“Oldest House” | Seth Nickerson House.
“Oldest House” is in quotation marks because there have been other claimants to the distinction. But 72 Commercial Street is certainly among the very oldest structures in town, having been built around 1750, and is well worth attention in any case as a fine — and beautifully preserved — example of the full Cape style (two front windows on either side of a central doorway, also known as a Double Cape). Note the center chimney and how the tops of the windows abut the roof line, more signs of the building’s age.
Seth Nickerson (1733-1789), who constructed the original house, was a ship’s carpenter. “There was no problem getting all the timber needed from one or more of the many shipwrecks along the north shore of the Cape,” John W. Gregory wrote in a brief history of 72 Commercial Street, which he and his family owned from 1944 to 1995.
It is a known fact that old Cape Cod houses keep growing more solid and secure than when they were first put together. This, because of the great many eight-inch-by-eight-inch-thick oak beams and other age-repellent woods that keep on solidifying. … The houses were known as ‘land craft’ as they were built to ride the shifting sands on their hand-hewn oak sills, and withstand lashing storms, just as their sister schooners rode out the waves.
A further anchor was the chimney stack at the center of the house, a beefy structure of bricks cemented by a mortar made from oyster and clam shells. It consolidates and draws smoke from three different fireplaces, and it looks in its upper reaches like the kind of abstract but functional brick smokestacks that the artist Conrad Malicoat would create many years later. Gregory estimated that the chimney stack weighed 16 tons. He explained that it was supported on the sandy soil by cribbing under the house — a framework of crisscrossed timbers that formed a “huge snowshoe of oak logs.”
Given Seth Nickerson’s birth date, it seems unlikely that the house was constructed as early as 1746, as Gregory surmised, since its builder would have been a teenager. But Gregory said that the beehive-shaped bread oven embedded in the main fireplace, behind a small iron door, strongly indicated a mid-18th-century provenance. (The only other such oven I’ve seen in Provincetown is at 157 Commercial Street, from the 1750s.)
There is an intriguing mention of the building serving as the first Baptist meeting house in Provincetown, found in an article in The Advocate of 10 March 1949.
The property remained in the hands of Nickersons until 1848, when Seth’s grandson Joshua Nickerson (1802-1892) and Joshua’s wife, Amanda Nickerson (1808-1892), sold it to Joshua Paine for $725.¹ It came into the hands of the Hammond family, then passed in 1917 to Azuba S. (Hammond) Dunham (1868-1944). She and her husband, Leonard F. Dunham, sold the property in 1927 to the artist F. Colton Waugh (1896-1973), beginning the first of three distinctive golden eras for the house during the 20th century.²
Waugh and his wife, the artist Elizabeth (Jenkinson) Waugh (1894-1944), opened the Oldest House to the public, who approached it through an entrance arch made of a whale’s jawbone. On one side as you came into the house 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 opposite side, was the Hooked Rug Shop. She and Edith Foley (married to Frank Shays of the Barnstormers Theater, 25-27A Bradford Street) made and sold rugs. She also took the writer and critic Edmund Wilson as a clandestine lover in the 1930s and he took her as the basis of the character Imogen Loomis in his Memoirs of Hecate County, published in 1946.
The Waughs owned enough properties in the surrounding neighborhood that it came to be known as “Waughville,” said Amy Whorf McGuiggan, whose grandparents — the painter John Whorf (1903-1959) and Vivienne Isabelle (Wing) Whorf (1903-1972) — lived in the Oldest House for a time until moving into 52 Commercial Street.
The second golden era for the Oldest House began in 1944, with its acquisition in 1944 by John W. Gregory (1903-1992), a painter, printmaker, and photographer, and his wife, Adelaide (Gibbs) Gregory (1905-1992), a concert pianist.³ They “not only carefully preserved the house but kept it open to the public, for which they should have received a public service award,” the Provincetown historian Clive Driver said.
Fortunately, the text of John Gregory’s tour was transcribed and published as a pamphlet, which can be read on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website (links below). Besides offering guided tours of the house each summer until his death, Gregory also held “candlelight concerts” of classical music — on 78 R.P.M. phonograph records — two nights a week. He personally introduced each selection, “thus becoming a very early D.J.,” his son Jackson Gregory said. “It was a popular and romantic place to take a date, since people couldn’t carry their music with them in those days.” Music must have filled the house, because Adelaide Gregory also gave piano lessons there.
