CHATHAM – The owner of the historic Nickerson house on Shell Drive, thought to be one of if not the oldest house in town, will seek the town's permission to keep it on the land where it’s stood for more than 300 years.
Joe Giacalone said he'd like to relocate the house, built on the shores of Bassing Harbor by the son of Chatham founder William Nickerson, to a new spot on the three-acre lot and restore it as a guest house. Because the property is in a flood zone, approval is required by the conservation commission and zoning board of appeals.
The 35-by-27-foot full Cape is one of only a handful of “First Period” homes extant in town. An archaeological survey earlier this year found that the main section of the house was built prior to 1725, the earliest period of American architecture. It is thought to have been built by or for William Nickerson II around 1700, not far from the original Nickerson homestead site on the shores of Ryder's Cove.
A barn on the property that dates from the same period will be moved to Sandwich (see separate story).
In restoring the house, Giacalone said he plans to replace non-historic windows and siding with architecturally correct elements and remove a front dormer that is not original to the structure. Interior changes will likely to be made, but the goal is to restore the exterior as close as possible to the original, he said, “much closer than it is now.”
Giacalone met with community development department officials recent to discuss the possibility of keeping the historic home on the property while building a new house on the land. “They seemed favorable,” he said, but offered no guarantees, since regulatory permits will be required under the zoning bylaw and state and local wetlands protection regulations. His attorney, William F. Riley, said he expects to file applications with the zoning board of appeals and conservation commission by the end of this week. There are a “lot of moving parts” to the applicants and engineers are currently at work on developing the necessary information to support the applications.
He likened the situation to the process by which the historic home known as Starboard Light, which overlooks Stage Harbor, was preserved while allowing a new, modern home on the same lot.
“We're hoping that all works in this instance,” Riley said.
Keeping the house on the land where it was built, even if it is moved from its original site, is preferable to moving it to a different location, since it preserves the historical setting, said Historical Commission Chairman Frank Messina.
“Flaking an historical house to move it, you lose a lot,” he said. The commission placed a demolition delay on the house which expired July. The group has also sought an opinion from the Massachusetts Historical Commission on the eligibility of the building for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
There had been an effort underway to relocate the house to the town-owned Eldredge Garage property on Main Street, and that remains an option should the current plan not win approval. The nonprofit Protect Our Past has been circulating a petition to show support for saving the house should there be a need to move it, which could involve seeking town funding. More than 750 people signed the petition, said Protect Our Past founder Ellen Briggs.
“The level of enthusiasm was notable,” she said. “It's pretty cool to know there's that much passion in this town.” About 40 percent of the signers were full-time Chatham residents, with the remainder split between part-time residents and visitors. Many people were interested in the possibility of a Colonial-era home being open to the public, she added.
It's important to respect the property owner's wishes, Briggs said, but the group will continue working on its plans as an alternative if Giacalone's effort falls through.
The Nickerson Family Association had also agreed to accept the house on its Orleans Road campus, but did not have the funds to move and restore the building.
Messina said he's happy to see the house restored in its original location. He was a member of the group that developed a plan for the Eldredge Garage property, and he's not convinced that's a good site for the historic building.
“Every historical house can't become a museum,” he said. “You have to have an adaptive use,” such as what Giacalone is proposing. Although it will alter the historic setting somewhat and won't allow the building to be open to the public, “it's a compromise, like everything,” Messina said.