Arguably the most magisterial of the East End homes, 554 Commercial Street looks as if a head of government might be housed there. And, in a way, he was. Justice Robert A. Welsh of the Second District Court of Barnstable from 1933 to 1973 — the law in these parts for two score years, as were his father before him and his son to follow — bought this property in 1936.
The three-generation Welsh dynasty at the Barnstable County bench began in 1914 with Robert Welsh’s father, Walter, namesake of the Walter Welsh Council of the Knights of Columbus, at 277 Commercial Street. His sister, Beatrice, owned the lovely little ornate beachfront cottage at 415 Commercial. Robert Welsh succeeded to his father’s position in 1933, at which time the district court still convened in Provincetown, before it moved to Orleans.
“He was a powerful figure in the community and his supporters are equally as numerous as his detractors,” Josephine Del Deo wrote in 1976. “He had a biting, down-to-earth approach to the judgeship and is known to have rebuked former U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle when a now-famous obscenity trial was being conducted here in the ’60s.” That is almost certain a reference to the trial of William V. Ward, of 423 Commercial, for printing and selling a short story by Hubert Selby Jr. that became the basis of Last Exit to Brooklyn. Despite the testimony of Stanley Kunitz, Norman Podhoretz and Jason Epstein, Welsh fined Ward $1,000 (nearly $8,000 today). The fine was eventually overturned, as was the entire prosecution of the case.
Welsh was no stranger to celebrity, as his son Robert A. Welsh Jr. recalled when he stepped down from the Orleans bench after service that stretched from 1973 to 2008. “It was my dad who was blessed with a lot of funny, well-known people in his court, in his days,” the younger Welsh said. “Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Gregory Peck. I missed all that.” (Robert Phelps, “Man of the People,” The Banner, 21 February 2008.)
In 1965, the property passed from Alma D. Welsh to Richard B. Higgins and Ralph E. Travis Jr. (±1930-2007), partners since the early 1950s. Travis had been associate director of alumni for the Harvard Medical School at the time of his retirement.