Town's Oldest House To Be Preserved

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Historic preservation

The antique house at 68 Shell Dr., built around 1700 by the son of Chatham founder William Nickerson, will be preserved as a guest house. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – What many consider the oldest house in town and a direct link to founder William Nickerson will be preserved.

The antique Cape built by Nickerson's son, William, will be moved to a different spot on the waterfront property where it has stood since about 1700 and serve as a guest house for a new home that will be constructed on the three-acre property. The interior of the First Period house will be renovated into guest quarters with no kitchen, but the exterior will be restored to its original appearance.

“It's definitely a win for Chatham,” said historical commission chair Frank Messina, “in the sense that our founding father's son's homestead is going to be where it was actually set up.”

A barn on the 68 Shell Dr. property that dates from a similar vintage will be moved to the Nickerson Family Association compound on Orleans Road. The building will be flaked – taken apart – and stored until the association can raise the money needed to restore it.

It's been five years since the historical commission began working to save the house after the previous owners decided to put it on the market. Messina credited Joseph Giacalone, who bought the parcel on Bassing Harbor more than a year and a half ago, with continuing to include the old house in his plans to redevelop the property. While it won't be considered a “true restoration” because of changes to the interior, significant architectural details will be preserved and the house will look “pretty much exactly the way it was originally,” Messina said.

Giacalone acknowledged the project won't be a “100 percent accurate period restoration as originally planned, but at least it will be saved.”

The process of getting to last week's special permit approval by the zoning board of appeals has been “very emotional and costly,” Giacalone said in an email.

Following an October zoning board meeting, Giacalone scrapped his previous plan and hired a new architect, Leah McGavern of McGavern Design of Newburyport. The proposed house was downsized and the number of bedrooms on the property reduced to seven. A plan to bring in fill, a sticking point with some zoning board members, was eliminated. The design was changed to more of a Cape Cod farmhouse style, with dimensions and roof pitch reflecting the original antique house, McGavern said. Because it is in a flood zone, the entire structure must be elevated and will not have a basement, which helps account for the 6,000-plus-square-foot size.

Giacalone said the house was designed around the needs of his family, which include his wife, three children, his mother and disabled brother, who requires a live-in nurse.

“We plan to live here full time,” he told the zoning board Nov. 18. “This isn't just a weekend house or summer house.”

Zoning board members agreed the new plan was an improvement, but member Paul Semple said he felt it was too big for the flood zone location.

“This is just not the right location,” he said.

Although the property spans three acres, little is considered buildable upland; the construction will cover more than 70 percent of the buildable upland while the existing structures cover 43 percent. The zoning district caps coverage at 15 percent. But the coverage amounts to only 5 percent of the total land area, noted ZBA Chair David Nixon.

“That's pretty small,” he said. The fact that the building cannot have a basement because it is located in the flood zone makes it unfair to compare the size of the house to others in the area that have large basements, he added.

“They've knocked themselves out to do what we asked them to do,” Nixon said of the revised plans. The new house will be a “showpiece” for the neighborhood, he said.

The board approved the special permits 4-1, with Semple dissenting.

Giacalone will donate the antique barn to the Nickerson Family Association, which anticipates restoring it on the organization's land and holding programs and activities there in the summer months, said president Bob Nickerson.

“This will enable the public to visit one of the oldest, if not the oldest, barns in Chatham,” he said.

The interior of the antique house has been thoroughly documented and the organization Protect Our Past is making a film about the restoration and move, said Messina. Further research may also be done. “There's probably a lot of artifacts on that site,” he said.

Because of the interior changes, the building won't be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, which Messina said the commission had investigated. Even so, he's happy that the shell and some exterior elements of the old house will be preserved.

“We came very close to losing it,” he said. “Chatham's lucky that we have people with deep pockets who are willing to get involved with this stuff.”