Around the neighborhood, this magnificently situated “cottage” has long been known as the Fabian house — after its owners, Dr. Abraham A. Fabian (d 1958) and Dr. Alice E. Fabian (d 1993). But around the world, it would be much more quickly recognized as the “Cape Light house,” since it is the cover photograph of the groundbreaking 1978 portfolio of color photography by Joel Meyerowitz. Not only is the Fabian house shown on the cover, it is featured a half dozen times within the book, including a most memorable picture — Porch Lightning (1977) — of a lightning strike on the harbor viewed from within the warmly sheltered enclosure of the ample front porch.
Nothing about its siting and design should be taken as merely a happy accident, because this house was constructed for an artist, Florence Waterbury (1883-1968). So we may be sure that every vista and angle was closely considered. It’s more difficult to say whether Waterbury intended to be as generous to the public as she was, but the act of wrapping the porch around to take advantage of the western views — as well as the southern ones — gave passersby a delicious glimpse at what is otherwise a very private enclave. The photograph of the porch columns at the top of this entry was taken from the sidewalk.
Waterbury bought the property in 1915 from Matilda M. Perry, who was one of the largest landowners of the East End at the turn of the 20th century. Among her many other properties were 657 Commercial Street and 663 Commercial Street. Construction began on the house in 1917, as this short item in The Advocate attests: “Miss Florence Waterbury arrived Saturday by motor car from her New York home, in the interests of the studio that is to be constructed here for her by F. A. Days & Co.”
Florence Waterbury is a fascinating and somewhat elusive figure (at least at this stage of cursory research). She is reminiscent in certain ways of the painter Russell Cheney, who was almost her exact contemporary: both came from monied families, both were interested in Chinese art, both painted landscapes and still lifes, both enjoyed some early critical and popular success on the New York art scene (they were, in fact, both represented at one time or another by the famous Montross Gallery), both then retreated to spectacular waterfront cottages on the New England coast. Cheney was also gay. What can we say of Miss Waterbury, who never married?
Her father, John I. Waterbury, was president of the Manhattan Trust Company of New York. She grew up in Morrisville, N.J. In 1915, the year she bought this property, Waterbury exhibited a still life, otherwise untitled, in the inaugural show of the Provincetown Art Association at Town Hall. She was a regular exhibitor for many years and was among the noteworthy sponsors in 1939 of a $50,000 capital campaign ($825,000 in 2012) to build a new fireproof gallery wing in honor of Charles W. Hawthorne.
In New York, Waterbury — described in The Times as a “young society woman” — had her first solo exhibition in 1922 at the Art Centre on East 56th Street, a show so popular that its run was extended. By 1924, she had traveled to China and, in The Advocate‘s words, studied with a “noted native teacher” there. At the venerable Montross Gallery on Fifth Avenue, a 1924 exhibition of her Asian-influenced paintings, particularly those of religious figures, drew the appreciative notice of The New York Times. Her rendering of a bas-relief priestess from Angkor Wat, the newspaper said, “reproduces the mysterious, pitying smile of an Oriental deity.”
Waterbury sold the property in 1956 to the Drs. Fabian, a husband-and-wife team of psychiatrists who added further distinction to the East End as a hotbed of mental health. (Dr. Clara M. Thompson at 599 Commercial, Dr. Bernard C. Meyer at 637 Commercial, Dr. Paul Lowinger at 655 Commercial, Dr. Norman E. Zinberg at 661 Commercial.) The Fabians lived at 53 West Ninth Street in New York. He was a practicing psychoanalyst and clinical professor of psychiatry at the State University of New York College of Medicine in Brooklyn (now the SUNY Downstate Medical Center) who died at the age of 48, shortly after the birth of their daughter, Lisa. Alice Fabian continued to live and practice in their Ninth Street home and here at 665 Commercial, taking a new husband, David Lind, in 1962.
Sadly, Dr. Fabian’s last years seemed to have been especially troubled ones, as she herself battled mental demons and recorded that struggle in her journals. In 1994, after Dr. Fabian died, a Swedish artist named Ann-Sofi Sidén was granted access to the Ninth Street home and office for the purpose of making a kind of interpretive documentary and artwork, QM, I Think I Shall Call Her QM, completed in 1997. BMJ (the British Medical Journal) described it as a “catalogue of Fabian’s paranoia — of laser beams, electricity and passers-by interfering with her thoughts — a desperate voice articulating bewilderment and trying to regain control.”
The Fabians’ daughter, Lisa Fabian Lustigman, is of counsel to the international law firm Withers, in its London office. Her biographical note on the firm’s Web site says that she “focuses on all aspects of private family law, including divorce, financial disputes, children and cohabitation cases and jurisdictional issues, with an emphasis on complex financial and children issues.” She continues to own her parents’ home, maintaining it immaculately and renting it out as “the most famous house in Provincetown,” which is a bold claim but not an unreasonable one, thanks to Meyerowitz and Cape Light.