501-503 Commercial Street

 
Ice House Condominiums (Former Consolidated Weir Company Cold Storage Plant)

Unlovely. Ungainly. Unimaginably large, by local standards. But still, the Ice House embodies one of the more important lessons that architecture has to teach about town history. It is the only one remaining of the seven enormous cold storage plants that once lined the waterfront, giving Provincetown an unmistakably industrial quality that most painters and photographers seemed to have excised from their frames in favor of colorful trap boats and draggers.

The story of the Consolidated begins with William Irving Atwood (1859-1933), a Provincetown native whose parents were John Atwood and Rebecca Miller (Nickerson) Atwood, through whom he could claim Mayflower ancestry. In 1873, he joined his father in the firm of Atwood & Company, a commission house in Boston that dealt with Provincetown fishermen. He opened the Consolidated Weir Company in 1900 and, in 1907, constructed this five-story freezer. At least one worker died during the project when he fell through a scuttle. The Consolidated was built like a factory, not a large shed. Its heavy, solid concrete frame had masonry infill walls; a detail that would make it easier to convert years later into residential use. Atwood returned from Boston in 1922 to take full charge of the plant as president, general manager and treasurer. (“William I. Atwood,” The Advocate, 17 August 1933.)

In one of the archival photographs below, showing the interior of the plant with the fish arrayed in shallow pans, note that one solid block of frozen fish has been stood on edge.

The Consolidated originally used a steam-driven heat absorption system. After the company went bankrupt in 1938 and was acquired — as were so many Provincetown operations — by the enormous Atlantic Coast Fisheries Company combine, an electric-powered compression system was installed. Some time in the 1950s, the freezer was used for the storage of cranberries instead of fish. That changed with its acquisition in 1957 by Henry B. W. Snelling, a Boston Brahmin who was also president of the Plymouth Bay Packing Company of North Truro. Snelling said at the time that he would restore freezer’s upper four stories to use by the fishing industry, while retaining the retail ice business that had been started on the ground floor. But the cold storage business wouldn’t even last another decade.

Gary Ross acquired the building in 1964 with a view toward residential conversion, a process that took nearly 20 years, all in. Under a variance granted in 1965, Ross first converted the three-story west wing of the plant into eight apartments. But in 1970, he ran out of money for the more ambitious plan of converting the main building. At that point, Munroe Moore led a fight to have the town acquire the property and turn it into a playground. Further fights lay ahead. The developer Albert Hartheimer acquired an option on the property in 1975, envisioning 33 apartments in the main building. A year later, the town declared a moratorium on large-scale developments, limiting the construction of new apartments to four a year on any property. Warm debate ensued over whether the ban covered the Ice House retroactively. The Zoning Appeals Board denied Hartheimer’s application and Ross took the town to court, finally accepting the decision in a 1979 settlement. The next approach, in 1982, called for 22 apartments.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 thoughts on “501-503 Commercial Street

  1. Hello,
    So excited to see your new book and we were excited to read the Ice House paragraph. Just one small correction to the above, it was the east side of the Ice House that was developed in to 8 apartments, not the west side.
    Also, Gary Ross didn’t “run out of money” for development of the apartments at the Ice House. He was, at that time, ready for retirement and changed his focus to other projects.
    I am Molly Ross’ niece, and in discussions with her we decided to send you these comments. Looking forward to the publication of your new book, the photos look wonderful and it will be fun to see the history of each house. Thanks so much

    • Thank you so much. I’ll make that correction. And I so enjoyed meeting your Aunt Molly here in New York a couple of years ago. Please send her my best wishes.

  2. A small book ‘When the Whale Came to My Town’ by Jim Young, shows a beached whale directly in front of the cold storage building. About 1958. Me, my siblings and most of the neighborhood children are standing in the cold to await a boat, strong men,(and a rising tide ) that would tow the leviathan to deeper water. I remember my dad telling us that the on shore wind would bring it back to our beach. Which it did. This plan took several days to work, much to our delight.
    Although no one can see my face in the photo, I recognise the hand knit hat my mother always made for me, and many small details identifying other people that I knew well. Paula Tasha

    • An absolutely lovely story, Paula. Thank you. I’m a proud owner of that book, and now I’ll always think of you.

  3. Back in the early 1970’s my father, with our family, rented what was most recently a frame shop with apartment, next door to the ice house. We rented from “John”, the owner of that little house next door. My dad sold his watercolor paintings from that storefront. At the time, I was a little boy and remember the largely antiquated ice house structure. I used to climb atop the bulkhead from time to time. I remember only one person who I think lived in one of those apartments. He was another little boy named “Joaquim”. I last visited in around 1999. In part, I was in search of my father’s watercolor paintings. My father, Eugene Gayner, passed about 18 months ago. He has many other paintings that I would consider parting with for display in Provincetown. There are several of the wharf, that he preferred over much of his other work. Considering your connection to the area, I was hoping you could make a recommendation. I am most interested in the paintings not being stored and on display for us and his grandchildren to visit. Thank you

  4. my husband and I moved to P-town in 1974.We were young and had no idea where we would find an apt in ptown. We were driving by the ice house, saw a sign with apartment for rent and walked up to the trailer on the property where molly and gary ross lived. We rented the 2nd floor apt for the winter and come summer we worked out a deal with gary for the front sudio apt. In the fall and winter we agreed to caretake and rent out any weekend tourist visits. My husband was(is) a carpenter and we again worked out a deal where we would renovate the 3rd floor into an apt. above the existing apts that were finished. By himself he knocked out reinforced concrete for months and months. It was all cement and we had to enter from the back to get upstairs. We had a cooler for food and that was it. Gary put in electricity and I was excited to have a hotplate. It took one year to construct a livingroom with shiplap flooring, bedroom and a kitchen and bath. All partially completed.My husband built the stairs going up to the 3rd floor. Just him and a helper. They lasted over 30 years. They were recently replaced but kept our footprint..The rest of the apt. would have been an additional 2 bedrooms and bath. We never did get to finish it. We were there almost 5 years but the rosses decided since we had done the hardest part of the construction they wanted to break our agreement. Needless to say we landed up in court. We have some great memories there and when I drive by I always think of them.
    Now it is the luxury penthouse we had started .

  5. Back in the spring of 1970 I met Gary Ross.He had been hired to demolish the building but because of the concrete construction he decided to buy the building a nd convert it to apartments.I had a shop on Commercial st.and volunteered to help with some construction and stayed in the 1st floor apartment.I believe I was the 1st tenent.The view overlooking the bay was awesome.This is my first look at what it has become since my stay in 1970.I still have Gary’s business card from his demolition days in N.Y.
    Many fond memories.

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