Effort Underway To Save House Linked To Chatham's Founding Family

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Historic preservation

This section of the house at 68 Shell Dr. was originally built around 1700 by the son of Chatham founder William Nickerson. Efforts are underway to preserve the structure on the Orleans Road property of the Nickerson Family Association. CHATHAM HISTORICAL SOCIETY PHOTO 

May Be Town's Oldest House

CHATHAM – William Nickerson came to the Cape's elbow in the mid 1600s to found his own community. He built a homestead for himself and his family on the shores of Ryder's Cove, and later welcomed others who settled throughout the area that is now Chatham.

The first settlers' homes are lost; all that is left of Nickerson's house is an outline in the earth and some artifacts discovered over the past few years on land behind the headquarters of the family association that bears the founder's name. But there is one exception: a house believed to have been built by Nickerson's son William around 1700 still exists on the shores of Bassing Harbor, and efforts have been renewed to preserve the small structure that provides a direct link to the town's founding family. It's thought to be one of, if not the oldest house in town.

A North Reading resident has a purchase and sales agreement on the property at 68 Shell Dr., and is working with the current owner and the Nickerson Family Association to save the historic structure.

“I think the structures are very important to the town and the Nickerson family,” said Joe Giacalone. “In many ways I'm the perfect buyer; I want to work with the town and everybody. And I'm not looking to build a mansion and flip it.”

The 1700s building only accounts for a small portion of the overall house, the main portion of which was built around 1802 by Solomon Howes. A demolition delay placed on the entire structure by the historic commission will expire July 8, according to chairman Frank Messina, and Giacalone is set to close on the purchase with current owners Betsy and Dennis Grimes later that month.

The property has been on the market for a couple of years, and Messina has been working with the owners to try to save the oldest section of the house. Enlisting the Nickerson Family Association has been key, he said, as has Giacalone's willingness to work with the parties to preserve the historic structure.

“We can save that,” Messina said, but it will require cooperation and assistance from the town, possibly in the form of Community Preservation Act funding to pay to relocate the building to the Nickerson Association compound at 1107 Orleans Rd.

“We're very serious about pursing this,” said William Nickerson Walker, vice president of the Nickerson Family Association and a 12th generation descendant of the founder. “We think it would add great value not just to our property but for the town of Chatham as well.” On May 16, the association's board of directors unanimously voted to approve a memorandum of understanding with Giacalone, and plans over the coming year to pursue permits to relocate the house.

Currently the Nickerson Family Association property has two structures on it, a former house that holds the organization's geneaological collection, and the 1823 Caleb Nickerson House, a museum that includes many Nickerson artifacts. At 14 by 18 feet, the Shell Drive building will fit on the land, Walker said, though exactly where has not yet been determined.

“We're just at the very earliest stages of discussions with a civil engineer,” he said. The one-room house, with a later dormer addition, was used as a dining room after the main structure was added. It still retains its original beehive oven.

Betsy Grimes said the family applied for a demolition permit knowing a delay would be imposed; none of the prospective buyers who looked at the property were interested in saving any portion of the house, she said.

“We reluctantly did that, but it was never our intention to look for somebody who would tear it down,” she said. The property has been in her family since 1973, and the Belmont, N.H. resident said it was “always a place that kept our family together.”

“It's just become an economic drain on us,” she said, explaining the decision to sell the property. While summer rentals used to cover the upkeep, demographics have changed, added her husband Dennis.

“They don't want older homes,” he said of summer renters. “They want granite countertops and air conditioning.” Even the waterfront location and privacy don't seem to matter any longer. “We always thought that would be a big selling point for people, but even people buying didn't care,” he said.

A previous potential buyer had tried to subdivide the three-acre parcel, but because of its location almost entirely within the flood plain, that wasn't possible. The existing house isn't suitable for his family, Giacalone, who owns Arch Painting in Woburn and has built homes on Martha's Vineyard, said and he plans to build a new one that's in scale with the neighborhood and complies with FEMA flood zone regulations.

“We want do this as a long-term family home that stays in the family,” he said, adding that he spent a lot of time at an uncle's home in Brewster while growing up. He's willing to work with the Nickerson Association to save the 1700s section, and will move it to a corner of the property, out of the way of the new construction, while the group raises money and works out the moving logistics. He plans to offer the main 1800s house to anyone willing to take it, but said he is unable to pay for a move.

“We very much appreciate his openness and willingness to donate the structure to us,” Walker said, adding that the association will be exploring grants and other fundraising options in addition to applying to the CPA.

“It's always been our wish to have everything preserved,” said Betsy Grimes. The house contains much of the original hardware, woodwork and wide pine flooring, which she hopes can be preserved if the main house can't be saved.

“I've known Chatham since I was eight years old, so it's kind of hard seeing this is kind of it,” she said.