THE NATION'S FIRST FULL-TIME PROFESSIONAL PRESERVATIONIST
William Sumner Appleton founded the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, known today as Historic New England, in 1910. For the following thirty-seven years he lead and inspired the organization, defining its purpose, encouraging the membership and establishing a sound preservation methodology. Today, his vision is a thriving heritage organization, welcoming over 200,000 visitors to properties in five New England states.
Appleton was born on May 29, 1874 in Boston, Massachusetts. Grandson of Nathan Appleton, one of the founders of the City of Lowell, Massachusetts and the owner of Lowell’s Appleton Mill, he lived as a boy on Beacon Street in the Nathan Appleton House, now a National Historic Landmark. He attended Harvard, graduating in 1896.
From 1983 through 1915, Appleton traveled extensively, crossing the United States three times and making two trips abroad, attending four World’s Fairs, and participating in numerous historical events. He recorded it all in his scrapbooks with maps, brochures, tickets, postcards, and more, revealing how his thinking on preservation was influenced by his many travels and experiences.
As a member of several patriotic, historical and antiquarian organizations, including the Sons of the Revolution, Appleton became involved in preserving the Paul Revere House in Boston in 1905. The following year he took the lead in a preservation effort in Boston to thwart plans by the Boston Transit Commission to alter the Old State House.
While his experiences over the fourteen years after his graduation from Harvard College were the foundation for his professional career, Appleton’s outrage at plans to change the 18th century, Jonathan Harrington House, which overlooks the green in Lexington, Massachusetts, galvanized him into taking the necessary legal steps to establish the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA). Using the charm, diplomacy and tenacity that characterized his professional life, Appleton rallied supporters for SPNEA that could provide financial support and prestige. Membership was open to all, and dues were modest, and annual contributions were solicited for special projects. The fledgling organization acquired its first property in 1911.
Appleton also established the New England Museum, which evolved from a random assortment of old things, to a documented collection of furnishings and decorative art, as houses with intact contents were added. His extensive collection of images including hundreds of documentary photographs of his restoration projects add to the Museum’s collection.
Considered the nation’s first full-time professional preservationist, Appleton is credited with bringing a scientific method to his approach and establishing procedures that are still largely followed today. At the time of his death in 1947, the organization owned fifty-one historic properties, a museum collection numbering in the thousands, and a library with over 600,000 images of New England.