Nickels-Sortwell House (1807)

A prime example of Federal architecture

Wiscasset, Maine

Located on Wiscasset’s Main Street, Nickels-Sortwell House is a National Historic Landmark and one of the region’s finest examples of high Federal-style architecture. Built by successful ship owner Captain William Nickels, the house epitomizes the brief period when shipbuilding and the maritime trade brought wealth and sophisticated tastes to this coastal Maine village.

Jefferson’s Embargo of 1807 devastated Wiscasset economically. The Nickels family was forced to sell the mansion in 1814. During much of the 1800s it served as a hotel for a growing number of summer visitors to Maine’s coast. In 1899 industrialist and banker Alvin Sortwell, the former mayor of Cambridge, Mass., bought the house. The Sortwell family’s Wiscasset roots reached back to the early 1700s. They lovingly restored the house over a period of years and decorated it in the Colonial Revival style with fine antique furnishings.

Plan Your Visit

Location

121 Main Street (Route 1)
Wiscasset, Maine 04578

Days & Hours

Friday – Sunday
June 1 – October 15
11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Tours every half hour.

Last tour at 4:00 p.m.

Admission

$8 adults

$7 seniors

$4 students

Free for Historic New England members and Wiscasset residents.

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.

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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.

  • Nickels-Sortwell House in the 1800s

    From 1830 to 1837 it was operated as Turner’s Tavern. In 1838 the Turners changed the name of the hotel to the Mansion House.

  • Third-Floor Lunette Window

    The Federal-style mansion’s exterior was made of wood designed to look like stone from both the water and the street.

1-nickels-sortwellhouse-1Captain William Nickels

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 more than $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.

1-nickels-sortwellhouse-1Tavern and Hotel

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 to 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. He 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.

3-upstairshallway_historySortwell Family Summer House

In 1899 Alvin Sortwell, a banker, railroad and mining executive, and former mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts, purchased 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 gradually decorated it in the Colonial Revival style. In 1917 and 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 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. Eliot was one of America’s most prominent public landscape architects, and 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 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.

Becoming a Museum

Frances Sortwell died in 1956. She gave the house to Historic New England, then known as the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. 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 more than one hundred years.

Property FAQs

Find out about accessibility, photography policy, and more.

Learn More
  • 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.

Related to this Property

Visit nearby Castle Tucker in Wiscasset.

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Visit Marrett House in Standish, Maine.

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