April 2013. What a bittersweet moment to be writing about P.H.S. Bitter because, after 164 years, secondary education in town is about to end. Sweet because of the spirit, dignity and pluck shown by the eight young women of the Class of 2013 as they bring this important era to a close.
“I watched my cousins, my sisters and brother graduate from Provincetown High School,” 17-year-old Katie Silva told Mary Ann Bragg of The Cape Cod Times in September 2012. “And I wasn’t about to pass up that opportunity.” In April 2010, the school committee had voted — reluctantly but unanimously — to phase out the school. At the time, Peter P. Grosso (b 1945), the committee chairman and the father of two P.H.S. alumni, said: “I never thought I would see this day. But we’ve just been fighting the numbers. It’s just not going to work.”
Truth be told, the numbers had been stacking up against the school long before the plug was pulled. Rising costs and declining enrollment seemed to be in a self-fulfilling spiral, making it ever tougher to attract new students, even students who lived in town, within walking distance of 12 Winslow Street. Quietly — because they knew they were flying in the face of proud tradition — skeptical taxpayers had begun to question the wisdom of subsidizing secondary education on such an uneconomic scale.
But P.H.S. was not an institution to be trifled with. Generation after generation, it had graduated the sons and daughters of hardscrabble Provincetown with the implicit promise that their lives could be richer and more fulfilling than those of their parents. After the severely limited circumstances of coastal Portugal or the Azores or Cape Verde, Provincetown High must have seemed to be the key to the American dream.
It even looked like a schoolhouse; a great red-brick Colonial Revival school house. It could be mistaken for nothing else, with its monumental distyle portico topped by a four-foot clock and Lamps of Knowledge. Provincetown High was more than an academic symbol, however. It was an emblem of the year-round town, of the place in which children were raised to stay and raise more children in turn. And this wasn’t some hazy, romantic past. The year of its peak enrollment was 1967, according to The Cape Cod Times, when the senior class had 53 students; students who were only in their early 60s by the time the decision was reached to close the school. (Mary Ann Bragg, “Provincetown High Opens for Classes for Last Time,” The Cape Cod Times, 8 September 2012.)
If there is good news in all this, it is that Provincetown High School itself will neither be demolished nor transformed into high-priced condominium apartments. In fact, it’s going to continue to serve as a school, for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
There had been no question about the need for a new high school when it was built. On 26 March 1930, the old high school, which stood virtually on this spot, was consumed in a fire that was spread by the wind all the way to the Center Methodist Church (now the Public Library). The town acted with extraordinary alacrity to replace the structure, while the Classes of 1930 and 1931 completed their studies at the Governor Bradford School, 44 Bradford Street. The new building committee was headed by Dr. E. A. DeWager. Judge Robert Welsh served as secretary. Other members included E. D. Crowell, Charles A. Harris (the superintendent of schools), Jesse D. Rogers, Manuel E. Silva and William F. Silva.
William Herbert McClean, the Boston architect who designed Provincetown High, specialized in school and library buildings, which he almost always rendered with neo-Classical or Colonial Revival styling. Alone or in practice with Albert Hayden Wright (as McLean & Wright), his office simply churned them out. McLean and Wright designed at least five schools in Quincy alone, as well as high schools in Acushnet, Bourne, Charlton, Concord and Middleborough. The contractor was Frank A. Days Jr., of F. A. Days & Sons, whose portrait was still hanging conspicuously at the school in the early 21st century.
At its dedication in September 1931, Days noted that the building weighed 5,000 tons — not that anybody was in a position to double-check. From the outset, the building was intended to serve both junior high and high school classes. When it opened, the enrollment was about 350 students. The auditorium could accommodate more than 500 people, The Provincetown Advocate stated. There was a 1,000-volume reference library and a gymnasium. Henry Hensche donated two of his paintings. The budget for the building was $162,000 (about $2.5 million in today’s dollars). “The room for manual training has benches for 16 boys,” The Advocate reported, “while the domestic science room contains an electric stove, a coal range, two gas stoves, washing machine, and is designed to teach girls every phase of household duty.” World War II had a tremendous impact on Provincetown High, as did on high schools and colleges nationwide. Eight members of the Class of 1943, for instance, were in active military duty even before they had graduated. Five alumni lost their lives: Jesse Arnold Silva, John Joseph Thomas, Mathew August Gregory, James Joseph Holmes and Cleveland Crosby Woodward.
It wasn’t until after the war, in 1947, that one of the first significant improvement projects was begun at the school. The artists John W. “Jack” Beauchamp (1906-1957), who had studied with Richard Miller, John Whorf and others, and Frederick C. “Fritz” Fuglister, who worked at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, were commissioned to paint murals depicting town history. They included the landing of the Pilgrims and fishermen in a dory.
As early as the mid-1950s, the gymnasium had reached a point of such decrepitude that the Fishermen were having a tough time persuading opponents to come to Provincetown. A study conducted by William Cabral in 1956 concluded that the gym was deficient in its size, its locker-room accommodations, its shower rooms, its seating and its storage space. (Other than that, it was just perfect.) After another eight years elapsed, a new gym, vocational school, library and classroom building began to take form on what had been the Grace Hall parking lot. Within a few years of its completion, P.H.S. was at its peak.
Thirty years later, the handwriting was on the wall. Provincetown was rapidly becoming a different place. Most obvious, and perhaps most often cited, was the growth of the gay and lesbian population at a time when same-sex partners, even those in longterm relationships, were typically forgoing child rearing or were being frustrated in their efforts to adopt or conceive. Less obvious, but arguably even more profound, was the shift in home ownership. For much of the 20th century, homes tended to stay within families, passed from one generation to the next. As property values and property taxes escalated, it made much more economic sense for families to divide their parcels into condominium units and sell the slices to out-of-towners eager for a toehold in this beautiful place. Whether the buyers were straight or gay, however, they weren’t choosing to live in Provincetown year-round, nor certainly to bring up kids here. As the rolls of property owners grew, the number of full-time residents — and prospective students — declined.
In 2009, the unwanted future came into clearer focus when talks were begun about the creation of a regional school district on the Outer Cape, centered on Nauset Regional High School in North Eastham. But there were many in town who could not bring themselves to face that prospect; among them, Carrie Notaro, a member of the school committee: “When I’m in the Stop & Shop and someone comes up to me and says the school is closing, I say, ‘No, it’s not.’ It’s not closing, plain and simple. If you continue feeding the negativity, you will continue the negativity.” But Jeanmarie Kaeslau said she felt obliged to send her eighth-grader to Nauset, given the rapidly declining school population in town. “How healthy is it for my son to stay here with two children in his class?” she asked. “It’s not a snowball. It’s an avalanche.” (Pru Sowers, “Provincetown School Committee Doesn’t Act on High School Closing Report,” The Provincetown Banner/Wicked Local, 14 April 2010; Pru Sowers, “An Achingly Difficult Decision Is Made is Provincetown,” The Provincetown Banner/Wicked Local, 28 April 2010.)
For its parting legacy, the Class of 2013 worked with David McGlothlin on the History Project, an elective course of independent study in which they were to chart the influence of P.H.S. and its graduates on town life and the remarkably close bonds between students and faculty that were permitted, in part, because the school was so small. Their work was to go on public display at the end of April 2013 in a marvelous affirmation of a school spirit that could not be extinguished. Rather than turn their backs on history, the last graduates of Provincetown High School embraced it, even as they joined the history books themselves.
• Assessor’s Online Database ¶ Posted 2013-04-18