In local theatrical history, the Provincetown Playhouse was a landmark second in importance only to Lewis Wharf, 571 Commercial Street, where Eugene O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff was first performed in 1916. (How important? Enough to draw the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, to a performance of Mrs. Warren’s Profession in August 1961.) But in true Provincetown fashion, the structure had more than one use and more than one distinction. As a maritime landmark, it served as the shop in which the surf-cleaving boats of the United States Life Saving Service were perfected, sparing the lives of untold numbers of coast guardsmen, who were as much in peril at a shipwreck as the crew members and passengers they were trying to rescue.
The wharf in question was that of Capt. Charles Cook, 251-253 Commercial Street, and was known as Charley Cook’s Wharf. As was the case up and down the waterfront, an almost barnacle-like accretion of upland buildings grew at the foot of the wharves to service and provision the vessels that tied up there. Behind the noble streetfront building that still stands at 251-253 Commercial Street, there rose a three-story boat-building workshop. Here presided Charles D. Gardner, seen in the photograph above from the 1890s. The vessel beside him is a Race Point surfboat, perfected in this workshop to help the coast guard save lives. It is not entirely clear to me whether Gardner gets credit for the design, whether it was the work of Capt. George H. Bickers, or whether the two worked collaboratively. But what Gardner seemed to have figured out, with the help of a scale model carved of sugar pine, was that if the stern of the point were made more pointed, its surface area would be reduced, and the vessel would offer less resistance to the following wave that seemed to bedevil — and capsize — other surfboats. The marine engineer Earle G. Rich of Wellfleet told the story in an article than can be read in the Scrapbooks of Althea Boxell. Rich’s account doesnt mention Bickers, but he would seem to have been an invaluable ally, as commander of the Wood End Life-Saving Station.
Another famous Provincetown boat builder, Jonathan “Jot” Small, succeeded Gardner at this shop. Small also ran a restaurant known as Jot’s Galley at 490 Commercial. In 1924, Ross Moffett and Heinrich Pfeiffer opened the Provincetown Painting Classes school here. While it only last a season, one of the students in attendance was Jack Tworkov, who accompanied Moffett’s class on a visit to Karl Knath’s studio. Pfeiffer bought the property from Small in the mid-1930s and established his studio in the second floor of the boat shop. He renamed the wharf the Art Colony Wharf. He tried showing open-air movies, but they were rained out so frequently that he asked Jimmy Perry to build a one-story theater adjoining the boat shop. The Artists’ Theatre opened in 1937, showing foreign films. The next year, it adopted the unusual format of alternating art films and “little theater” plays on a single bill.
 Provincetown Playhouse on the Wharf, originally Artists’ Theatre (burned down 1977).  Provincetown Playhouse box office and Eugene O’Neill Museum, now the Julie Heller Gallery.  Provincetown Playhouse costume and set building, formerly boat shop (burned down 1977).  Art Colony Wharf, also known as Jot Small’s Wharf and Charley Cook’s Wharf.  251-253 Commercial Street.  Crown & Anchor parking lot.
In 1940, the Wharf Players Theater at 83 Commercial fell into the harbor during a severe storm and it looked as if the town would be without a serious playhouse. But that year, Pfeiffer turned the management of the Artists’ Theatre over to the New England Repertory Company of Boston, under the direction of Edwin Burr Pettet, with the hope of presenting “the kind of plays which made Provincetown famous in the days of Eugene O’Neill and Susan Glaspell.” (“Artists’ Theatre Will Open July 1 With Fine List of Plays,” The Provincetown Advocate, 29 May 1940.) Pettet’s colleagues were Catherine Huntington, an actor and the publicity director for the repertory company, and Virginia G. Thoms, actor and costume director. The idea was also to establish a small theater school.
The melodrama was off-stage in the winter of 1956 and it was as gripping as anything ever presented on the boards. Huntington and Thoms, the driving forces behind the Provincetown Playhouse, as it had come to be known, fully expected to pay the $12,000 (roughly $100,000 today) that the Pfeiffer family was asking for the theater and wharf. But they only had $6,000 on account on Christmas Eve, when Huntington received a telegram in Boston that the Pfeiffers had just been tendered an offer of $12,000 for the property by a purchaser who wanted to turn it into a gift shop. What followed was an extraordinary civic rescue, beginning with an offer from John C. Van Arsdale, the president of Provincetown-Boston Airlines, to fly Huntington to the Cape at no charge. It was — at the age of ±70 — her first airplane trip. Once in town, she rallied the troops; most importantly, the Seamen’s Savings Bank, which arranged for the necessary financing, despite its being a commercial property. The Provincetown Playhouse was saved. (“New Owners of Wharf Theater; Villain Foiled, Wharf Playhouse Saved as Bank Steps in With Mortgage Loan,” The Provincetown Advocate, 3 January 1957.)
