543 Commercial Street

 
Surfside Hotel and Suites

But that’s not what the people of Provincetown call it. Even those far too young to understand the reference call this double-barreled motel, stretching some 200 feet along both sides of Commercial Street, the “Green Monster.” The construction in 1964 of a four-story commercial structure on the beachfront (a three-story upland companion was to follow) so alarmed the town that a new zoning by-law was quickly enacted — while the motel was under construction, in fact — capping the height of future buildings at two-and-a-half stories, or 35 feet. Opponents of the Surfside even attempted to persuade Barnstable Superior Court to apply the height limit retroactively and compel demolition of the upper part of the motel. That’s how unpopular it was.

The Surfside was developed by Robert W. Roman, operator of the Buccaneer Motel in North Truro, who made a splash in 1962 by acquiring the venerable Seascape House, or Mayo Cottage, at 542 Commercial. The Advocate said at the time, “Mr. Roman expects to run the inn … much as it has been run by the former management.” But not for long. A year later, he sought and obtained permits to build a four-story motel on the beachfront lot opposite Seascape House and to move four buildings from this property down to the end of Bradford Street, No. 324, where Roman was planning to construct the Eastwood Apartments, later called the Eastwood Motor Lodge.

When a rendering of Roman’s Surfside plan was published in The Advocate in late 1963, all hell broke loose. Or, at least, the East End version of all hell. The opponents’ ranks included Philip Alexander, Abe Burrows, Josephine and Salvatore Del Deo, Conrad Malicoat, Ross Moffett, Kurt Ruckstuhl and Suzanne Sinaiko. While they could not stop the Surfside, they managed to amend the zoning by-laws in March 1964 to cap the height of future buildings. Then, they argued in court that Roman had not commenced construction within six months of receiving his building permit, meaning that the Surfside would also have to abide by the height limit. Its third story was already under way when opponents made this appeal.

(It’s interesting to note that the original plan — drawn up by Roman’s daughter, LaVerne Christopher — showed a far greater expanse of breezeway penetrating the hotel structure. Though I’m not an engineer, I find it hard to believe that all of the load of those upper floors could possibly have been carried on such spindly columns.)

Roman eventually prevailed and was able to open what he called the Surfside Arms and Motor Inn, which was originally painted emerald green. The upland parcel, on which the Seascape House stood, was originally one large parking lot all the way to Bradford Street, but Roman soon built a three-story annex. Surfside currently uses the house number 543 as its official address although the lots run from 543 to 545 on the south side and from 540 to 544 on the north side.

An astute article in the Cape Cod Compass of 1965 by Samuel Carter III noted that the fight was ultimately about far more than zoning by-laws. “Where a village has acquired. through its history and architecture, a certain character, how long should it fight to retain that character? That the Surfside Arms may not have abided by the building codes is not the point. The point is, briefly, does it fit?

Roman argued — essentially — that it was not Surfside’s obligation to fit into the old context but rather Provincetown’s obligation to understand that the context had changed. Of his opponents, he said,

They maintain that they want to keep Provincetown as it was 100 years ago, or 150 years ago, or at the time that Thoreau used to wander over the sand dunes. To me, it’s a rather ridiculous viewpoint, for the simple reason that of course, at the time of Thoreau, we had probably a few thousand people on Cape Cod. Today there are many times greater numbers than there were then. And consequently, our conditions and our situation and our economics are completely different from what they were at that time.

It’s a neat little answer but it overlooks the Tragedy of the Commons: were every landowner to act as Roman acted, Commercial Street would most likely have become a strip mall of shopping centers and motels, eventually deprived of exactly the qualities that had drawn visitors in the first place.

As we can see with a half-century’s hindsight, that did not happen. Surfside was not the last motel in town, but it was arguably the last with such a devastating impact on the civic landscape. It has changed ownership over the years and slightly amended its name from time to time, to suit contemporary marketing demands. Now called the Surfside Hotel and Suites, it is run by the Linchris Hotel Corporation of Hanover, Mass., on behalf of a foreign entity known simply as Provincetown Hospitality L.L.C. Elaine Quigley is the general manager.

Today, an entirely different economic pressure is being felt at properties like this, whose owners stand to make a great deal more money from selling off condominium units than from operating a transient accommodation. What looked like a monstrosity to an earlier generation can now be appreciated to some degree as an instrument for democratizing the waterfront. The Surfside made it possible for families of modest means to enjoy at least a few days of living with an aristocrat’s view of Provincetown Harbor. There is value to that, too. And it is part of Provincetown’s character and heritage.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “543 Commercial Street

  1. I personally want to thank-you for your comprehensive coverage of this property. Robert and Florence Roman were my grandparents and my Dad, Donald (Roman) and our family managed the Seascape House before my grandfather developed the Surfside. I was very young and remember vividly the beautiful architecture and décor of what was The Seascape House. Thank-you again

  2. I remember very well the building of the “Green Monster”. It was truly hated. Considered an insult to the residential “east end”.

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