Historic Nickerson Home Relocation To Go Before Zoning Board

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Historic preservation

The Nickerson-Howes House. FILE PHOTO

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CHATHAM – The historic home at 68 Shell Dr. is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, the Massachusetts Historical Commission has determined. Whether it will be listed or not remains to be seen. Later this month the zoning board of appeals will be asked to approve its relocation on the waterfront property to make way for a new, larger home.

The full Cape is thought to have been built around 1700 by the son of William Nickerson, the town's first European settler. It was nearly lost to the wrecking ball after the three-acre property was put on the market and a buyer couldn't be found who would save the old building. However, new owner Joe Giacalone agreed to try to save the structure by moving it to a new spot on the property and converting it to a guesthouse.

The historical commission is working on a change to the zoning bylaw that would sanction smaller-than-allowed lots if they are created to save a historically significant building, but the measure remains in draft form and won't go before town meeting until the spring. That means Giacalone must go the zoning board for relief, since the land where he wants to put the old building is in a coastal conservancy district and a flood zone; the property fronts on Pleasant Bay.

The hearing will be held virtually on Dec. 17 at 3 p.m. Giacalone is seeking a dimensional variance, to allow landscape material, as well as a special permit to relocate the dwelling.

“It's not going to be an easy application,” Historical Commission Chairman Frank Messina said last week. Not only does the project have to clear the ZBA, it must also go before the conservation commission, since it is located in the coastal conservancy district.

Messina said a demolition permit for the house was issued recently, a technicality required so that Giacalone doesn't have to go back to the historical commission. An 18-month demolition delay issued by the commission expires in January, and under the commission's regulations, if a demolition permit application is not submitted within a certain timeframe, another demolition delay hearing must be held. The permit, he added, is just to demolish a rear dormer on the structure.

A permit has not been issued to relocate barns on the property, which are also thought to date from about 1700. The Nye Family Museum plans to flake and reassemble the barns on its property in Sandwich.

In October the Massachusetts Historical Commission issued a letter acknowledging that the house, known as the Nickerson-Howes House, or sometimes as Sedge Holm, meets the criteria for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

However, the commission did not concur with an archaeologic report which dated the house to pre-1725, known as the First Period of American architecture, finding after an analysis of photographs that it dates from the late 18th or early 19th century. The main house, according to an Oct. 6 letter from the commission, retains features characteristic of Georgian and Federal periods. It is, nonetheless, a “rare example of a surviving 19th century farmstead in Chatham” and retains enough of its interior historic fabric to qualify for listing on the National Register. To establish its historical features, a nomination would have to be written by an expert in 18th and 19th century architecture dating interior features and tracing the physical evolution of the house, according to the letter.

“Once the house is more definitively dated, the architectural analysis would need to establish that the complex is a rare, if not the only, example of a farmstead of its period in Chatham,” the letter reads.

The house will be the subject of a lecture on Thursday, Dec. 10, sponsored by Protector Our Past. Using family photos and other images, Professor Joshua Smith places the building in the context of Chatham's transition from rural farming and fishing to summer resort. A professor of humanities at the United States Merchant Marine Academy as well as director of the American Merchant Marine Museum, both in Kings Point, N.Y., Smith spent summers at the house, which was in his family for more than a century. He is a member of the POP board. The 5 p.m. lecture will be held via Zoom; for information on participating, visit protectourpast.org.