Though other venues occasionally rival or eclipse it in popularity, notoriety or renown, the Atlantic House has been — amazingly enough — a nexus of nightlife in Provincetown for more than half a century, ever since it was purchased in 1949 by the Cabral family, which continues to own it. April Cabral-Pitzner, one of Reginald W. Cabral’s daughters, is the current proprietor. The A-House is on almost every gay visitor’s first-time itinerary, whether he comes back a second time or not. And while most patrons probably have more urgent matters than civic history on their minds when they step into one of the three bars here, it also happens that this one of the longest-lived establishments in town. Even if you don’t remember much the next morning, this is still a place rich in memories. Imagine, for instance, the summer of 1955, when Billie Holiday, Eartha Kitt and Ella Fitzgerald, the First Lady of Song, all headlined in the Cabaret Room within a month of one another. (Could most jazz clubs on West 52nd Street have made such a boast?) Oh, yes; on the other week that August, the legendary drummer Gene Krupa topped the bill.
Like so much of early Provincetown history, the tale of the Atlantic House is clouded in some confusion. Imprecise contemporary accounts, absence of records, failing recollections and wishful thinking all play a role. As best as I can reconstruct it, the oldest of the buildings is not the big hotel structure that turns up in all the picture postcards, but the more modest house on the south — 4 Masonic Place — to which the hotel is connected by a one-story intermediate annex. This was built in 1798, according to the Provincetown Historical Association’s 1982 Walking Tour No. 1: The Center of Provincetown. (To orient yourself, the 1798 wing is the structure that houses both the Little Bar downstairs, formerly the Tap Room, and the Macho Bar on the second floor, formerly the Carriage Room.)
The larger hotel structure at 6 Masonic Place, with the deep front porch outside and the Dance Club inside — also known as the Big Room; formerly the Cabaret Room — was built in 1812, according to the Walking Tour, or the 1830s, according to a detailed history that appeared in The Provincetown Advocate on 6 April 1939, after the hotel suffered major damage in a fire following an oil stove explosion. The newspaper account says the hotel was founded by Thomas Lothrop and opened as Lothrop’s Inn on the site at 2 Masonic Place where King Hiram’s Lodge would later rise. Indeed, the 1835 map reproduced avove shows two abutting structures, forming a nearly closed square, at that corner, between Lothrop’s house on Prince Street and his wharf.
Both accounts agree that the hotel, whatever its name, served as the terminus for the stage-coach service that preceded arrival of the Old Colony Railraod, though the Walking Tour said the coach went up-cape only as far as Orleans, while The Advocate said that it ran all the way to Boston, explaining why the “flips” served by Lothrop (a heated mixture of rum or brandy with beer and sugar) were so much in demand when travelers arrived in town. Agreeing with the blue-and-white plaque on the hotel itself, the Walking Tour said the structure was also used as a courthouse, where circuit judges would periodically hear local complaints. The hotel building was moved during Lothrop’s proprietorship from the corner to its present location, in order to accommodate construction of the Masonic lodge, the newspaper said.
Following Lothrop, the hotel was briefly called the Globe House and had a “huge golden ball glittering at its entrance,” according to The Advocate. (“Fire Causes $15,000 Damage in Famous Atlantic House,” The Provincetown Advocate, 6 April 1939.) Under the subsequent proprietorship of David Allstrum, it was next known as the Allstrum House.
Francis P. Smith (d 1918) followed Allstrum in 1871 and immediately gave the establishment its present name — at least, its present spelled-out name. “Under Mr. Smith’s management from Civil War times through the ’80s, the Atlantic House entered a new period of prosperity,” The Advocate said, especially after the opening of the railroad in 1873. The Old Colony passenger depot, 132 Bradford Street, was not far away.
Ira Gilbert Iris (±1884-1948), who took over the hotel with his brother in 1916 and ran it for the next 32 years, was described in his Advocate obituary as a “colorful personality with a wide acquaintance among Provincetown visitors.” It was reported during Iris’s tenure that the Atlantic House had 35 rooms. Among his guests in the early years was Eugene O’Neill, who stayed at the Atlantic House in 1917 and 1918 as the Great War played out not at all distantly. (Cape Cod saw more than its share of German U-boats. No fisherman whose vessel had been torpedoed by an enemy submarine doubted that this was a world war.) Strangers in town were held innately suspect. And when they walked out on the dunes every day, as O’Neill and a friend did, their behavior caused alarm.
The painter Ross Moffett related the story in his memoir, Art in Narrow Streets:
We heard that two ‘spies’ had been arrested at teh point of a gun in the dining room of the Atlantic House. Evidence against the suspects seemed conclusive, for, rumor had it, the men had definitely carted into the dunes a black box, beyond much doubt containing an apparatus for signaling to the Kaiser’s men. Later it turned out the black box held nothing more worthy of suspicion than a Corona typewriter, and that one of the suspects was Eugene O’Neill, whom we then knew of as an obscure writer of one-act plays.
It is said — and a plaque on the building so declares it — that O’Neill wrote the plays Ile, The Moon of the Caribbees, The Long Voyage Home and In the Zone while staying at the Atlantic House. It also said that Tennessee Williams finished The Glass Menagerie here. Without denying that possibility categorically, David Kaplan deflated it gently in Tennessee Williams in Provincetown, saying: “Other Provincetown sites claim that distinction, too. The A-House has a tradition as a hotbed for apocrypha.”
