577 Commercial Street

John Francis Apartments (Francis’s Flats)

It’s never been easy for creative souls to afford Provincetown. But John A. Francis (±1873-1937) — who ran the Country Store and an insurance and real estate business — tried to make it easier by offering apartments to them at deeply discounted rents. “How many struggling painters and writers John A. Francis helped keep alive during their early days will never be known,” The Advocate said in its 1937 obituary. “Some achieved fame, others oblivion, but it seems that their benefactor never tried to figure it out in advance.” (“Provincetown Pays Tribute to Benefactor of Artists,” The Provincetown Advocate, 26 August 1937.) He was perhaps the most beloved man in town.

Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953), stayed here before he and his second wife, Agnes Boulton (1893-1968), moved to the old Peaked Hill Bars Life-Saving Station in 1919. Four ceiling beams in their flat are inscribed — tradition has it in O’Neill’s own hand — with lines evidently based on Light on the Path (1895), by the theosophist Mabel Collins:

Before the eyes can see, they must be incapable of tears!
Before the ear can hear, it must have lost it’s sensitiveness!
Before the voice can speak, it must have lost the power to wound!
Before the soul can fly, it’s wings must be washed in the blood of the heart!

In her memoir, Part of a Long Story (1958), Boulton refers to the rafter inscription when she recalls studying them in the summer of 1918: “There came an interval of quiet, broken only by the flapping of the shades as the breeze from the sea blew through the rooms. There was nothing to do now but wait for Gene to wake up. I sat there, relaxed, looking at words that he had painted in red and black on the rafters;

“Before the eye can see it must know blindness. Before the ear can hear it must be deaf to the noise of the world: before the heart can learn to love it must have know the agony of emptiness ….

“I had read them before but I did not know where. The Upanishads? No, that was not it. I tried hard to remember where the quotation came from, thinking I would tell Gene I remembered it.”

Obviously, these words differ from those in the rafters. Did Boulton mis-remember, 40 years after the fact? Was the text changed subsequently? And why is it white, not red or black? Come to think of it, why is it not the original text?

Before the eyes can see, they must be incapable of tears. Before the ear can hear, it must have lost its sensitiveness. Before the voice can speak in the presence of the Masters it must have lost the power to wound. Before the soul can stand in the presence of the Masters its feet must be washed in the blood of the heart.

The building is unusually large because it was originally a sail loft. It was known in the 1930s as the White House; always as the John Francis Apartments or as Francis’s Flats. It also gained the nickname “Garbage Gables,” according to one account, “from the solemn procession of artists who took out their garbage — mostly bottles and cans — on Sunday after a long weekend of partying.” (“Roz Roose, 90,” The Banner, 17 March 2005.) Besides the main house, there was a smaller building on the waterside called the Sunbeam Cottage.

The newspaperman G. William “Bill” Steele (d 1946) of the International News Service in New York, who once had a column called Cape Cod-dities in The Advocate, and his wife, Thea (Busch) Steele, the research assistant to Dr. Frederick S. Hammett, lived in the O’Neill apartment. Other residents of the building over time included the painter Edwin Dickinson (1891-1978) and the writer Josef Berger (1903-1971), who was — as Jeremiah Digges — the pseudonymous author of Cape Cod Pilot and In Great Waters. A longtime tenant was the children’s book illustrator Inez “Nez” Hogan (1895-1973). And of course, where deeply discounted rents were found, Harry Kemp, the Poet of the Dunes (1883-1960), could not be too far behind. It was Kemp who led what seems to have been the first effort to permanently memorialize O’Neill at this address, with a bronze plaque. He worked on the campaign in 1955 with the help of Rose “Sunny” (Savage) Tasha.

Francis’s Flats were extensively overhauled in the early 1970s, yielding a “posh, skylighted apartment of artists’ studios and psychiatrists’ offices — a sign of the times in Provincetown,” wrote Donald Wood in Cape Cod, A Guide (1973). One of the psychiatrists he may have been referring to was Dr. Lawrence J. Roose, who began summering here in the 1950s with his wife, Roz (±1915-2005), who had studied at the Art Students League. The Rooses gave a cocktail party for 60 in August 1956 during which the balcony began falling off the building. “Fortunately,” The Advocate reported, “the guests, most of them, by long experience prepared for any Provincetown vagary, took the matter in stride, edged over to the windows and climbed to more substantial footing.”


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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