Parson Capen house

A visit to the Parson Capen house in Topsfield

The home of Joseph Capen, minister at Topsfield for many years, the Parson Capen House is a surviving example of Elizabethan architecture in America, the home of minister Joseph Capen on a lot granted by the Town in 1682. The house was purchased by the Topsfield Historical Society in 1913 and was restored under the direction of Topsfield historian George Francis Dow.

Joseph Capen served the Church in Topsfield for 44 years until his death. He was born in Dorchester, the son of John and Mary Bass Capen, an established family in Dorchester with its ancestral roots in Dorchester, on the southwest coast of England. His wife was Priscilla Appleton, daughter of John Appleton of Ipswich MA. He was closely related to Bernard Capen, a Dorchester settler, whose pre-1658 house was moved to Milton in 1909, but was disassembled in 2007 by Landmark Services. The fate of the saved timbers from that house is uncertain.

Chamfered summer beam in the Parson Capen house
Chamfered summer beam in the Parson Capen house
Parlor double summer beams in the Parson Capen house
Parlor double transverse summer beams in the Parson Capen house. Although common in other areas, most First Period houses in the Ipswich-Topsfield area have longitudinal first floor summer beams, and transverse second floor summer beams. This is the first incident of double first floor transverse summer beams I have observed, although the Whipple House has intersecting longitudinal and transverse summer beams in a downstairs room.
Fireplace in Parson Capen house with rounded corners
Fireplace in Parson Capen house with rounded corners, and plastered cove connecting to the oak chimney girt. The rounded fireplaces are generally found in the finer First Period houses of the 17th Century.
Lambs tongue chamfer stop Gunstock corner post in Fireplace in Parson Capen house
Summer beam lambs tongue chamfer stop in the Parson Capen house. I suspect this one may have been replaced in the 1913 restoration of the house.
Gunstock corner post in Fireplace in Parson Capen house
Gunstock corner post in Fireplace in Parson Capen house. The top of the post is not continuous to the beams and girts, so it has been altered or is a replacement.


The Capen House sits on a knoll, and faces south, which was common in First Period construction. The hall is on the east end, is the smaller of the two downstairs rooms at 20 ft. by 16 ft., and features a large fireplace with rounded inside corners. The parlor is 20 ft. by 17 ft. 6 inches. The front entry enters to a winding staircase in front of the massive chimney, almost universally found in First Period houses. Carved oak newels, panels and turned balusters shield the staircase. The hall fireplace is 8 ft., 4 inches wide, 4 ft. high, and 3 ft. deep. while the parlor fireplace is 4 feet high, 6 feet long and 2 1/2 feet deep.

Downstairs summer beams in the Capen house are transverse, a west Anglia form more commonly found in the Salem-Beverly-Wenham area, and rarely in the Ipswich-Essex area, whose inhabitants came primarily from East Anglia. The framed overhangs on the front and the gables are more substantial than the more modest hewn overhangs found at the turn of the 18th Century. The front jetties are supported by the two chimney girts, and the end girts, which are original, and is the method used in the 1682 Hooper-Hathaway house which was moved to the grounds of the House of Seven Gables in Salem.

The Parson Capen House has been owned and maintained by the Topsfield Historical Society since 1913, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960. Also on the property is the restored 1710 Gould Barn.


by C. Lawrence Bond, A.B., S.B. Published by The Topsfield Historical Society in 1989

John H. Towne writes in 1902, “This two story house was built for “Parson” Joseph Capen about 1684-88. It was long in the possession of the Emerson family. It has an overhanging second story and is a very interesting type of the 17th century dwelling.” George Francis Dow’s History of Topsfield, page 447, states it was built in 1683 and bases this on what he claims was discovered while the house was being renovated in 1913, viz: “Under the northern ends of the summers (beams) is incised with a chisel the date July Ye 8th 1683, so there exists here what is not to be found elsewhere in so old a house, the exact date when the frame was raised.” (Note: July ye 8, 1683 might have been the date the timbers were cut and marked for drying.)

The authenticity of the carved date would appear to be in doubt, for in his Historical Address given at the 250th celebration of the Town’s incorporation, Dow stated “some- time after May 14th 1686, he erected on the twelve acre lot granted him by the town, the two story house which still stands near the common.” As Capen was not ordained until 1684, the year he was married, it seems very unlikely that he would have started a house in 1683.

By comparison with houses of similar date built in Ipswich, it is obvious that this house was no ordinary structure. His wife, Priscilla, was an Appleton, and her family undoubtedly paid for its construction since Capen agreed to take up “ye worke of ye ministery” for £75 in country pay (produce, pork and beef). Rev. Capen died in 1725 and his widow in 1743. Rev. John Emerson became the leader of the church in 1728 and after two or three transfers he became owner of the house in 1758. Billy Emerson, a grandson, known as Forty Farm Emerson, had farms located strategically between Maine and Boston, so located that cattle could be driven for a day, penned up for the night in pasture, and then driven another day until they reached the slaughter houses in Brighton.

The Capen house was used to put up the drovers and was in pretty dilapidated condition by the time Mr. Dow acquired it in 1913 for the Historical Society. Mr. Proctor (whose middle name was Emerson) was a descendant of Rev. John Emerson, which undoubtedly had something to do with his generous contribution to the restoration. The upstairs was made into an apartment and rented throughout the years to various tenants. During World War I Henry Beston, famous author, lived there and wrote the Fireside Fairy Tales. His wife, Elizabeth Coatesworth, was a children’s author.

A detailed study of its architectural details has been written in 1970 by Deborah Dupouy and illustrated by Jane English, both of Topsfield. Capen’s marriage does not appear in the Vital Records of either Topsfield or Ipswich, but the Ipswich Public Library has a book on the Appleton genealogy and just above the line giving Priscilla, wid. Rev. Joseph Capen of Topsfield, is written m. Joseph Capen, 1684

Sources and further reading:

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