599 Commercial Street

This is the house that Abercrombie & Fitch built — or at least raised several feet further into the air. For a time, 599 Commercial Street was owned by Michael S. Jeffries (b 1944), the chief executive officer of Abercrombie, who was credited in a 2006 profile by Benoit Denizet-Lewis on Salon with having transformed the company “from a struggling retailer of ‘fuddy-duddy clothes’ into the most dominant and imitated lifestyle-based brand for young men in America” by “celebrating young men in their teens and early ’20s with smooth, gym-toned bodies and perfectly coifed hair.” And what could better illustrate the changes that have come to Provincetown than to note that a half century earlier, this had been the home of Dr. Clara M. Thompson (1893-1958), one of the leading psychoanalysts of her time and a cofounder, with Erich Fromm and others, of the William Alanson White Institute? Its headquarters, in a handsome rowhouse at 20 West 74th Street in Manhattan, is named the Clara Thompson Building.

By its own description, the White Institute “is best known in the profession for the ‘interpersonal’ point of view, developed in response to the prevailing notion of the distant, formal, ‘blank screen’ analyst who is devoid of human presence in the treatment relationship. … The interpersonal approach underscores the human qualities of the psychoanalyst as a factor in therapeutic change. By emphasizing the relationship with the patient, psychoanalysts at the institute have made pioneering contributions to the treatment of profoundly disturbed patients.”

On graduating from the Women’s College in Brown University (Brown’s version of Radcliffe or Barnard), Thompson faced a choice between marriage or the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine; her fiancé did not want a doctor for a wife, Meghan George wrote on Psychology’s Feminist Voices in 2011. She chose medical school and specialized in psychiatry, then spent two summers in analysis with Sandor Ferenczi in Budapest and remained closely allied with him until his death in 1933. Ten years later, she helped found the White Institue. “In the early days of feminism, she was considering the effects of culture and personality development on women,” George wrote. “Her work brought attention to women in society, and women within a therapeutic context. She set the tone for research in the field.”

In 1942, at about the time the seeds were sown for the White Institute, Thompson purchased 599 Commercial from Nathaniel and Florence Foster. It was in this house on 17 September 1958 that the artist Henry Major died. Major was a longtime friend of Thompson’s, though he had left his native Hungary three years before she arrived in Budapest. It is not clear from the account in The Advocate whether she was treating him in her capacity as an M.D. that day. Major and Thompson are buried near one another in Town Cemetery.

Jeffries, together with Matthew C. G. Smith, bought 599 Commercial from Howard A. “Howie” Schneider in 1999. Schneider (1930-2007), was a cartoonist, sculptor and illustrator who had created the comic strip “Eek and Meek.”

At the time of the purchase, the new Abercrombie was going at full steam, with ever-rising sales figures and profit margins, for which Jeffries was given a considerable amount of credit. The next year, Jeffries and Smith applied to the Zoning Board of Appeals for permission to renovate the existing house and actually elevate it almost five feet above its original height, a request that considerably elevated the abutters’ and neighbors’ blood pressure. The request was granted. Neighbors were incensed by much else about the renovation, as the author Peter Manso details in the comment below.

Through Provident Investments, Jeffries sold the house in 2004 as sales were slumping at Abercrombie and some of the lustre was beginning to drain from his stewardship. The purchaser was Elizabeth Villari.

[Updated 2012-07-01]





2 thoughts on “599 Commercial Street

  1. Howie Schneider was the nationally syndicated creator of the cartoon strip, “Eek and Meek.” Fleeing New York City in the early 70s, he purchased 599 from Philip Malicoat, the well-known painter who’d been gifted the house by Clara T.

    What was especially troubling to neighbors about the purchase of the place by “Abercrombie and Bitch,” as Jeffries and his partner became known to straight and gay neighbors alike, is that they not only destroyed the original sail-loft structure in which Eugene O’Neill lived during the last half of the summer of 1916, but their first summer in the place they entertained morning, noon and night, with the result that the cops “had to be called some 16 times during the first six weeks …

    “They installed a hand-burnished hot tub on the water side and trucked in 20-foot-high saplings from Ohio for a ‘hate fence’ to bypass then-existing zoning regs limiting fences to six-feet in height, and so outrageous was this that abutters staged a sit-down in the middle of Commercial Street in order to halt delivery that was, finally, completed only months later after the owners brought in more lawyers to challenge the stop-work order that longtime locals thought they’d put into place.”

    All in all, the Jeffries project altered what had traditionally been one of the most vibrant, original and artistic neighborhoods in town, and at the time respresented for many “the new Ptown.”

    Worst of all, Jeffries and his partner were gone within a season or two. In their wake, they not only left their philistine handiwork but neighbors, many of them older folks living on fixed incomes, found that Jeffries’ experiment — so pointedly meant for Architectural Digest — had resulted in a 30-to-40-percent, across-the-board increase in their annual real-estate tax.

  2. This wasn’t a renovation, it was a complete demolition. Sadly, no one who has occupied it since, whether owner or renter, has had any knowledge or curiosity about the property’s fascinating past. I work next door – this is how I know. So far, I’ve been met by glazed eyes or polite feigned interest (accompanied by fidgeting) when I’ve attempted to tell anyone there about it!

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