Two lively traditions — the theater and the arts — are embodied in this dilapidated but utilitarian shed, exactly the sort of place in which much of the town’s cultural flowering occurred. It has been in the hands of the Heller family since 1972/1973, when Lester Heller (1919-2009) and Adele Heller (d 1997) took over the Provincetown Playhouse on the Wharf, here at 2 Gosnold Street, and converted it into an Equity house. Sadly, they were given little time to implement their vision. Arsonists destroyed the theater and adjoining costume and set shop in 1977, though the box office and Eugene O’Neill Museum (located in this building) survived.
The rudimentary rest rooms, which were squeezed between the box office and the shop, also happened to survive. Undaunted by the disaster, the Hellers set out to rebuild. They organized a regional design competition in the form of a week-long charette in November 1977. The jury was headed by I. M. Pei. The winner, William D. Warner of Rhode Island, went on to a career so prolific that he was known at his death in 2012 as “the architect who reshaped Providence.” But his design for a new Provincetown Playhouse was never realized, for want of financing. The site is today pretty much as it’s been since 1977.
With this one key difference: the Hellers’ daughter, Julie (b 1952), an art historian, turned the old box office and O’Neill museum into one of the most inviting and engaging art galleries in town. Heller specializes in the work of Provincetown artists, so a trip to the gallery can be a virtual history lesson. Paintings hang frame to frame, up and down the walls, or sit on the floor in stacks that invite perusal. An enormous, multi-paned picture window suffuses the room with light. One has the pleasing sense of an unbroken chain stretching from this salon deep into Provincetown’s past.