“Oldest House” (Seth Nickerson House)
We’ll keep the “Oldest House” title in quotation marks because there are other claimants, though 72 Commercial Street is certainly among the very oldest structures still standing in town, having been built around 1746-50, and is well worth attention in any case as a fine example of the full Cape style, with double front windows on either side of a central doorway (which is also why this style is sometimes described as a Double Cape). In contrast to No. 64, note how the windows abut the eaves, which is a sign of its age. Another giveaway is the beehive-shaped brick oven at the rear of the main fireplace, which the Walking Tour guide said would be found only in a house built before 1750.
Seth Nickerson was a ship’s carpenter and his house is said to have been built of materials harvested from shipwrecks. There are eight-by-eight-inch oak beams inside. These, and a 16-ton chimney, have helped anchor the building against many storms. This area was a “Nickerson neighborhood,” peopled by the cousins Seth, Thomas, and Jonathan, and their sons.
The artists Elizabeth (Jenkinson) Waugh and F. Coulton Waugh (1896-1973) owned the Nickerson house in the early 20th century and opened it to the public. On the left as you came in was his Ship Model Shop, offering not only models but hand-colored prints and objects relating to the town’s maritime history. Her shop, on the right, was the Hooked Rug Shop. She and Edith Foley (married to Frank Shays of the Barnstormers Theater) made and sold rugs. In the Waughs’ day there was an entrance arch made of a whale’s jawbone.
John Gregory (1903-1992), a painter, printmaker and photographer, and his wife Adelaide Gregory, a concert pianist, bought the house in 1944. They “not only carefully preserved the house but kept it open to the public, for which they should have received a public service award,” said Clive Driver. For only the third time in the 20th century, the house changed hands again in 1995.
The house was acquired from the Gregory family by John W. “Jack” Croucher and Robert E. McCamant, who already owned 72A Commercial Street and 72B Commercial Street, on the other side of tiny, grass-covered Ericsson Place. They hired the prominent Cambridge restoration architect Robert Neiley (d 2010) to undertake an ambitious restoration that turned into something of an archaeological dig as well. The house is no longer open to the public.