For a time in the 1950s, the Gregorys even operated a café: the Ship-Shape Tea Room, “where sandwiches, home-made pastries, coffee, tea, etc. are served at moderate prices.” Paintings by John’s sister, Dorothy Lake Gregory (1893-1970), were on display.
After the death of Adelaide and John Gregory, their heirs sold the Oldest House in 1995 to 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.⁴ Croucher is a founder, board president, and senior advisor to Appropriate Technology India, a non-governmental organization based in the state of Uttarakhand that, as Croucher puts it, “specializes in biodiversity conservation and community-based economic development in the Himalayas.” McCamant has been, among other roles, a founding investor in the Chicago Reader and a president of the American Printing History Association.
Croucher and McCamant hired the prominent Cambridge restoration architect Robert Grant Neiley (1920-2009) to undertake an ambitious restoration that turned into an archaeological dig, revealing a second circular cellar under the house, among other things. Their contractor was Jade L. Mortimer. Kenneth Gregory, another son of Adelaide and John, is a carpenter and woodworker who lives nearby, at 6 Soper Street. He, too, has contributed to the meticulous and exquisite state of the structure. Though the house is no longer open to the public, Croucher and McCamant — like the Waughs and Gregorys before them — have treated it as if it were a priceless element of the civic patrimony. Which, of course, it is. Oldest or not.
¶ Last updated on 12 July 2018.
Jackson Gregory wrote on 26 July 2017: I grew up in this house. My parents, John and Adelaide Gregory, opened the house every summer to the public starting a couple of years after they purchased it in 1944, giving conducted tours right up until John’s death in 1992. John had a large 78 R.P.M. collection of classical music and, also during the summer, two evenings a week from the mid ’40s to the early ’50s, held “candlelight concerts” with chairs and cushions spread around the three main rooms of the first floor. A marquee in the front yard listed the program for the evening. He would attend to the record player and announce the particular selection about to be heard, thus becoming a very early D.J., if not the first. It was a popular and romantic place to take a date, since people couldn’t carry their music with them in those days. Students from the nearby Hans Hofmann school were some of the most avid attendees. A hat was passed around during intermission and, one night around 1948 or ’49, they collected over $100, which was a very large sum at that time. John also exhibited and sold his photographs and lithographs in the main front room. He was the only tour guide I’d ever heard who could give virtually the same talk for thousands of repetitions and still retain his enthusiasm for the subject.
Undated post card in the author’s collection.
Left: An H-L, or “Holy Lord,” hinge, so called after its shape. (2016)
Right: A framed photo by John W. Gregory, who once owned the house. (2016)
Detail of the dining room mantel. (2016)
The chimney stack, on the second floor, draws from three fireplaces below. (2016)
The chimney bricks are held together with mortar of clam and oyster shells. (2016)
Behind this iron door at the back of a fireplace is a rare beehive-shaped oven. (2016)
For further reading online
Postcards of the Oldest House, within Scrapbooks of Althea Boxell, Book 1, Page 134. Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 1124.
Postcards of the Oldest House, within Scrapbooks of Althea Boxell, Book 8, Page 95. Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 2214.
“Seth Nickerson House/Oldest House,” pamphlet by John W. Gregory (1980), within Scrapbooks of Althea Boxell, Book 8, Pages 99-101. Provincetown History Preservation Project, Dowd Collection, Page 2218, Page 2219, Page 2220.
“Ship Model Shop of Cape Cod, Provincetown, Mass.,” catalog by Colton Waugh (undated). Provincetown History Preservation Project, Borkowski Collection, Page 5097.
“The Oldest House in Provincetown,” with photographs by John W. Gregory, from Yankee magazine, August 1965, pages 64-67. Provincetown History Preservation Project, Municipal Collection, Page 6058.
¹ Nickerson to Paine, 3 March 1848, Barnstable County Registry of Deeds, Book 42, Page 445.
² Dunham to Waugh, 15 December 1927, Barnstable County Registry of Deeds, Book 452, Page 282.
³ Waugh to Gregory, 4 October 1944, Barnstable County Registry of Deeds, Book 619, Page 109.
⁴ Gregory to McCamant et alia, 20 September 1995, Barnstable County Registry of Deeds, Book 9848, Page 254.