621 Commercial Street

 
It is nowhere recorded that anyone walking home on the night of 15 July 1915 from the cottage being rented by Hutchins Hapgood (1869-1944) and Neith Boyce (1872-1951) said to anyone else, “Well, now, that sure was interesting: watching the birth of an important and far-reaching movement in the American theater.” Indeed, Boyce apologized to her father-in-law for even bringing up the subject of staging two short plays that night in the living room and on the veranda. “I wish I had more interesting things to tell you,” she wrote, referring to the event that would soon be known as the birth of the Provincetown Players.

 

In the sprawling complex of 621-623 Commercial, the Hapgood-Boyce residence (later the Bissell Cottage) was what is now the western beachfront building (outlined above in yellow). There was then, as there is now, a streetfront building on the same lot. But given Boyce’s reference to the view of the sea, it’s clear that she and Hapgood enjoyed an unobstructed panorama. As quoted by Linda Ben-Zvi in Susan Glaspell: Her Life and Times, Boyce told her father-in-law:

“You will be amused to hear that I made my first appearance on the stage Thursday night!! I have been storring up the people here to write and act some short plays. We began the season with one of mine. Bobby Jones staged it on our veranda. The colors were orange and yellow against the sea. We gave it at 10 o’clock at night and really it was lovely — the scene, I mean. I have been mightily complimented on my acting!!!”

The evening’s first offering of a two-play bill was, as Boyce said, her little farce, The Faithful Lover (later titled Constancy). It was a thinly disguised retelling of the affair between Mabel Dodge and John Reed in which Boyce played Mabel (Moira) and Joe O’Brien — Mr. Mary Heaton Vorse — played Reed (Rex). The porch served as the stage, the living room as auditorium. The second play presented that evening was Susan Glaspell’s comedy Suppressed Desires, starring Glaspell and George Cram “Jig” Cook. Now, the auditorium was the porch and the playgoers watched the action take place in the living room.

No one yet called this merry little troupe the Provincetown Players, but that is exactly what they were about to become, with Eugene O’Neill waiting in the wings.

By the 1930s, this was known as the Bissell Cottage, under the proprietorship of John Bissell. In the mid-1950s, under Hawthorne Bissell, it was called the Cast Anchor Guest House and it served as the eastern front of a crosstown Cast Anchor empire that also included the tennis courts now known as the Herring Cove Tennis Club, 21 Bradford Street Extension.

Its latest incarnation, as the home and studio of the painter Anne Newcomb (Locke) Packard (b 1933), stretches back 35 years to her return to Provincetown in 1977. Packard is a granddaughter of the painter Max Bohm, through her mother, Kathryn Esther (Bohm) Locke. She had five children with George Packard: Stephen (b ±1956), Cynthia (b 1958), Leslie (b 1959), Michael and Susan. Tragically, in 1974, 18-year-old Stephen disappeared with his girlfriend in mountainous Mendocino County, California. They were never heard from again.

In the monograph, Anne Packard Book: Introspective, David Michaelis recalled being a teenager next door to the family in the mid- to late 1970s. “To a neighbor like Bob Motherwell, as Anne recalled it, ‘I was this barefoot woman with all these kids and no money who lived down the street who painted all these paintings that he liked.”

“You didn’t find Anne Packard having an exhibition of her summer’s work at the end of the season to show everyone what she’d been up to. She simply hung her paintings on a large piece of plywood that teetered against a split-rail fence alongside Commercial Street. … Mystery and fascination surrounded them; the Packards were like old-fashioned outlaws. They had energy, flair, bravado, charm; and they were generous and kindly and sexy, in part because they created their own laws, their own society.”

Today, Cynthia Packard is a painter in her own right, as is Leslie, who also runs the Packard Gallery at 418 Commercial Street. Susan Packard works [?] at the Provincetown Public Library. Anne Packard, still active and engaged, spoke of her Cape Cod landscapes with an interviewer in 2009. “The boats, the old cottages; these are my vehicle. These are not portraits of boats. It’s the sense it gives you. That’s what I try to capture.” (Susan Rand Brown, “Anne Packard Surveys the Grand View,” The Banner/Wicked Local, 30 August 2009.)


 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “621 Commercial Street

  1. I used to take piano lessons with Hawthorne Bissell in the front room. Stormy days were always interesting, with the waves splashing up and over the deck. I also took tennis lessons from him on the West End clay courts.

    He was a true Renaissance man and he and wife Betty were quite the eccentric couple. (What else is new in Provincetown and that East End hornet’s nest of creativity?)

    Hawthorne also played a mean flamenco guitar and, I believe, taught instrumental music in the Provincetown schools for a while. I also remember weekly square dancing at the West End Tennis Club. My favorite partner of the time was (Dr.) Janet Whelan. Maybe this was put together to complete with the East End Yacht and Tennis Club “ballroom” dances sponsored by ballet teacher Christine Foster and Ione Walker, which I also attended.

  2. Mark Rothko, A Biography by James E. B. Breslin, on page 493 states “In early July 1968………………….The Rothko’s rented a cottage at 621 Commercial Street…………….Rothko rented a double garage a few blocks away, where he began painting again,…………………”

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