Commission Tries To Save One Of Town's Oldest Homes

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Historic preservation

Demolition of this historic home at 68 Shell Drive was before the historical commission last week. TOWN OF CHATHAM ASSESSORS PHOTO

CHATHAM – The historical commission may consider calling on the Cape Cod Commission to protect a 300 year old house if the owner decides to go ahead with a demolition proposal.

The original section of the house at 68 Shell Dr. was built in 1700, reportedly by the son of Chatham founder William Nickerson. Enlarged considerably over the years, it sits on more than three acres of land on Pleasant Bay and is being advertised for sale for $3 million.

The current owner, the Levings Family Trust, applied for a demolition permit anticipating that the historical commission would impose a demolition delay, said Douglas Levings, brother of trustee Betsy Grimes. By starting the process now a buyer would have a head start on demolishing the structure, should they choose to do so, Levings said.

But there currently is no buyer and it is unclear if a new owner would want to retain the house or demolish only a portion of it. Levings was reluctant to agree to advertise the home's availability to move to another site without knowing the wishes of a potential buyer.

Because of its age and well-preserved condition, commission members believe the house should be saved. Absent assurances that it will either be moved to another site or preserved on its historic location, the commission has the option of asking the Cape Cod Commission to intercede.

That would first require that the local commission ask the Massachusetts Historical Commission to determine if the house is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. If that is the case – which commissioners are confident would happen – then they could refer the demolition request to the Cape Cod Commission. If the commission accepts the referral, it has the authority to prohibit demolition under its development of regional impact regulations.

Chairman Frank Messina said the house is one of the oldest in town and is in unusually good condition for its age, with original wide plank floors and a beehive oven. Given its connection to the Nickerson family, he reached out to the Nickerson Family Association about acquiring the structure as one of the possibly options for preserving it.

“We're trying to save it, and we're going to do everything we can to help you,” Messina told Levings at a public hearing Dec. 18.

Levings said the family doesn't want to demolish the house, but wants that option to be available to a potential buyer without having to wait the full 18 month demolition delay period.

“We can't dictate what somebody who wants to buy it would do,” he said.

According to the Massachusetts Historical Commission inventory sheet for the house, the original full Cape was built around 1700 for William Nickerson, son of original Chatham settler William Nickerson. The original cottage became an ell to a larger section, which became the main house, built about 1802 by Solomon Howes. The house was added onto again in 1906 and again later on; there are also two barns on the property, one of which dates from around 1830. One of the subsequent owners, William Wentworth, placed two cannons on the edge of the property, which later became the Cannon Hill subdivision. The cannons were purchased from Daniel Webster Nickerson, an anchor dragger who claimed the cannons were from the Whydah, the ship of pirate Sam Bellamy which sank off Wellfleet in 1717.

The property fronts on Bassing Harbor and Pleasant Bay and is in the flood zone, which will require that a new home be elevated at least 14 feet, Messina said. “There's no question there are a lot of challenges for that property.”

But it's the land that holds the most value. Assessing records list the total value of the property at $3,2309,500, almost all of that – $2,896,600 – is the land, while the home is only valued at $277,000.

Levings said the family believed that a buyer is likely to want to take the old house down. But he was unwilling to commit to advertising the availability of the house for someone to move in case a buyer wanted to keep all or part of it. While the commission can't force the owner to advertise the home's availability, it can pursue the discretionary referral to ensure that it is saved, said commissioner Robert Oliver. If the Cape Cod Commission prohibits demolition, “then you've got a problem,” he said.

The commission voted unanimously that the house is historically significant, but held off on voting on a demolition delay, although members agreed it will likely be imposed. The commission agreed to give Levings time to consider withdrawing the demolition delay request. The hearing was continued to Jan. 15, at which time the commission will also discuss referring the building to the Massachusetts Historical Commission for an eligibility determination.

Messina said the house is one of the most historic in town.

“We have no choice but to protect it,” he said.