492-494 Commercial Street

Former Eastern School House | Schoolhouse Gallery | ArtStrand | WOMR

Thirty or forty years before the notion of “adaptive reuse” gained currency in the preservation movement, the Eastern School was adaptively reused. Again. And again. And again. It has a remarkable track record of community service, made even more astonishing by the fact that is one of the few extant buidings in Provincetown that were mentioned by Henry David Thoreau in Cape Cod: “Notwithstanding all this sand, we counted three meeting-houses and four school-houses nearly as large.” The Eastern School was constructed in 1844, along with the Western School on Tremont Street and the Central School at 126 Bradford Street, both now demolished. Each served three grades. “These schools were furnished with blackboards, maps, globes and all the latest appliances for education in that day, and were considered models,” Nancy W. Paine Smith wrote in The Provincetown Book.

The Eastern School operated for nearly 90 years, until 1931, when its students — first through fourth graders — were transferred to Central and Western. (First to close but last to remain standing.) About five years later, a movement was begun under Charles H. Hapgood to convert the abandoned school house into the Community Center. The plan faced opposition, Mary Heaton Vorse said, because it was unprecedented and, to one critic’s ears, sounded Communistic. Vorse credited Hapgood with bringing together Yankees and Portuguese, summer and winter residents, and Catholic and Protestants with “political sleight of hand and great patience,” to assemble the broad constituency needed for this social experiment. In Time and the Town (1942), she made clear how highly she regarded the center:

“A little while ago this was an empty, tumble-down building, rapidly falling apart. … The children in Provincetown before this had no place to play winters, when the beach is too cold.

“After the Center came, every game from dominoes and checkers to basketball and table tennis were played. There was at last a rival to the poolroom. They even had their own pool table.

“In one room the boys made ship models and learned to build boats under the direction of one of the best small-boat-builders in the country. In another room the band practiced. There were several bands, from the harmonica band for the little boys up to the swing band.

“There is no livelier place in town than the Center evenings. There are dances for enlisted men, classes for defense and first aid. It justifies itself every night of its existence.”

Even as she wrote, a group of businessmen was advancing a plan to lease the school house to a shirt manufacturer for 10 years, at $5 a year. It was proposed that such a highly subsidized rent could induce a factory operator to hire as many as 100 workers on a year-round basis. In an editorial on 21 May 1942, The Advocate scoffed at the economic analysis, suggesting that even a nominal rent could not possibly overcome the other competitive disadvantages of a clothing mill at land’s end, that the only way a factory would work financially would be to offer the barest wages. “Our Community Center is something to which every one of us can point with pride, not because it is a thing of beauty, or equipped with the most modern of facilities. Neither is true and far from it. But it is the product of the work and ingenuity of our Cape Cod children whom we would now toss out and put in a — sweatshop.”

The factory proposal died on the vine. Instead, in 1943, the third chapter of Eastern’s community life began in July 1943 when it opened as the Servicemen’s Center. For the rest of World War II, it served about 1,000 service members each month. Music, recreation and refreshments were offered. There were cots, too, for those passing through overnight.

After the war, there was considerable agitation in favor of tearing down the century-old building but the Morris-Light Post No. 71 of the American Legion secured its use. It became the town’s American Legion Hall, in its fourth tour of duty. During the Legion’s occupancy, in 1957, the bell tower — undoubtedly badly weakened after more than a century of exposure — was taken down by Jimmy Silva. The bell itself, which The Advocate said had been cast in Boston by Henry N. Hooper & Company in 1855, was carted off to Delft Haven. I wonder whether it’s the same bell as the one that now hangs at the end of the pier at the Masthead Resort, 31-41 Commercial Street, which cast by Hooper in 1856.

