Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Provincetown's Oldest House, and a Tale of Two Time Capsules

A vintage postcard of the oldest house in PTown.
In Provincetown's West End, at 72 Commercial Street, you'll find the house that most folks will acknowledge as the oldest remaining house in town.
If you look closely at the small, individual glass panes that make up the windows on the front of the house you will see that several of them look rather warped and wavy, a bit bumpy, which is characteristic of very old glass, made before more modern manufacturing methods allowed window panes to be made with a uniform thickness throughout each piece of glass.
Some of these little panes are the original window panes dating back to 1746 when the house was built by Seth Nickerson. He made his living as a ship's carpenter, and is said to have built this house mainly from planks and boards and beams which he had salvaged from a number of shipwrecks over the years. This vintage postcard shows the house as it looked before Soper Street was built next to the east side of the house, where the car in the picture above is sitting. Judging by this early Ford, was the original photograph for this postcard  taken around 90 years ago?
If you walk by 72 Commercial Street you'll notice the rosebushes growing up the front of the house and onto the roof, exactly as you see them in the old postcard above.
This house had been waterfront property when it was s built, but when Commercial Street was finally laid out, in 1835, the road had to be built between existing houses, and since this one sat closer to the edge of the harbor than others on the north side of the path that would become Commercial Street, the house lost most of its front yard to the construction of the new road. When a four-plank wooden sidewalk was added along the edge of the street a few years later, the yard became narrower still.
In the early 1900s a whale's jawbone formed an arch and gateway in front of the house, and the Ship Model Shop and the Hooked Rug Shop were operated there by the owners, local artists Elizabeth and Coulton Waugh. In 1944 the house was bought by world-renowned photographer John Gregory and his wife Adelaide, a concert pianist. They allowed, and encouraged, tours of the house by the public, and a son who had grown up in that house tells of a childhood where the children had to keep their things put away and their room tidy at all times, because their father actively promoted "the oldest house in town" and would enthusiastically escort interested visitors through the home at virtually any time of the day or night.
The late John Gregory was a friend of the late Carl Sagan, the pioneer of space science, who created a sort of "time capsule" using recordings of sounds and images from the Earth, similar to a record album but made of gold in order to withstand the possible ravages of time and space travel. A recording was included in the payload of each of the two Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977. Each "golden record" was  packed with a stylus and illustrations meant to show how these recordings could be played by whatever life form might discover these spacecraft at some point in the distant future. One of John Gregory's photographs of the oldest house in Provincetown is included among those images and sounds from Earth, with one of those spacecraft on track to fall within about 1.6 light years of the star AC+79 3888, in the constellation of Camelopardalis, in about 40,000 years or so. It may also pass right by that particular stop in that endless chain of stars, eventually coming to rest much farther away from the Earth and much, much later in time, if ever.
When the oldest house was bought by the current owners a number of years ago they did a very thorough and loving restoration of the house, even going to the trouble of having new wooden pegs carved by hand to replace the old ones in the joists and joints of the roof. In those early days when the house was built, nails were quite expensive and hard to come by, especially in the size needed to hold large beams together.
Cupboards, floorboards and walls were carefully pried loose so that the structures beneath could be inspected and restored.  Over roughly 250 years since the house had been built, a number of photographs, notes, small toys, bits of clothing and other items had fallen behind shelves or slipped between floorboards, and it was common to use old newspapers and other scraps for insulation between walls in those days. As the work progressed, artifacts of all sorts began literally pouring out of the woodwork.
These treasures were turned over to artist Morgan Norwood, who created an art installation in the front room of the house, placing newly found tiles around the fireplace and its mantle, and using a baby bootie, photos, marbles and other small toys that were discovered to fill a sort of shadow box on the wall next to the hearth, but with a door on the front of the box. When opened, the box reveals these trinkets, including a small eyepiece a bit like a tiny spyglass with a photograph placed at the end so that it will appear to be the view through the spyglass. Looking through this little eyepiece you'll see the expanse of the beach and the harbor in front of this house, before the other houses were built across Commercial Street. Pulling open the door of this box also triggers a recording of the voice of Provincetown Trolley owner Yvonne Cabrall talking about the "time capsule" as the trolley passed by the house on its tour of the town in the late 1990s, so the "view" of the early beach and that bit of the Trolley narration essentially create a bit of a time capsule inside the "oldest house" as well.


  1. A very well done site. Thank you.

    1. Thank you, and thanks for visiting my blog. Hope you'll return often, and pass it on to others. More PTown history coming in tonight's post.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. R
    eally great information and well written too!!

    1. Thanks, Kevin, I'm glad you're enjoying my blog. Let me know if there are topics you'd like me to write about.

  4. Hi, over 32 years ago, my husband and I visited an old house in PTown claiming to be one of the first homes. I don’t know if it was this one or another. It was owned by an older man who was in not great health and his wife. So he had made a recording of his house tour. To save his voice. One thing I remember that there was a trapdoor that opened to an area below that he said was used as a type of root cellar for storing vegetables. Another was the hearth in the kitchen which had spider pots and he said that fire was a danger for the women cooking due to long dresses. Sand was used on the kitchen floor for sparks and it was often swept into fancy patterns by the housewife. There was an old chair whose legs were worn smooth to a lower rung due to being used on the sand floor. He also mentioned the wood pegs instead of nails. He claimed the house was originally built across the bay but was too exposed during storms, so it was floated over to the current location.

  5. Thank you for these fascinating details of your tour all those years ago, which was likely with John Gregory himself, mentioned above. I haven't found any stories about anyone else giving guided tours through their homes.
    The "first" houses built in Provincetown are all long gone, having crumbled or suffered fires or storms, or having been torn down to make way for some other building or use of the land. Gregory didn't claim his house was among the first built, but he did promote it as the oldest remaining house, and it is definitely among the oldest houses still standing, though some folks still argue about exactly which house is actually our "oldest." The style of fireplace in the front room, with a kind of beehive-shaped area in the back of it acting as an oven of sorts, was no longer built into these early houses past the year 1750, so that supports the story that Seth Nickerson built this house around 1746.
    What I've read states that the house was moved back from the edge of the beach at some point, but now you've got me researching whether it could have been among the Long Point floaters, moved across the harbor in the 1850s.
    If you remember any other details from your tour, please e-mail, and thanks for reading my blog!

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  7. Awesome and interesting article. Great things you've always shared with us. Thanks. Just continue composing this kind of post. Edward Rainey Renwick

  8. I have a story of John Gregory and his wife and family from early 1970’s. My sister and a friend and I were on vacation in Provincetown, and went in to the Gregory home, probably to tour, but I don’t remember much of the house tour. He himself was in a wheelchair, and we loved and bought a lot of his lithographs. They were incredulous, and asked if we were angels sent to them. We didn’t understand, and they explained that they had just spent their last dollar, and prayed that they would somehow get some money. I remember them as kind, sweet people.