Its tradition as an entertainment venue can be traced to the 1940s, when the impresario Julius Monk (1912-1995) began staging summertime revues in the Cabaret Room with a troupe that most famously included Imogene Coca (1908-2001), who would go on to national celebrity a few years later playing opposite Sid Caesar on NBC’s Saturday night entertainment program, Your Show of Shows.
Beginning with the 1950 season, the level of entertainment and the quality of the décor at the Atlantic House were kicked up many notches by Reginald W. Cabral (1923-1996). In 1949, he took over the business, together with Frank J. Hurst Jr., who was married to his sister, Halcyone “Caffie” (Cabral) Hurst (±1922-1999). In 1952, they introduced the Tattooed Lady, whose head and shoulders were visible in the prow of a dory over the bar. The female figure, attributed to Peter Hunt, can still be seen at the A-House. In 1954, working with Peter Rocheteau, they transformed the second floor of 4 Masonic Place into the Carriage Room. Its central space was nearly two stories high and included a loft in which a metal-and-wood horse and buggy were placed. The next year, 1955, they added a brick fireplace to the Tap Room, downstairs at No. 4.
The jazz vocalist Stella Brooks (1910-2002) was the first notable act of the Cabral years. One evening, Cabral recalled, Tennessee Williams wrote out some impromptu lyrics for Brooks on a little pad that he carried around. She sang them near the end of her show the next night: “Yours eyes are lighted windows, there’s a party going on inside. Your mouth’s a roller coaster and baby, I’m about to take a ride.” (Mary Klein, “For Reggie Cabral, Provincetown Memories Are Full of Jazz,” The Sunday Cape Cod Times, 12 December 1976.)
It was in the summer of 1955 that Cabral scored the astonishing coup of presenting three of America’s greatest singers in less than a month. Twenty years later, it was clear that Billie Holiday (1915-1959) had left the biggest impact. “She outdrew anybody who ever played the Atlantic House,” Cabral told Mary Klein of The Cape Cod Times, “and we had paid her the least of what we paid anyone of any known status.” In her losing battle with addiction, Holiday had lost the cabaret card that permitted her to perform in New York City, but she was only a year away from her celebrated appearance at Carnegie Hall. Cabral recalled her coming to town with her gowns thrown over her arm and everything else in a paper bag. On arrival at the Atlantic House, she first demanded a bottle of gin. But, Cabral said, “When she got on stage she was absolutely glamorous.”
The celebrities weren’t confined to the stage, either. Cabral cultivated the patronage of some of Provincetown’s most famous artists, sometimes excusing overdue bar tabs in exchange for their work. “By the time some of his customers had struggled their way through to success as Mark Rothko, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers and Franz Kline, Mr. Cabral had assembled the core of an important collection,” Robert McG. Thomas Jr. wrote in Cabral’s New York Times obituary (22 August 1996). He also commissioned murals for the Atlantic House from James Wingate Parr (1923-1969).
The presence of such characters gave the establishment the feeling of a “seaside combination of the Café du Dôme in Paris and the Cedar Tavern and the Algonquin Hotel in New York — full of jazz and soon-to-be-famous artists and writers,” Mel Gussow wrote in The New York Times of 19 July 1998. Jazz came into its own at the Atlantic House in the 1960s, when the Cabaret Room at 6 Masonic Place was renamed the Big Room. Here, patrons could attend performances by Miles Davis (1926-1991), Gerry Mulligan (1927-1996) and John Haley “Zoot” Sims (1925-1985)
That’s not to say Cabral had an infallible touch as impresario. Years later, he confessed, “I do remember — and remember very well — a girl who I would not hire, who bothered me, who was a drag. … She was always there because she was always looking for that break. She was always there in case somebody got sick and couldn’t show and she was there to be on stage. She was very kooky.” Luckily for Barbra Streisand, she was still able to find work eventually.
Though the Bohemian vibe at the A-House never presented much of an obstacle to gay patrons, Cabral made a much more open appeal for their custom beginning in 1976, Peter Manso wrote in Ptown: Art, Sex and Money on the Outer Cape, inspired in part by the success that the Crown & Anchor was having in cultivating a gay clientele. The Carriage Room became the Macho Bar, about which the A-House Web site says: “This dark sensual room comes complete with a cage and is a popular hang-out for those into the leather, Levi or uniform scene.” The Tap Room became the Little Bar, “where locals and tourists gather together and socialize. A popular meeting place before dinner, after dinner or just to hang out all night. Open daily at noon.” And the Big Room became the Dance Club: “State-of-the-art lighting and sound mixed in with an old nautical feel makes for the perfect experience in this historical fishing village.”
Michael Cunningham offered a more lyrical assessment in Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown:
It is imbued, as older bars tend to be, with sex and disappointment — it is sexy in a damp, well-used way; it occupies a locus where sex, optimism and disappointment meet. All that desire, much of it fierce or wistful or frustrated, night after night, has insinuated itself as deeply as the smell of spilled beer. You can have a wonderful time at the A-House, but it has always reminded me of Orpheus’s descent to search for Eurydice among the shades. It has a furtive aspect, especially as you move away from the dance floor into the deeper darks. This is not entirely disagreeable — why, after all, should the site of so much hope and yearning be cheerful? — but it is unmistakably haunted, the way battlefields are haunted.