In 1957, the Legionnaires rented space in the hall to the artists Leo Manso (1914-1993) and Victor Candell (1903-1977), who established the Provincetown Workshop, a summer school of painting and drawing — incarnation No. 5 for the Eastern School House. That lasted until 1976 when Candell grew ill. Manso, who had by now joined the faculty of the Art Students League in New York, “noticed that he was no longer getting enough serious students, who were driven away by the increasingly high costs of summer rentals,” Christopher Busa wrote, in “Long Point Gallery: Thirteen Ways of Looking at an Artist, Provincetown Arts (Volume 7, 1991).

Yet his lease still had some time to run. So was born the Long Point Gallery, the sixth new use for the school house. This was an artists’ co-operative gallery, founded by Manso and a dozen other men and women, almost all in their 50s or older: Varujan Boghosian (b 1926), Fritz Bultman (1919-1985), Carmen Cicero (b 1926), Sideo Fromboluti (b 1920), Edward Giobbi (b 1926), Budd Hopkins (1931-2011), Robert Motherwell (1915-1991), Paul Resika (b 1928), Judith Rothschild (1922-1993), Sidney Simon (1917-1997), Nora Speyer (b 1923) and Tony Vevers (1926-2008). “In forming the gallery,” Busa wrote, “the artists agreed to limit membership to artists of distinction who were committed to living at least part of the year on the Lower Cape. They agreed that they were forming the gallery to satisfy their own needs for sharing their art with an audience of their peers. … They agreed to try to work within limits and not go over the $500 assessment charged each artist. … They agreed they would not only show themselves, but would show ‘good will’ and ‘be open’ by extending invitations to show to other artists in the community. They agreed to disagree.” Its directors from 1977 to 1991 were Rick Librizzi, Edys Hunter, Elizabeth O’Donnell, Robert Gill and Mary Abell.

The gallery was called Long Point, Busa said, in the mistaken belief that this was the school house that had been floated over from the Long Point settlement. (That structure stood at 329 Commercial Street until it was burned down in 1949.) There was also a Rising Tides Gallery in the building.

The seventh new life began in 1997 when Howard G. “David” Davis III purchased the property from the Morris-Light Post. He refurbished and reopened it in June 1998 as the Schoolhouse Center, a cultural complex under one roof. The main front room was the Driskell Gallery, devoted to photography and named for the artist Kevin Driskell, who died of AIDS in 1997; the main rear room was the Silas-Kenyon Gallery, for painting and visual arts; and upstairs were the Schoolhouse Studios. To announce the arrival of the Schoolhouse Center on the skyline, Davis commissioned Binder Boland Associates to design a new bell tower to replace the one been taken down in 1957. (Stories that it was lost to the Portland Gale of 1898 — romantic as they may be — are disproved by photos like the one below, taken in 1946.) The entire 10,200 pound structure was assembled in an adjacent parking lot and then, to the delight of hundreds of onlookers, hoisted into place on a sparkling day in July 1998. “This beats what we often stand around and watch in this town,” Selectman Cheryl Andrews said. The new bell was also named for Driskell. (Alix Ritchie, “Bell Tower Rings a Note From the Past,” The Banner, 23 July 1998.)

In 2003, the Eastern’s eighth life began when it was purchased from Davis by Lower Cape Communications, which runs the nonprofit, commercial-free stations WOMR —outermost community radio — in Provincetown, at 92.1 FM, and WFMR — furthermost community radio — in Orleans, at 91.3 FM. WOMR was hatched conceptually in 1976 and took to the air in 1982, broadcasting at 1000 watts. In 1995, it moved to its current position on the FM dial and boosted its signal to 6000 watts. Mike Carroll took over as director of the Schoolhouse Gallery in 2006 and added a Design Store. ArtStrand — an artists’ gallery owned by Bailey Bob Bailey, Paul Bowen, Breon Dunigan, Maryalice Johnston, Francis Olschafskie, Jim Peters, Anna Poor and Bert Yarborough — moved here from 53 Bradford Street.










One thought on “492-494 Commercial Street

  1. OMG I have learned so much more that I would ever realize from this article. I am so honored to be part of WOMR .. / WFMR ..

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