This sentiment is not likely to win me any friends in the preservation community but I think the renovation of No. 615 is a successful work of contemporary architecture. That isn’t to say it’s unobjectionable. For starters, it’s too damn big; not, perhaps, as a matter of law but certainly when seen from the water amidst the old cottages around it. The designer who blew this little Cape into a large box, Donald Kline (±1933-2009), was not known for respecting historical scale and context. (He was the “Hopper Landscape” builder in Truro.) But a 2006 re-renovation by Stephen A. Magliocco Associates, for Stephen M. Mindich and retired Judge Maria Lopez, yielded a more sophisticated facade, asymmetrical yet balanced. It’s refreshingly happy proof that you don’t need gabled roofs and louvered shutters to produce contextual architecture on Commercial Street. And this is contextual architecture. It may not look like other houses nearby, but it couldn’t be anywhere else. It’s too much a cabana to have a place in the city, too much a townhouse to have a place in a beachfront resort. It’s a thoughtful response to Provincetown’s perennially mixed signals. There. I said it.
Helen M. Norcross, the heiress presumptive to the Norcross greeting card fortune, bought the property in 1962 of Alice Fleming Smith. She owned it for 14 years, during which time she learned — upon the death of her father, Arthur D. Norcross, in December 1969 — that she was heir to all of $35,000 and a Manhattan townhouse. The bulk of his $8 million estate was bequeathed to the Norcross Wildlife Foundation. Kline bought the house in 1976, renovated it and sold it 22 years later to an entity called At the Beach Trust; in actuality, Mindich and Judge Lopez.
Lopez was born in Havana in 1953 and, as an eight-year-old, fled with her family to the United States after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. While attending Smith College in the 1970s, she visited Provincetown for the first time. She earned her law degree from Boston University and in 1988 became the first Latina appointed a judge in a Massachusetts trial court. After 15 years on the bench, she resigned in 2003 after a courtroom video system recorded her outburst at a prosecutor. From 2006 to 2008, she appeared as “Judge Maria Lopez” in a nationally syndicated TV show. Now affiliated with the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, she is working on a memoir.
Mindich (b 1943), a graduate of Boston University’s School of Theatre, was studying at the B.U. School of Public Communication in 1966, serving as the first arts and entertainment critic-reporter-interviewer for WBUR-FM (which is licensed to B.U.), and working as a writer and theater critic for Boston After Dark, a free weekly newspaper devoted to the arts. “I became an ad salesman out of necessity,” he told me, “to both keep the then-4-to-12-page publication afloat and earn some additional income.” Mindich acquired a stake in the paper that grew by 1979 to 100 percent of the company. Boston After Dark bought The Cambridge Phoenix in 1972 and was renamed The Boston Phoenix. Over time, the Phoenix Media/Communications Group, of which Mindich is publisher and chairman, acquired or started newspapers in Providence, Portland and Worcester. In 1983, it launched WFNX-FM, “an intelligent rock-and-roll music radio station,” in Mindich’s words. He sold the FM license to Clear Channel in 2012, though WFNX continues on the Web.
A description of the scope of work contained in the minutes of the Historic District Commission gives an idea how much of a change Lopez and Mindich and Magliocco envisioned at No. 615: “replace existing windows and skylights, install selective new windows, replace clapboards with shingles, modify existing front entry portico, replace existing railing at second floor deck, modify existing roof parapet, replace existing roof, replace existing decking, install fence/wall at front and add shallow projection on west elevation for interior elevator enclosure with roof head house.”
You read that right. “Elevator.” An article in the September 2011 issue of Cape Cod Magazine, “Judicious Spaces,” by Laurel Kornhiser, elaborated.
“‘Before, the roof deck was almost inaccessible,’ says Magliocco, pointing out that the original access was via a narrow, twisting staircase in the master bedroom. ‘Now with the elevator, it is easy to get up to the deck, and it is easier to get things up to every floor.'”
The only element of the application that the commission turned down was the fence. And that was all for the good. Part of what makes 615 Commercial contextual is that it presents a very public face to the town. It is not shrouded, separated, secret, private and gated. This is the Provincetown way at its best: open yourself to your neighbors, even — especially — if you’re different.