Petition Seeks To Save Town's 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

Eldredge Garage Property Suggested As New Location

CHATHAM – Ellen Briggs thinks it's not too much to ask to preserve what is thought to be the oldest house in town. She certainly doesn't want to see another piece of the town's heritage slip away.

“The town has a history of doing that, and we'd like this not to happen,” she said.

Protect Our Past, a preservation group Briggs founded a year ago, is circulating a petition to garner support for saving the Nickerson-Howes House, a circa 1700 Cape reportedly thought to have been built by the son of Chatham founder William Nickerson. It is one of only a handful of surviving “First Period” houses in town built prior to 1725. The owner of the 68 Shell Dr. house, on the shores of Bassing Harbor, wants to construct a new, modern home on the site, and while he is eager to begin construction, he also wants to preserve the historic building.

Options for doing that are limited, however, and moving it to a new location may be the most viable.

“Things are moving pretty quickly,” said historical commission chairman Frank Messina, who has advocated for preservation of the house. He planned to ask selectmen Tuesday to discuss how the town can facilitate the house's preservation at an upcoming meeting.

Briggs' group is proposing to move the house to the Eldredge Garage property at 365 Main St., where it could be restored and opened to the public to show how life was lived in early Chatham.

“It definitely should be a way for Chatham residents and visitors to experience the simple Colonial lifestyle of that period,” she said. “The inside exudes that.”

The Eldredge property was purchased by the town in 2017 for $2.5 million. An antique garage that was in poor condition was razed, and an old filling station structure remains but has not been restored. Currently the property is used as a paid parking lot during the summer.

At about 1,000 square feet, the Nickerson-Howes House could fit toward the rear of the lot where the garage previously stood, Briggs said, which would not eliminate any of the current parking spaces. Exactly how it would be used — as a museum or perhaps a visitors' center — is yet to be determined, she said.

“We don't have all the answers to all the questions,” she said. The main goal right now, she said is to ensure its preservation and demonstrate community support.

The goal is to collect enough signatures to show interest in the idea among residents, gather support from neighbors and town officials, and to approach the community preservation committee for funding to relocate the structure. There are no estimates yet on the cost; Briggs said POP is expecting a quite on the cost of moving and making the building weather-tight at the end of the week. The group is also exploring grants and other potential funding. Messina said because of its size and the narrow private road it is located on, the house would have to be flaked — disassembled piece by piece and put back together at a new site .

POP volunteers will be collecting signatures at the Chatham Village Market Friday and Saturday from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. The petition can also be signed on the group's website, protectourpast.org.

“We just really want to get the townspeople behind this,” Briggs said. “Every signature is going to be important to us.”

Chairman of Selectmen Shareen Davis said in an email that she was aware of the effort to save the house and the petition to move it to the Eldredge Garage property, but did not have enough information to comment. “As I have said before, CPA funds are perfect for historical preservation,” she added.

A recent architectural reconnaissance survey found strong evidence that the house, the original portion of which measures 35 by 27 feet, was built prior to 1725. Anecdotal and historical evidence points toward it being built by William Nickerson II, the son of Chatham's first European settler, William Nickerson, whose original settlement was not far the 68 Shell Dr. location along the shores of Bassing Harbor and Ryder's Cove.

The survey was commissioned by the Nickerson Family Association, whose headquarters are located near the first William Nickerson's home site off Orleans Road. While the association would be willing to add the house to its campus — which includes the circa 1829 Caleb Nickerson House — it doesn't have the financial means to move it or renovate it, said board member William Walker. The group is strongly behind Briggs' effort, however.

“Our interest is in preserving the structure,” he said. Where it is located is less important, and the Eldredge Garage land “we think would generate significantly more traffic and make it a more valuable piece of Chatham history than if it was tucked away on our property. Nice as it is, it is more remote.”

Other options, Messina said, including relocating the house on the existing three-acre lot and using it as a guest house. While that would preserve the structure, the public would not have access to it. Since the lot is located in a flood zone, there are zoning and wetlands obstacles to that plan. Owner Joe Giacalone was scheduled to meet Tuesday with community development staff to explore that option, Messina said.

Another possibility is to flake the house and store it, either on the current site or elsewhere, until its future can be decided, Messina said. “That may take some time,” he said.

There have been expressions of interest in moving the house to another town, but Messina hopes it can stay here.

“It would hurt me deeply if Chatham loses another one of its historic assets,” he said. A well-preserved building with direct ties to the town's founder is “a once-in-a-lifetime find for the people of Chatham. To lose it is just unconscionable.”