Association Collects ‘Founding Documents’ Of Chatham’s Old Village Historic District

by Tim Wood
Chatham's Old Village. TIM WOOD PHOTO Chatham's Old Village. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – Have you ever been curious about what makes Chatham’s Old Village special?

A new compilation of documents tells you everything you ever wanted to know about the neighborhood, which was designated a National Historic Register District in 2001.

For example, its approximately 95 acres — roughly from the corner of Howes Lane and Main Street to Bridge and Main streets, the east and west boundaries Mill Pond and Chatham Harbor — did not coalesce into a village until more than 100 years after William Nickerson and his family settled a couple of miles to the north in 1664. There were several homes in the area in the late 18th century, but construction of twin lighthouses by the federal government in 1808 at what was then known as James Head (across the street from the present lighthouse and Coast Guard Station) spurred growth until the 1880s, by which time the village was largely what we know today. For many years it was the commercial and maritime center of the town, but that changed as the shifting sands filled in the harbor in the late 1800s and businesses gradually moved west to the present downtown.

There are 220 buildings and sites considered to be contributing structures to the Old Village Historic District, including four built prior to 1800. There is a Sailors’ Cemetery tucked behind the Mack Memorial, the obelisk just north of the Coast Guard Station, where the remains of unknown sailors who lost their lives in shipwrecks off Chatham lie.

The details, along with many others, are contained in the National District final registration form, which is the centerpiece of the 160-page spiral-bound document put together by members of the Old Village Association.

“I was amazed when I read this document,” Old Village resident and association board member William Horrocks told the historical commission recently. “It’s not dry; it’s full of historical information.”

Previously there were only two copies of the National Register form readily available to the public, at the Eldredge Public Library and the Atwood House Museum. With the aim of educating Old Village and other residents on the importance of historic preservation, association members thought wider distribution of the information would be beneficial. The application had been digitized by the Internet Archive in 2022, funded by the Boston Public Library, which made it easily available, Horrocks said.

“We wanted property owners to have it, and also officials of Chatham and all people interested in the welfare of Chatham,” he said.

With the help of association board member Kim Longworth and others, the booklet was assembled. Along with the Historic Register form, it includes a forward by Carol Pacun, one of the association’s founders, and a detailed index of all of the properties within the district.

An initial effort to designate the Old Village a historic district in 1985 failed, Pacun notes in her introduction. “The ‘no one can tell me what color to paint my door’ philosophy could and did prevail,” she wrote.

Twelve years later, Pacun, her late husband Norman, and fellow Old Village resident Elinor Gelsey noticed “with some alarm” that the demolition of older homes threatened to “radically change” the neighborhood. They called an informational meeting of village residents, and the association was born. The historical commission joined the effort, and four years later the designation was approved by the National Park Service.

Because of its status as a National Register Historic District, Old Village structures enjoy more protections than other historic buildings in town. While the historic commission is limited to delaying demolition of historic structures, changes that impact 25 percent or more of the floor space of a contributing structure in the Old Village district can be referred to the Cape Cod Commission, which has the authority to stop demolitions and approve or disprove additions and other changes that could impact the historical significance of a structure.

The association is willing to help the commission with research and attend meetings to provide historical perspective, Horrocks said.

Chatham has three National Register Historic Districts, noted commission chair Frank Messina: the Old Village, the Marconi-RCA property and the newest, the South Chatham Historic District.

“Chatham’s pretty lucky” to have that many districts, he said. “We try to deal with them equally.”

Don Aikmam, an Old Village resident, thanked Horrocks and his fellow association members for putting the document together.

“It’s very, very informative,” he said. “Even I, who have lived in the Old Village for a long time, found it extremely informative.”

In concluding her forward, Pacun notes that Old Village residents are proud their historic homes are protected and urged people to think about “the tree-lined streetscape, the small sheds that sit in backyards, the often-unpaved roadways that may lead to yet another house hidden from the street, and the glimpses of the water beyond. These are the remaining reminders of the simple life our ancestors lived and their devotion to their neighborhood.

“Not that neighborhood is ours to preserve.”

The founding document of the Old Village Historic District can be found on the Old Village Association website at under the resources page.