Preserving New England history

5 Nov

An interest in American history and the legal preservation of historic structures has led Jess Phelps to a tailor-made job in the state of Massachusetts.

Jess has a 2004 bachelor’s degree from Iowa State in ag business, international ag, economics, and history (“I started with ag business and just started collecting degrees,” he explains) and a 2007 law degree from Drake University, where he became interested in preserving rural structures. Jess manages the historic preservation team for Historic New England, the nation’s oldest and largest regional heritage organization.

Formed in 1910, Historic New England owns and operates 36 museums throughout New England and also manages the preservation of 145 historic structures and 750 acres of land, from northern Maine to southern Connecticut. As manager of the preservation easement program, Jess works to negotiate to preserve privately owned properties across the region.

“We protect buildings that are good examples of specific architectural styles or of a prominent architect,” he explains. “Our buildings are in the 1660-to-1960 range. We protect a broad continuum of architectural styles that tell the whole story of New England, not just the early story.”

When we visited him last month, Jess took us on a tour of Cogswell’s Grant in Essex, Mass., above. Built in 1728, the Colonial-era farmhouse houses a museum that features an extensive folk art collection. It opened to the public in 1998.

Jess and his wife live in a 1850s brownstone on Charles Street in Boston’s historic Beacon Hill neighborhood. They take advantage of their proximity to oceans and mountains with trips to Cape Cod and the Maine coast, hiking in New Hampshire, and visits to Block Island off the coast of Rhode Island, which Jess describes as “a less intense Nantucket.”

To learn more about Historic New England, go to

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