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Nickels-Sortwell House (1807)

A home becomes a hotel

Wiscasset, Maine

Shipping magnate William Nickels had this impressive mansion built in 1807 as a symbol of his wealth and status. His ships travelled to Europe and the West Indies, bringing back fine imported goods for wealthy Wiscasset households.  William and Jane Nickels’ lavish lifestyle came to an abrupt end when Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo of 1807 devastated the East Coast economy by prohibiting international trade. By the time of his death in 1815, William Nickels was bankrupt, Jane had died, and their children were left with nothing but debt.

The Nickels’ house became a hotel managed by innkeeper Mary Turner for forty-four years. Known as Turner’s Tavern, it served working and professional guests while Mary also raised her family of nine children. After her death, a series of owners ran the hotel until 1899 when it was purchased by industrialist Alvin Sortwell as a summer home for his family. The Sortwells lovingly restored the house over a period of years and decorated it in the Colonial Revival style with fine antique furnishings.

A National Historic Landmark and one of New England’s finest Federal-style houses, Nickels-Sortwell House is the only Historic New England property available for vacation rentals.

Plan Your Visit

Location

121 Main Street (Route 1)
Wiscasset, Maine 04578

Days & Hours

Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays
June  4 – October 17

Tours every half hour
11 AM – 3 PM

Admission

$15 adults
$13 seniors
$7 students

Free for Historic New England members

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

Historic New England is following all state, local, and CDC safety guidelines for Wiscasset. Face coverings are required for all staff and visitors. Enhanced cleaning and disinfectant measures are in place. Tour group size is limited.

Directions

Take I-295 to Exit 28, Route 1 North, Brunswick. Follow Route 1 to Wiscasset. Follow Route 1 to the junction with Route 218 at Wiscasset. Nickels-Sortwell House is on the corner.

Parking

Public parking is available on Main Street. There is also a public lot behind the shops on Main Street.

Contact Information

Nickels-Sortwell House Exterior

In 1807 Captain William Nickels built a grand, high Federal-style mansion on Main Street in Wiscasset. Sited at the top of the hill overlooking the river, William and Jane Nickels' home proclaimed wealth and status to all passersby.

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  • Nickels-Sortwell House Exterior

    In 1807 Captain William Nickels built a grand, high Federal-style mansion on Main Street in Wiscasset. Sited at the top of the hill overlooking the river, William and Jane Nickels' home proclaimed wealth and status to all passersby.

  • Parlor

    The Sortwells restored and redecorated the house in the Colonial Revival style, creating a treasured summer home for their large family who enjoyed over five decades of parties, family visits and summer relaxation.

  • Staircase

    The striking staircase is lit from above by a conical skylight.

  • Third-Floor Lunette Window

    The quintessentially Federal-era lunette window on the third floor landing has delighted family members, servants, hotel guests and museum visitors for over 200 years, and still bears the etched signature of a mischievous family guest.

Wabanaki Confederacy

Wiscasset is built on land that is part of the homeland of the Wabanaki people of Maine and the Maritimes. The Wabanaki have used the Sheepscot River as a transportation corridor, and a seasonal location for hunting and fishing for over twelve thousand years.

The arrival of Europeans in the seventeenth century led to a cataclysmic collision of cultures, resulting in over 100 years of violent conflict and decimation of the indigenous population by disease. The colonists who came to the Wiscasset area were immigrants from Europe, Massachusetts and Southern Maine drawn to the frontier by the offer of land for development. William Nickels’ grandfather was one of those colonists.

By the mid-eighteenth century, the Wabanaki had been forcibly driven off this land. They moved north to the Norridgewock area where they had larger settlements. They remain there today and live throughout the state of Maine, an intrinsic part of Maine’s history and culture. Wabanaki place names, although anglicized, are permanent markers of their culture.

By the 1770s, Wiscasset was a thriving seaport due to its deep, protected harbor. The town had very close ties to Boston through the shipping, legal and political connections that resulted in its being named the county seat in 1794. This was a wealthy and socially sophisticated community centered on commerce.

1-nickels-sortwellhouse-1The Nickels’ Mansion

In 1807 William and Jane Nickels built a grand, Federal-style mansion on Main Street in Wiscasset as a public trophy proclaiming his prosperity. A 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.

The wood exterior was designed to look like stone from both the water and the street. The interior decoration and furnishings proclaimed the owners to be people of style, taste, and money. William and Jane Nickels were known for their fashionable dress and lavish entertaining. A large staff of servants, including Catherine Light, Hannah McLean, the children’s nurse, four seamstresses, maids and housekeepers enabled Jane Nickels to run the house, maintain her fashionable standards, entertain, and care for their six children.

The New England maritime economy was inextricably linked to the global slave trade either by directly profiting from transporting people in bondage or by the trade and consumption of goods grown and produced by the hands of slave labor. Wiscasset ship owners and captains were part of this global trade. Nickels’ partner captained ships that travelled to Europe and the West Indies, bringing back fine imported goods for wealthy Wiscasset households, many of which included enslaved people. The one Black occupant we know who lived in the Nickels’ house was called Sam. We do not know if he was a paid servant or if he was enslaved.

Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo of 1807 ruined Captain Nickels financially, along with most of Wiscasset. In 1812 both Jane and their eldest daughter Hannah 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 consumed by debt. After the estate was settled, there was nothing left for the children to inherit.

Tavern and Hotel

After Nickels’ death, the house was rented by the Turner family, Cornelius, a harness and saddle-maker and his wife Mary, who opened the house as an inn. Mary ran Turner’s Tavern for forty-four years while raising nine children in the house. In 1827, it became the stage coach stop. In 1830, when her brother purchased the house for her, Mary renamed the hotel The Mansion House. The Turners kept the business going despite Wiscasset’s economic woes. After Mary’s death in 1861 and the unexpected deaths of two of her sons, the house was purchased by William Wilcockson who renovated and updated the house. Like William Nickels, he spent more money than he had and was forced to sell the hotel.

