Experience the rise and fall of a successful ship owner in the new United States at this National Historic Landmark, one of the finest examples of Federal-style architecture north of Boston. Captain William Nickels built the house in 1807 to show his prosperity to the world. That world fell apart with Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act. Wiscasset’s and Nickels’ fortunes plummeted. The house became a hotel and later a summer home for the Sortwell family of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Explore the antique furniture and textiles that the Sortwells used to decorate the house in the Colonial Revival style
Backstory and Context
Located on Wiscasset's Main Street, Nickels-Sortwell House is one of the region's finest examples of high Federal-style architecture. Built by successful ship owner Captain William Nickels in 1807, the house epitomizes the brief period when shipbuilding and maritime trade brought wealth and sophisticated tastes to this coastal Maine village.
Jefferson's Embargo that same year devastated the town, sending Wiscasset into an economic decline that would last for years. Nickels' fortune was destroyed. He was forced to sell the mansion to his partner just before he died in 1814. No one wanted such a big house as a private home in those difficult times, so it was sold to an innkeeper. For the next eight-six years, the 30 room mansion served as a hotel, catering to the growing number of summer visitors to Maine's coast.
In 1899, the house was purchased by industrialist and banker Alvin Sortwell, the former mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a summer home for his large family of six children plus their servants. His mother's family had local roots reaching back to the early eighteenth century, and Wiscasset had the water for swimming and boating and the trails for horseback riding and picnics that Alvin wanted for his family retreat.
Mrs. Gertrude Sortwell and her daughter Frances lovingly restored the house over a period of years and
decorated it in the Colonial Revival style with fine antique
furnishings. Frances Sortwell continued to buy and restore numerous houses in the area until the mid-twentieth century. Her legacy of preservation helped make today's Wiscasset one of Maine's most charming historic towns.