Concerted Effort Needed To Save Town's Oldest House

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Historic preservation

The north side of the house at 68 Shell Dr., including the original section said to be built around 1700 by the son of Chatham founder William Nickerson. CHATHAM HISTORICAL SOCIETY PHOTO 

CHATHAM – Without intervention from town officials, one of the oldest houses in Chatham and a direct link to founder William Nickerson, could be lost.

Historical Commission Chair Frank Messina appealed to selectmen last week to pull together a group of stakeholders to brainstorm ways around roadblocks that could lead to the demolition of the home at 68 Shell Dr.

“It's not that we want to break the law, but we have to find some creative ways to help save this house,” he said.

The oldest section of the rambling house on Bassing Harbor in the Cannon Hill neighborhood was building around 1700 for William Nickerson, the son and namesake of the town's first European settler. The main house, a five-bay full Cape, is also historic; it was built in 1802 by Solomon Howes, and incorporated the earlier building as an ell on the north side. During renovation work in 1972, French wallpaper with the date 1802 on it was discovered behind a pipe, according to the historic inventory form for the property.

There are some reasons to be hopeful, Messina said. TV fishing program star Charlie Moore has recently entered into a purchase and sales agreement with current owners Betsy and Dennis Grimes. His local representative, David Burnie of Coastline Construction, said he was familiar with the house and had been watching it for the past few years.

“I would love to save it, but there are so many conditions on it, it doesn't look good,” he said. Moore, he said, is interested in saving the old house but wants to remain in the background.

Burnie has met with several town officials as well as Ellen Briggs, who recently formed Protect Our Past to work toward saving historic homes.

“They all want to save it,” Burnie said, “but they're tied to these laws.”

Chief among the impediments to any sort of redevelopment of the property, which sits on nearly three acres of land, is that most of it is within the flood zone, said Messina. That makes it difficult to put a second house on the land or to redevelop the existing house, even while saving the oldest sections, he said.

“That's providing a lot of challenges,” Community Developer Director Kathleen Donovan said of the flood plain. Since no formal plans or proposals have been made yet, she could not comment further.

“I'm trying to encourage people to sit down and talk and not just throw up their hands,” Messina said. “It's going to require a very cooperative effort from the town of Chatham.”

That could mean moving the oldest section of the house elsewhere, or incorporating it into new construction. Ultimately he hopes that “lightning” can strike a third time; it happened with the agreement to save the 154 Champlain Rd. house know as Starboard Light, and is on the way to happening with the main historic buildings on the Monomoy Theatre property. In both cases, compromises were made or are being proposed to preserve the most historic aspects of the properties.

“It may not be perfect, but at least we can save something,” Messina said.

Burnie called the interior of the oldest section of the house “impressive.” Most of the original construction is intact, he said.

According to the historical inventory form, the property was used as a “salt water farm” for about 200 years. In 1904, the property, consisting of 46 acres, was purchased as a summer home by William H. Wentworth. He called the house “Sedge Holm after the seagrass along Pleasant Bay.

Wentworth was the great-grandfather of Dr. Joshua M. Smith, a history professor and museum director at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y. In an email, Smith said the house is a “very nice piece of vernacular architecture,” the oldest parts of which included a “huge beehive oven and beanpot cellar.” His great-grandfather's purchase of the property is indicative of the transition of the town from a rural fishing village to a summer community, he said. Wentworth expanded the house and installed a bench and two cannons on a nearby hill that gave the neighborhood its name. Smith's grandmother, Dorothea Wentworth Smith, developed much of the surrounding land and also gave the Chatham Conservation Foundation its first land donation of Fox Hill, an island in Pleasant Bay across from the Sedge Holm property. The family sold the property to the Leving family in 1973.

Smith said the property's current dilemma is also indicative of struggles taking place elsewhere in Chatham and in many other places as well. “The past is both an anchor to windward that provides stability and a burden to the living,” he wrote. “It is fitting and proper that this issue be discussed, debated, and even argued over.” The possibility that the house could be demolished is “unfortunate, even regrettable, but also understandable.” He'd like to see someone buy and preserve Sedge Holm, and plans to donate documents and photos on the property to the Chatham Historical Society.

The Grimes want to preserve the house but have been trying to sell it for years, Messina said. An interested buyer could pursue National Historic Register designation; last year, an historical commission consultant wrote that more information is needed to definitively date the older section. But if the late 17th-early 18th century date can be confirmed, it would be Chatham's earliest documented surviving house.

There is currently a demolition delay on the house that expires in July. In his comments to selectmen last week, Messina requested an item on the board's agenda to discuss the situation and come up with creative ideas to move ahead, or “we could be losing this particular treasure.”

“I don't want to give up yet,” Burnie added. “They can't knock it down.”