Huntington and Thoms made a point of identifying their summer repertory strongly with O’Neill, even though neither he nor the Provincetown Players were associated with the theater. The playhouse had opened after World War II with Anna Christie. The 1961 season, under the direction of Edward Thommen, began with O’Neill’s The Great God Brown, and included such varied fare as Edward Albee’s The Sandbox, Peter Shaffer’s Five Finger Exercise, Harry Kemp’s Peril of the Moon and Clyde Fitch’s Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines. But it was the performance of a play by George Bernard Shaw on 30 August 1961 that turned out to have been the most memorable (though understated) in the theater’s 40-year history. A contemporary account in The Provincetown Advocate tells it best:
A UMass undergrad named Richard Gere showed up in the late ’60s or early ’70s to spend a summer at the Provincetown Playhouse, appearing in a Tom Stoppard play. His performance attracted the attention of Jonathan Flynn, who was writing theater reviews on Cape Cod at the time. “In the past year he named Richard Gere the best young actor on the Cape for his work in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” Nick Flynn noted in his memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Accounts of Gere’s debut place it varyingly between 1969 and 1971. John Hardy Wright also has Gere appearing opposite Huntington in 1969 in Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real.
Lester and Adele Heller were the next — and last — owners and directors of the Provincetown Playhouse, which they converted in 1973 into an resident Equity company. The Hellers still strongly stressed O’Neill in the repertory and, in fact, opened a Eugene O’Neill Theatre Museum in the shed closest to the water that served as the theater box office. (This building, still standing at 2 Gosnold Street, is now run by their daughter Julie Heller as an art gallery.)
The greatest tragedy of the Provincetown Playhouse unfolded on 25 March 1977, when arsonists set fire to the place. The theater building and adjoining three-story boat shop were completely destroyed, though the small shed and adjoining rest rooms were spared, as was the main wharfhead building on Commercial Street. The Hellers vowed to rebuild — much bigger and much better. In fact, they envisioned an enterprise on a regional scale with a main theater having as many as 500 seats and “ease of movement for the handicapped” (13 years before the Americans With Disabilities Act); a rehearsal hall that could double as a 100-seat experimental theater; a backstage area common to both halls, with rest rooms, that could be used as a classroom, a scenery or costume shop or dressing rooms; front-of-the-house space including a lobby, public rest rooms, box office, administrative office and “ideally” two fireplaces; space for the Eugene O’Neill Archival Center; an all-purpose and all-weather pavilion and, if possible, rooftop solar energy collectors.
This was the brief given to the seven teams of architects who competed in an intense weeklong design charette in November 1977, working shoulder to shoulder in the Flagship dining room, 463 Commercial. (The first thing they did, in consultation with the Hellers, was to reduce the size of the main theater to 399 seats. There was no way to fit a 500-seat hall comfortably on the narrow lot.) The competition was financed in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. After their feverish efforts, a jury headed by I. M. Pei and including Josephine and Salvatore Del Deo announced the results in a ceremony at the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House, 236 Commercial, whose fluted trompe-l’oeil pilasters are unmistakable in the photograph of Pei and Hayes.
William D. Warner of Exeter, R.I., was chosen as the winner, and though his design was described at the time as among the more conservative of those submitted, it has an unquestionable appeal today in what appears to be an artful melding of modern architecture with the language of vernacular waterfront buildings.
“What I really did is a living warehouse,” he told Robert Campbell of The Boston Globe. “Provincetown was the birthplace of the American fishing industry. It had more than 100 piers at one time, long wharves with pitched roofs; the first playhouse was in such a building.” Financing never materialized for this ambitious project but Warner really didn’t need to look back. By the time of his death in 2012 at 83, he had moved the Woonasquatucket, Moshassuck and Providence Rivers from their courses through Providence and created Waterplace Park. The Providence Journal called him the “architect and planner who reshaped much of the downtown.”