586 Commercial Street

Ship’s Bell Condominium

Eleanor Roosevelt slept here. And not before or after, either, but while she was First Lady. This little-known episode, long overshadowed by the stories of Jacqueline Kennedy’s evening visit in 1961, occurred on Tuesday, 1 October 1940. It was a very grim moment in world affairs that seemed to point ever more inevitably to global war: Germany, Japan and Italy had just days earlier signed the tripartite agreement creating the Axis. And the presidential election was only a month away. Roosevelt, The Advocate reported, had come to Provincetown for a “short respite … from telephones, turmoil and other distractions.” The First Lady was accompanied only by her private secretary, Malvina “Tommy” Thompson, and was at the wheel herself as they drove up to the Colonial Inn around five o’clock.

Because a young employee of the inn saw to them, Marjorie Pell Oliver, the proprietor of the Colonial, didn’t know at first that the First Lady was among her lodgers that evening. (And times being what they were, and Provincetown being what it was, it’s hard to imagine Oliver being too much impressed by the fact.) Roosevelt and Thompson enjoyed a dinner at the Flagship, then went to the telegraph office to send off several messages. It was only during breakfast at the Colonial Inn that Roosevelt evidenced an unspoken concern. “When the morning Boston papers were handed to her,” The Advocate reported, “she turned, not to the political situation, but to the latest news of the war.”

The Colonial Inn was opened by Oliver and her husband, Joseph, in the 1930s. Not long after Roosevelt’s visit, the dining room was redecorated by Peter Hunt, who held a dinner party there in August 1942 to honor the opera star Lily Pons. In the 1960s, the restaurant was known as S’il Vous Plait. The Olivers’ very successful business was expanded to include an annex at 603 Commercial Street called the Colonial Inn Beach House. The Olivers lived in the waterside property, which also included the Driftwood Room lounge and nightclub. Designed by the painter George Yater, it opened in 1953. What was the Colonial Inn Beach House remains a transient accommodation, now called the Watermark Inn.

Mrs. Oliver sold the property in 1960 to Raymond Smeraldo of Morristown, N.J. He reopened the dining room in 1962 as the Colonial Inn Restaurant. The property was re-divided in 1967 when Smeraldo sold the beach house to his son and daughter-in-law. They continued to operate under the name Colonial Inn. Meanwhile, the older Smeraldo and his wife, Clara, offered accommodations in the main house at No. 586, but now under the name Ship’s Bell Inn and Motel, the name under which it is still known as a condominium. Eric Dray, former chairman of the Provincetown Historical Commission and a lecturer in American and New England studies in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Boston University, was involved in the redevelopment of the property.

[Updated 2012-07-04]





4 thoughts on “586 Commercial Street

  1. Marjorie Pell Oliver’s sister was Shirley Pell Yater, who married artist George Yater and had two children: David (oldest) and Marjorie Ellen. Marjorie Oliver was always very supportive of her sister and her Bohemian life. For several winters, the Yaters lived at the rear of the Colonial Inn in an apartment on Bradford Street. I remember watching George painting at his easel in the living room. In the summers, they moved to “Garbage Gables.”

    I was always shocked that David and Marjorie Ellen called their parents by their first names.

    Everyone would search the woods for the perfect Christmas tree during the holidays — always an all-day project. George would cut a few trees, hack off the branches and fashion the perfect tree out of the remainders. No one bought trees during the ’40s.

    Marjorie Oliver put on the most elegant cocktail parties in town and was known for her costumed New Year’s Eve party, held at the seaside Colonial Inn. We neighborhood children would peer in the windows at all the elegance and wildness going on.

    Marjorie, at that time, was separated/divorced from Joe Oliver, the ultimate town Lothario. Marjorie had two beautifully cared-for Irish setters (she had no children with Joe) and a platonic relationship with a rather flamboyant male friend. The theme of her Christmas cards were the two gorgeous dogs, with enormous red bows.

    After the sale of the Colonial Inn, Marjorie moved to Frederiksted, Virgin Islands, and opened a restaurant. Shirley, George and family followed — as usual — and that area became his theme. I worked for Marjorie for a short while before moving on to Christiansted, where the action was (??).

    Living, platonically, with Marjorie was certainly an experience. She would take me to lunch in Christiansted dressed to the hilt and glittering with diamonds. Everyone kowtowed to her, thinking she was an eccentric American millionaire; and there were lots of them living there them. Not sure how people perceived my role, but I didn’t really care. Eccentric, yet wonderful. Not sure about the millionaire part.

    I had to leave the islands. Too much fun!!

  2. I agree with Mike.
    Why was the former Town Manager, Bill McNulty, and his wife, both staunch members of the community, and owners of Ships Bell left out of the historical discussion?
    A little bias here?

    • No bias at all. There just hasn’t been the chance yet to expand the entry and improve the scope of coverage over the very old version you’re seeing here. Eventually, a much fuller article will appear, more like these, on Building Provincetown 2020.

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