Nickels-Sortwell House History
In 1807, Captain William Nickels built a grand, Federal-style mansion on Main Street in Wiscasset as a public trophy proclaiming his prosperity. A very successful ship captain and owner originally from nearby Bristol, Maine, Nickels built at a time when Wiscasset was a busy, wealthy, and sophisticated shipping town. From his new home, Nickels could look out at twelve of his own large ships in the river.
The mansion cost over $14,000 to build when labor was $1 a day. The exterior was wood designed to look like stone from both the water and the street. The interior decoration and furnishings also proclaimed the owners to be people of style, taste, and money. Both Nickels and his wife Jane were renowned for their fashionable dress and lavish entertaining. A large staff of servants enabled Mrs. Nickels to run the house, maintain her fashionable standards, entertain, and care for their eight children.
Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo of 1807 ruined Captain Nickels financially, along with most of Wiscasset. In 1812, both his eldest daughter Hannah and his wife died. In 1814, in an attempt to recoup some of his losses, Nickels deeded the house to his business partner, Samuel Miller, who allowed the family to remain there. In 1815, Nickels himself died of consumption. The estate was hugely in debt, so after it was settled, the children were left with nothing to inherit.
Although he would own the house until 1830, it appears that Samuel Miller allowed a series of managers to run the house as an inn from as early as 1816. From 1830-1837, it was operated as Turner’s Tavern, after the name of the new owners. In 1838, the Turners changed the name of the hotel to the Mansion House. At some point, one of the second floor bedrooms was divided into two smaller rooms, with a partition wall placed right through the middle of the fireplace. Doors were added for access to the now smaller rooms.
Despite Wiscasset’s economic woes, the house was kept in relatively good shape until the 1860s, when it passed to Charles Turner. He closed the hotel and sold the back lot. The building fell into disrepair and the community bemoaned the state of its beloved landmark. In 1870, the house changed hands again. It was repaired, renovated, and opened as the Belle Haven Hotel.
The house went through sixteen different owners before being purchased by the Sortwells, remaining the Belle Haven Hotel until 1899. As late as 1877, it retained its original light color, fence, and portico. In 1885, new owner Levi Appleton built a large veranda across the front of the house using the columns from the portico and painted the building in a Victorian color palette of light brown walls and maroon trim with chocolate brown blinds. During this period, guests stayed at Belle Haven, but crossed Federal Street to the Wiscasset Inn, later called the Hilton House, for their meals. To this day, the house retains hotel room numbers on some of the bedroom doors on the second and third floors.
In 1899, Alvin Sortwell, a banker, railroad and mining executive, and former mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts, purchased the Nickels House as a summer house for his family. His mother Sophia Augusta Foye’s family had first settled in Wiscasset in 1734. Escaping the heat and dirt of the city, the Sortwells had summered in town for years. In 1895, they stayed at the Belle Haven Inn, renting the top two floors. They fell in love with the house. Both Alvin and his wife Gertrude were ardent believers in preserving the America of the Founding Fathers. After purchasing the house, they painted it white, added indoor plumbing, replaced the fence, and over time, decorated it in the Colonial Revival style. In 1917-1918, Gertrude and her daughter Frances, by then assisting her mother in restoration decisions, had the veranda removed. The exterior of the house was restored to its original profile. A solarium was added at the rear of the house that remains one of visitors’ favorite rooms to visit today.
Alvin Sortwell died in 1910, but the family continued to use the house as a base for recreation and elegant and lively entertaining. In 1924, Frances purchased the parcel of land behind the house that had been sold off in 1860, reuniting the estate. This may have been when the current barn with its horse stalls and tack room was built. The Sortwells were avid yachtsmen and horseback riders. Invitations to social occasions at the Sortwell house were prized and the occasions remembered for their fun and excitement.
A staff of servants assisted Gertrude Sortwell in maintaining the house. Over the years, there were nannies, chambermaids, waitresses, cooks, butlers, gardeners, and chauffeurs. Although we do not know all of their names, several of these people, including the cook Margaret, handyman/gardener/chauffeur Walter Dodge, and butler Ross Elwell remained with the Sortwells for thirty years or more, attesting to the generosity of the family and the quality of life in the house.
Charles Eliot II of the famous Olmsted design firm designed the Nickels-Sortwell House garden in 1925. One of America’s most prominent public landscape architects, this was one of his few private commissions. He took on the job because the Sortwells had been neighbors of his family in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In the late 1930s, Frances Sortwell moved into the house full time. Known for her wit and sparkling personality, Frances became Wiscasset’s most dynamic preservationist. She purchased and restored eight historic houses and several public buildings in town. She was a founder of the Wiscasset Library, purchasing a historic former bank building on High Street and donating and renovating it for use as a library. When the Hilton House burned to the ground in 1903, Frances and her mother purchased the property and turned the cellar hole into a sunken garden. Frances eventually gave the beautiful garden to the town for public use.
Frances Sortwell died in 1956. She gave the house to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, now Historic New England. Frances had specified in her will that the family were to take anything they wanted from the house before it went to Historic New England. They decided to leave the furnishings in the house, where they remain today. The house also contains items from the Historic New England collection, chosen in 1958 as substitutes for items that might have been in the home in the Nickels period. Today the house is decorated with fine antiques and objects that had value to the Sortwells. It is a true testament to early twentieth century Colonial Revival tastes and style.
The hard luck story of William Nickels is very representative of Wiscasset during that period. It offers an opportunity to share with visitors the before and after story of Wiscasset’s rise to wealth and its fall into hard times. Summer visitors and residents like the Sortwells revived the town in the twentieth century after years of decline. The Sortwells’ story and the care they lavished on one of Maine’s most magnificent homes enables us to tell the story of Maine, a combination of beautiful natural scenery, fine old homes, and interesting characters.
Each year, we welcome more visitors to the house that has been a symbol of Wiscasset hospitality for over one hundred years. We look forward to sharing more of the house’s stories in the future.