571 Commercial Street

Katharine and John Dos Passos House

The home at what was the foot of the old Lewis Wharf has considerable historic interest of its own. Like the wharf, this upland property was owned by Mary Heaton Vorse. It consisted of a small house, which Vorse called the Arequipa, and an even smaller fish shed to the west. Until the 1920s, when Lewis Wharf was destroyed by “fire and ice and the sea,” it had been Vorse’s hope to move there one day from her home at 466 Commercial. “Now that the wharf was gone,” she recalled, I wanted to live on the Arequipa when the children were grown up.”

But by 1928, Vorse’s hopes had turned to despair. The wreck of the wharf had left the small house exposed to the sea’s fury. A new bulkhead had already been destroyed. “The Arequipa was now defenseless,” she wrote. “Days when there would be an easterly I would think, ‘Well, if the tide changes in time, all right; if it doesn’t, good-by Arequipa.’ … Besides that, we had no money and I didn’t see any way I could make money.” So she sold it to people whom she loved and trusted: Katharine “Katie” Smith (1894-1947) and her brother Bill. “By joining the two buildings and lifting it,” Vorse said, “they made a magnificent dwelling of it, which they called Smooley Hall.” Smooley was the mashup name of a group of friends: the Smith siblings, Stella Roof and Edith (Foley) Shay.

The next year, 1929, Katharine married the novelist and journalist John Dos Passos (1896-1970), who had by then written [at least?] one of the novels that would eventually compose his U.S.A. trilogy. She was herself a writer and the co-author, with Edith Shay, of Down Cape Cod (1936). Of Provincetown, they said:

“Narrow, foreign-looking streets; crowded houses; a wildly diverse population of old-time Yankees, Portuguese fishermen, actors, artists, tourists, sailors; easels jostling gay umbrellas on the beaches; wharves made over into night clubs, fish sheds into studios; shops of all kinds; tearooms and restaurants; caravans, trucks and an endless stream of cars — all make a curious spectacle for the Pilgrim Monument to look down upon.”

From 1929 to 1947, Katharine and John Dos Passos divided their time between the former Arequipa cottage and a farm in Warsaw, Va., to which they were headed from the Cape on the evening of 12 September 1947. Shortly after 6 o’clock, the coupe that he was driving hit a parked truck in Wareham. She was killed, and his face was so badly injured that his right eye had to be removed, though he lived another 23 years. The house was owned in the 1950s and ’60s by Benjamin Sonnenberg, the peerless public-relations agent from New York. His daughter, Helen Tucker, also used this house. More recently, it was home to the artist Mary Kass.

On the harborside facade hang two carved bargeboards from a resort called “Delight,” which sat at the turn of Commercial Street, at 113 Commercial, until the 1940s.








One thought on “571 Commercial Street

  1. I was told that my Grandfather, Burris A Jenkins, jr. co-owned a house in Provincetown with John Dos Passos, but that my aunt had accidentally burned it down. Would have been 1940’s ish. Could this be the house? The story could have been convoluted over the years.

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