it to nearby Greenville.

George Robert Barrett acquired the house in 1887. He later undertook a modernization of the house, including modern bathrooms with showers for his wife, Elizabeth. He died in 1916, leaving crates of unpacked furnishings that are still in an upstairs bedroom.

The house was left to Barrett’s stepdaughter, Caroline Barr Wade. In 1948, she donated the property as a memorial to the Barretts to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, now Historic New England. After completing extensive repairs, the house was opened to the public in 1950.

The house was the setting for the 1979 Merchant-Ivory film of Henry James’ “The Europeans,” and was at least twice featured on Norm Abram’s “This Old House,” one segment focusing on the collection of Victorian dollhouses. The grounds, including an elaborate garden house on the hill behind the house, are now used for weddings and other events.

The third floor is a ballroom/music room and has several fine antique instruments, including a glass harmonica. French scenic wallpaper, dating to about 1837, is in the dining room, and there are many furniture pieces belonging to the Barretts.

The barn contains a nice exhibit of horse-drawn vehicles.

It is a wonderful example of the period and well worth the trip. New Ipswich itself is a charming example of a New England village.

I hadn’t visited it in several years, and was surprised – and saddened – to find the heritage garden with its large collection of old varieties of flowers was no longer there, having lost its caretakers.

Keep up with the past with Another Perspective, which runs every other Sunday in The Telegraph. Jessie Salisbury can be reached at 654-9704 or jessies@tellink.net.