What was it that Mom used to say … “Keep something around long enough and it’s sure to come back into fashion”? (Or was it just, “Keep something around long enough?”) In any case, as unlikely as it would have seemed a few years ago, Provincetown’s old Holiday Inn survived long enough — after an intermediate phase as the Best Inn and the Cape Inn — to be appreciated for a midcentury vibe, permitting its renascence in 2011 as the Harbor Hotel, under the ownership of Finard Properties of Boston and Turnstone Property. “The hotel’s architecture, with its long horizontal lines and abundant glass, allows it to be repositioned as a sleek, stylish resort,” their prospectus said in 2010.
The renovation was designed by Utile of Boston. (A photo portfolio appears on its Web site.) There was no chance of the property being reborn as a Holiday Inn. “The Provincetown market is unique, eclectic and individualistic,” the prospectus continued, “and in this market a branded product, which must comply with homogenous brand specifications, would not appeal to visitors. An independent hotel, however, with its own unique stylistic attributes, will resonate.”
A fascinating twist in the story of this property is that the undeveloped eight-acre tract was acquired in 1957 by Alice Van Arsdale (±1893-1961), the owner and operator of the Breakwater Motel, then only four years old, as a kind of buffer to stave off the opening of any competing business so nearby. Van Arsdale, whose son John ran Provincetown-Boston Airlines and the Provincetown Municipal Airport, bought the land for $16,000 from the Animal Rescue League, which had received it as a bequest from Martha Atkins. At the time of the purchase, Van Arsdale said, “I’m going to try not to build on it.”
Seven years after her death, in 1968, the land was acquired from her estate for $360,000 by Frederick E. Sateriale, doing business as the Beach Point Realty Trust and as the Cape Inn Corporation. Two years later, Sateriale had completed the first phase of construction on the new Holiday Inn: a two-story structure paralleling Commercial Street with 78 guest rooms. In 1974, the back building was constructed, with an additional 61 rooms. According to the prospectus, there were 139 rooms in service as of 2010. Its lobby, restaurant, cocktail lounge, function space, pool and pool bar are licensed for 375 seats, making it an enormous facility by town standards.
In its days as a Holiday Inn, the motel began a tradition of free movie nights that turned out to be a very successful — and appreciated — goodwill gesture. “Every night, an ever-changing group of about 40 locals get together to watch a free movie and eat unlimited popcorn in the Whaler Lounge,” Kim Grant wrote in Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket: An Explorer’s Guide. “Movies aren’t first run, but they haven’t made it to video yet, either.” The Whaler Lounge and movie nights endured through the motel’s transformation into the Best Inn, in the late 1990s, and then the Cape Inn, in the early 2000s. “This waterfront motel is a good choice for first-timers not quite sure what they’re getting into,” Frommer’s Cape Cod said in 2006. “Guests in waterfront rooms get a nice view of town, along with free movies in the restaurant/lounge.”
Movie night turned out to be such an important local institution — “almost the only source of regular entertainment for year-rounders during the desolate winter,” Pru Sowers wrote in The Banner — that when the new owners appeared before the Licensing Board in 2010, Sowers continued, “the first thing board members asked about was the fate of the free movie, even though it had no bearing on the application before them.” (Pru Sowers, “Free Movie Tradition Soon to Be a Thing of the Past in Provincetown?”, The Banner/Wicked Local, 16 November 2010.)
“By showing a movie every night, we lose the bar,” Jerry Hall, the new general manager, said in July 2010, a month after the owners had purchased the motel from the Sateriale family for $5.1 million. “If you’re a guest and paying $200 a night, you can’t get a drink without everybody saying, ‘Shush.’ Do you do movie night for 35 people when you have 300 people in the hotel? It’s very popular but with a limited clientele. You have to be careful the tail isn’t wagging the dog.” (Pru Sowers, “Provincetown’s Cape Inn Slated for Facelift,” The Banner/Wicked Local, 16 July 2010.)
Sateriale had considered converting the Cape Inn to condominium ownership in 2006. He wound up selling to a group of investors including William G. Finard, Todd B. Finard and Robert L. Hughes of Finard Proerties; Robert M. Thomas of Turnstone Property; and Gary L. Avigne of Coventry Hotel Associates.
Reborn in 2011, the Harbor Hotel quickly won a designation in Boston Magazine‘s Best of Boston annual ranking as the best boutique hotel on Cape Cod: “Shady motor inns might be quintessential Cape Cod, but we don’t have to like ’em. So we’re thrilled to see the old Cape Inn reborn as the Harbor Hotel, with a mod new look and superb amenities.” The tail, it should be said, wound up remaining on the dog. As the Harbor Web site notes: “An indoor fireplace, pool table and free movies make the Whaler Lounge an ideal destination when the temps get cool.”