The Pilgrim House did not accommodate the first visitors, for whom it was named. But it did open for business around 1810 and counted Henry David Thoreau among its guests. (Not an especially satisfied guest, as a page from his 1857 journal makes amusingly clear.) The original structure, set so far back from the street that there was room for a gazebo or bandstand in its front yard, might have dated to the late 1700s. Though much transformed, it managed to last until October 1990, when it was destroyed in a four-alarm blaze that required more than 100 firefighters from seven Cape towns to extinguish and injured more than a dozen people.
The house was purchased in 1810 by Benjamin Gifford to be run as a hostelry. The wife of the seller, Phineas Nickerson, was so opposed to the idea of letting go of this that she wished openly that it would be destroyed by an earthquake. “Singularly enough, one did happen, which shook and rattled the dishes and did a slight amount of damage to the building,” Herman A. Jennings wrote in Provincetown, Or Odds and Ends from the Tip End (1890). From Benjamin Gifford, the property passed in 1847 to his son, James Gifford, who also owned the Gifford House, 9-11 Carver Street. The younger Gifford, Jennings reports, “made large and extensive alterations and improvements.”
Not enough to satisfy Thoreau, however. Sharp-eyed readers with keen memories may recall that Thoreau passed up the Pilgrim House on his first trip to Provincetown, recorded famously in Cape Cod: “There we put at Fuller’s Hotel, passing by the Pilgrim House as too high for us (we learned afterward that we need not have been so particular).” He would return, however, and on 21 June 1857 spent a memorably awful night there:
“At the Pilgrim House, though it was not crowded, they put me into a small attic chamber which had two double beds in it and only one window, high in a corner, 20½ inches by 25½, in the alcove when it was swung open, and it required a chair to look out conveniently. Fortunately it was not a cold night and the window could be kept open, though at the risk of being visited by the cats, which appear to swarm on the roofs of Provincetown like the mosquitoes on the summits of its hills. I have spent four memorable nights there in as many different years, and have added considerable thereby to my knowledge of the natural history of the cat and the bedbug. Sleep was out of the question. … At still midnight, when, half awake, half asleep, you seem to be weltering in your own blood on a battlefield, you hear the stealthy tread of padded feet belonging to some animal of the cat tribe, perambulating the roof within a few inches of your head.”
The Giffords controlled the property until 1873, when it was leased from Isaiah Gifford by Samuel Sands “Uncle Sam” Smith. By 1890, as the result of years of alterations and expansions, “very little remains of the original building, excepting the frame work,” Jennings wrote. At this time, the building was still denominated 313 Commercial Street. W. H. Potter was the proprietor by 1901.
Like its modern counterpart, the Pilgrim House doubled as a nightspot. In the 1950s, a dance orchestra played on Saturday nights in what was then called the Sea Dragon Club. In the 1960s, what was now known as the Madeira Club played host to all kinds of talent, including — in the summer of 1967 — a young comedian with a “plastic face,” who was gaining fame as a performer on the Garry Moore Show on CBS-TV. She was Lily Tomlin and her very successful run at the Pilgrim House occurred two years before she joined the cast of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In on NBC, which brought true national stardom. Her booking brought her to Provincetown for the first time. “I love it here,” she told The Advocate (20 July 1967), “but it’s frustrating not being able to grow a beard.”
Three firefighters and numerous civilians were injured on 29 October 1990 when a suspicious fire broke out at the Pilgrim House — fortunately unoccupied at the time, in late fall. The fire reached four alarms and required mutual aid assistance from departments all up the Cape. Six other buildings suffered damage. The Pilgrim House was a complete loss.