Former Provincetown Drop-In Center
The Drop-In Center, a free, communal medical clinic and counseling center aimed at helping Provincetown’s burgeoning underground community in the early 1970s, lasted only a decade. But its impact was tremendous. It divided old Provincetown from emerging Provincetown, sometimes bitterly, and was itself swept away as the town continued to change, from a hippie free-for-all into a manicured gay resort. The Drop-In was both a harbinger and a lightning rod. Most important, it undoubtedly saved many vulnerable lives. (Its staff is shown here in a 1979 photo.) None of that is legible in the building of today, for 6 Gosnold is — as it was built — a comfortable large home in physical form.
Capt. Russell Knox Elliott (1817-1857), who was married to Olive Wadsworth Cook (1818-1907), was the builder of the house, in 1840. I believe the home remained in the family for the next 109 years, because Mabel Elliott Day (±1875-1949), the longtime owner, was the daughter of a Dr. Russell Elliott of Boston and, The Advocate reported at her death, the granddaughter of Provincetown natives.
Mrs. Day stunned the town when her will was probated in the winter of 1949, for she had given her real property to Provincetown for use as a public library or the site of a new library, to replace the Freeman Building, 330 Commercial, which was even then showing its age. In all, The Advocate reported, her bequest encompassed a 10,000-square-foot lot, a two-and-a-half-story house with a modern heating system, a two-car garage and a well landscaped lawn. The property was then assessed at nearly $10,000 — the equivalent today of more than $95,000. The news “came as a complete surprise to the Board of Selectmen on Friday morning and Chairman Irving S. Rogers expressed himself as a amazed and delighted with the town’s good fortune.” Be careful what you wish for.
Rather than opening a new era of culture on Gosnold Street, Mrs. Day’s gift set off a three-year battle, as one claimant after the next stepped up to propose a better way to dispose of 6 Gosnold than as a library building. Even Harvard College, as another beneficiary of Mrs. Day’s will, jumped into the fray. (It retained a fee interest in the property until 1984.) Matters were not settled until 1952, when the selectmen gave the American Red Cross of Cape Cod permission to use 6 Gosnold as a Red Cross canteen, which had previously operated out of the Central School House, 126 Bradford Street. So it remained until at least 1967, but it was abandoned some time before 1970 and had begun falling into ruin.
Meanwhile, the need for a drop-in clinic and counseling center had been growing increasingly urgent. And the town’s aging and enfeebled general practitioner, Dr. Daniel Hiebert, was no match for the challenge. As Peter Manso recalled the period in Ptown: Art, Sex and Money on the Outer Cape (2002):
Like Berkeley and Woodstock, Provincetown was in the forefront of the ‘cultural revolution.’ Fifteen- and 16-year-old kids with babies in papoose backpacks were wandering the streets; there were run-aways with rotting teeth, unkempt middle-aged alcoholics babbling to themselves out on the town pier, ambulatory schizophrenics hanging out at the bars when everybody knew they should have been in institutions. For years, local services for handling ‘social cases’ had been marginal. Hiebert, who died in 1972, was on his last legs but even in his prime he wouldn’t have known how to handle a drug overdose.
An embryonic organization, Rap Port, formed in 1970. It had provisionally been granted use of the old Red Cross Canteen. But discussions with officials broke off when Town Manager Michael Botelho insisted as conditions that a three-person panel (one from his office, one from the Red Cross and one from Rap Port) be given the power to veto any program at the center and that the town be given the authority to evict the center on 30 days’ notice if it was “in the public interest.” Angered at these demands, a splinter group established the Drop-In Center.
Its advisory board included the Rev. Stephen Smith of the United Methodist Church on Shank Painter Road, where the program was developing; and Patti Cozzi, the wife of the restaurateur Ciro Cozzi, who had worked with Dr. Hiebert and had a keen sense of how acute the needs were. “We had to do it,” she told Manso. “There were all kinds of problems, but mainly a lot of hard-core addicts, and they were our number one priority. The town was doing nothing except putting these kids in jail, which was no good at all, since a lot of them were seriously sick.”
The Drop-In Center opened 1 January 1971 at 146 Commercial Street (now the Red Square Store). Among the services offered were a free medical clinic; information on pregnancy, drug use and other health issues; a 24-hour suicide hotline; and counseling about the military draft (the Vietnam War was on), drug abuse, housing, employment and welfare benefits. These were not exactly the town fathers’ ideas of a lofty use of publicly owned space, but the center finally secured 6 Gosnold, Manso wrote, by appealing directly to the regional Red Cross in Boston.
Such ambitious programming was unsustainable financially in the long run, especially since it was dependent solely on private philanthropy. According to Manso, the double-edged sword that brought the center down was its plan to renovate the space to qualify for a state license, which would in turn have qualified it for public grants. However, the expensive undertaking only drove the center deeper into the hole and, despite tremendous efforts to save it by Cozzi; by the program coordinator, Jay Critchley; and by many others, it closed on 11 January 1980.
Four years later, the town and the President and Fellows of Harvard College sold 6 Gosnold to Christopher B. Fleming, Robert M. Galford and Richard J. Kaitz. They sold it a year later to John R. Drews (1931-2005) and John P. Bygott. Drews was an executive at McMillen, an interior design and decoration firm in New York. He renovated the house and reopened it 1990 as an inn called the Captain Russell Knox Elliott House. It continued to operate through the early 2000s. The building was sold to Nicholas Calabrese in 2007.