Renamed the Belle Haven, the hotel catered to a new wave of guests from home and abroad. The tourism trade began in earnest by the end of the Civil War with the rusticators, followed by people escaping from the heat and dirt of industrial cities. The Belle Haven catered to legal visitors drawn by the Courthouse and served as a comfortable convenient place to stay for Mainers, locals and their families including women traveling on their own. Its prime location on Main Street made it a perfect place for townspeople and visitors to watch holiday and the annual circus parades that passed through town delighting all who saw them.

In 1897, the hotel was sold to William Hubbard, owner of the Hilton House Hotel next door. Hubbard sold the house to Alvin Sortwell in 1899.

Sortwell Family Summer House

Wealthy industrialist and former mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts Alvin Sortwell and his wife Gertrude purchased the Belle Haven as a summer house for his family. Sortwell’s mother’s family had first settled in Wiscasset in 1734. In 1895, escaping the heat and dirt of the city, the Sortwells stayed at the Belle Haven Inn, renting the top two floors. They fell in love with the house and area which was perfect for summer recreation with friends and their family of six active children, aged 8 -17.

Gertrude Sortwell had ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War and both she and her husband were very proud of their American eighteenth-century roots. They dedicated themselves to restoring the house to its former grandeur. They painted it white, discreetly added indoor plumbing and over time decorated it in the Colonial Revival style. By 1916, the Sortwells had lost both Alvin and middle son Edward. In 1917, Gertrude and her daughter Frances, already an enthusiastic historic preservationist, had the veranda removed and the exterior of the house restored to its original profile. To unite house and garden, they added a solarium at the rear of the house that remains one of visitors’ favorite rooms today.

The elegant and genteel lifestyle of late nineteenth and early twentieth century industrialist wealth required a large staffs of servants. The Sortwell staff included Maine native Ross Elwell, who met the family while working as a seaman on a yacht. Ross was hired to be butler to the Sortwell’s eldest son, then transferred his services to Frances Sortwell. He became an invaluable part of the family’s life in Wiscasset. Ross owned his own home and also invested in local real estate.

Irish immigrants Margaret O’ Hanlon and Josephine Dodge served as cook and waitress to Gertrude Sortwell and the family. Well-remembered by the Sortwell granddaughters, Margaret emigrated from Kildorrerry, Cork at the age of 26 and was working for the Sortwells by the time she was 30. Josephine, emigrated from Killenavarra, Galway at age 14 to join her sister who was already a domestic living in Cambridge, Mass. She started working for Gertrude Sortwell almost immediately. Both women travelled with Gertrude between the Sortwell main home in Cambridge to their summer and holiday home in Wiscasset. Josephine met and married a Wiscasset man, Walter Dodge, the Sortwell’s gardener and the couple settled in Maine.

Family and staff saw each other through the wars, the Depression, family tragedies and drama. Ross, Margaret and Josephine stayed with the family until Gertrude’s death in 1956 and Frances’ death in 1957.

Becoming a Museum

Wishing that the house be preserved and shared with the public, Frances Sortwell bequeathed the house to Historic New England. Today, the house is furnished with Sortwell antiques and high quality reproductions, as well as treasured family objects. The house was opened to the public as a museum in 1958.

Property FAQs

Find out about accessibility, photography policy, and more.

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  • Can I park at the museum? Is there street parking?

    You can either park at the Nickels-Sortwell House barn on Federal Street, on Main Street in front of the shops, or in the parking lot behind the house on Water Street.

  • Are there restrooms at Nickels-Sortwell House?

    Yes, there is a restroom available to visitors.

  • Is the museum accessible to people with disabilities?

    A tour of any Historic New England property requires a considerable amount of standing and some walking. Nickels-Sortwell House has not been equipped with accessible ramps, elevators, or chair lifts. Folding chairs can be provided for visitors who would like to use them during a tour. We are glad to offer guests a visual tour of the museum. Visitors with limited mobility may be able to enjoy a first-floor tour of the house and grounds. Service animals are always welcome. We encourage visitors with concerns to call ahead. We are happy to work with you to make your visit an enjoyable one.

  • Can I take photographs at Nickels-Sortwell House?

    Interior and exterior photography for personal use is allowed at Historic New England properties. For the safety and comfort of our visitors and the protection of our collections and house museums, we ask that you be aware of your surroundings and stay with your guide. Video, camera bags, tripods, and selfie sticks are not permitted. Professional/commercial photographers and members of the media should visit the press room for more information.

  • How can I book a group tour? What is the cost?

    The cost for a group tour of ten or more is $1 off the regular admission price. Call 207-882-7169 or visit our group tours page.

  • Do we need to take a tour or can we just look around?

    All visitors to the house receive a guided tour.

  • How do I become a member of Historic New England and get more involved?

    Join Historic New England now and help preserve the region’s heritage. Call the Membership Office at 617-994-5910 or join online.

  • When was the house built?

    1807

  • Who built it?

    Captain William Nickels had the house built. The identity of the architect or even if there was an architect is unknown.

  • How much did it cost to build?

    The mansion cost over $14,000 to build when labor was $1 a day.

  • How many rooms are in the house?

    The house has twenty-one rooms.

  • Do you provide admission discounts for EBT cardholders?

    EBT cardholders from all fifty states can show their card for $2 admission to house tours for up to four guests per card.

Related to this Property

Visit nearby Castle Tucker in Wiscasset.

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Rent Nickels-Sortwell House for your vacation.

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Become a member and tour for free.

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