Coalition Developing To Save Oldest House

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Historic preservation

The house at 68 Shell Dr. was originally thought to have been built in the 1800s, but a recent architectural study concluded it was built no later than 1725. It was built by the son of Chatham founder William Nickerson and is believed to be the oldest house in town. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – Two non-profit organizations are teaming up with the town's historical commission to try to save what many believe is the oldest house in town.

The house at 68 Shell Dr., which sits on Bassing Harbor, is believed to have been built by the son of Chatham's first European settler, William Nickerson, around 1700. A demolition delay on the house imposed by the historical commission expired last month, and while the current owner is willing to help in the preservation effort, he's under a tight deadline to remove the house from the site so he can build a new home.

On Tuesday, historical commission chairman Frank Messina asked the board of selectmen to help rally support in the community to save the house. The commission is also asking the Massachusetts Historical Commission to declare the house eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, which could provide more flexibility in relocating it.

“I believe we are at a point where a larger discussion needs to be held,” Messina wrote in a memo to the board. “Can Chatham save this historic part of its heritage?”

A recent architectural reconnaissance survey indicates the structure may be more historically significant than first thought. The study found that what was believed to be the original section of the house is actually an addition built about the same time as the main house, and both were built during the “First Period” of American architectural styles, no later than 1725.

That discovery posed a problem for the Nickerson Family Association, which commissioned the survey by archaeologist Craig Chartier. The non-profit organization had been considering moving the smaller section, believed to be the oldest, onto its campus on Orleans Road, which also contains the circa 1829 Caleb Nickerson House. When it became clear the entire house, which measures approximately 35 by 27 feet, was more than 300 years old, the prospect of moving it, and fitting it on the association's property, was suddenly more daunting.

After meeting last weekend, however, the Nickerson Family Association board concluded preservation of the house was critical and that there was space available on its property to host it. But saving the building – moving, restoring and maintaining it – will take a community effort.

“It's well beyond our means,” said board member William Walker, “but we're prepared to play what we think is a very constructive and vital role.”

Also behind the effort to save the house is Protect Our Past, a Chatham-based nonprofit formed last year to preserve historic buildings. Founder Ellen Briggs said the group will help build community support and raise funds to save the house, which, because of its age, is a regional, not just a local historical asset.

“We need to think about how impactful this would be beyond Chatham,” she said.

According to Chartier's report, an investigation into the structure of the house revealed hand-hewn timbers, hand-wrought nails and vertical planking of the type associated with construction during the First Period, which dates from 1620 to 1725, in both the main house and the addition. The size and type of boards are the same, indicating they were built at the same time. Mortar in the chimney and hearth in the main house does not contain lime, which was not widely used until the 19th century, while lime is in the mortar in the chimney in the addition, indicating the fireplace there was a later addition. Other sections of the house, including a barn, were added in the 1800s.

Those conclusions “appear to be solid,” said Sarah Korjeff, preservation planner for the Cape Cod Commission. She has visited the house and noted that while there have been significant interior alterations, it was clear from the layout that it dated from the First Period.

“Obviously buildings evolve over time and the interior changes,” she said, “which makes it difficult to tell when a building was constructed unless you have the ability to actually look behind some of the materials,” which Chartier was able to do, although he noted in the report that the interior of some closets were unfinished. That, and the removal of some boxing around corner posts, provided a glimpse into the original structure.

The house is believed to have been built by William Nickerson II, and is located not far, following the shore, from his father's original homestead on the shore of Ryder's Cove. Evidence of the original Nickerson home site, behind the current Nickerson Family Association property, was uncovered in an archaeological dig by Chartier over the past several years. The size of the Shell Drive house indicates that the family was well off, Messina said.

“They had money,” he said. “This was a grand house” for the time.

Options for saving the house include keeping it on the property and restoring it as a guest house. However, doing so would require zoning variances and may not even be allowed, because much of the three-acre waterfront parcel is located in the flood zone. A zoning bylaw amendment proposed by the historical commission that would allow historically significant buildings to be placed on lots less than the required square feet for a given zoning district was slated for this year's annual town meeting but was postponed until next spring. That bylaw could potentially have been invoked in this situation, Messina said.

Property owner Joe Giacalone is working with an architect on plans for a new house on the lot and expects to be ready to file for permits within a few months. Under the historical commission regulations, if the original demolition permit that triggered the 18-month demolition delay is not acted on within six months of the delay's expiration, the commission could impose another delay. Messina said that regulation could be waived, but Giacalone said he wants to move ahead with building a new home.

“I don't have an unlimited amount of time,” he said Monday. He's willing to have the old house picked up, moved to one side of the lot and stored on cribbing, but questions who will pay the estimated $50,000 cost.

“I think all parties need to think outside the box here,” he said, adding that the town may need to consider waiving zoning and other regulations. “You can't be that rigid with something like this. There needs to be some flexibility.” One suggestion he had was allowing him to build the new house in front of the existing structure; because it is in the flood zone, he would otherwise have to stick to the existing footprint while elevating the new structure to meet building codes.

While he intends to build a new home, he wants to “do right” by the historical commission and the community.”

“I don't want to be known as the guy who destroyed potentially the oldest house in Chatham,” said Giacalone, who purchased the property July 17 for $2.3 million.

Even though it may require zoning relief, it is conceptually possible to relocate the house to the Nickerson Family property, Walker said, but “this is going to cost a lot of money to move, and once put on the site it's going to have to be restored, and that will take money.”

Such a project, he said, is “well beyond our means, but we're prepared to play what we think is a very constructive and vital role” in what he called “a unique opportunity to preserve and restore [the house] and make it available to current and future generations.”

Messina said officials will explore tapping community preservation funds for the project. Having the building declared eligible for the National Register, which the previous owner was unwilling to do but Giacalone supports, could also open up fundraising avenues, he said.

“There's no question this is the oldest house in Chatham,” Messina said. “How can we let it go?”

Briggs said her group will help find the right firms to move and restore the house and assist in fundraising. “It's very exciting,” she said of the prospect of saving the old house. “It's a lot to do.”

Chairman of Selectman Shareen Davis, a 13th generation descendant of William Nickerson, has visited the house and said community preservation funding is “a good place to start” the preservation effort. A public-private initiative would be optimal, she said, though she wasn't sure the town should take the lead.

“We've got a lot of things going on,” she said. “I'm not sure how we would take a role in it.”

What's certain is that momentum to save the house, preferably on the Nickerson Association property, is building, and that nobody wants to lose this important piece of the town's heritage.

“Chatham doesn't have too many First Period houses,” said Korjeff; the state historical commission's Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System only lists three other buildings from that era in town. The town, she added, has been one of the most successful on the Cape in identifying alternatives to demolition and finding ways to protect threatened historical properties.

“I feel like if any town can do this, it's Chatham,” she said.