The tower of the Italianate-style Provincetown Public Library is — and always was — a skyline ornament. It was even more imposing in 1860 when it was built as the Center Methodist Episcopal Church, with a steeple piercing the sky at 162 feet. The steeple came down after the Portland Gale of 1898, but the church inspired memorable paintings by Edward Hopper and many others. The Methodists sold it in 1958 to Walter Chrysler Jr., whose father founded the Chrysler Corporation. Working with the architect George Clements, he turned the church into the Chrysler Art Museum. “It collects and is interested in the visual arts rather than in any particular artists or group of artists or craftsmen,” Chrysler said in 1964. It did not last long here. In 1970, Chrysler moved the collection to Norfolk, Va., where it remains, as the Chrysler Museum of Art. He died in 1988.
Jules Brenner and Fred Jungman, who bought the building, reopened it briefly in 1974 as the Center for the Arts. Then Josephine and Salvatore Del Deo, Adelaide Kenney, Joseph Lema Jr., and Cyril Patrick Jr. persuaded the town to acquire the building to house a historical collection. The Provincetown Heritage Museum opened in 1976, a year after the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It included life-sized dioramas of the Adams Pharmacy and Public Library. Its astonishing, ship-in-a-bottle centerpiece was a 66½-foot-long, half-scale model of the schooner Rose Dorothea, built by Francis “Flyer” Santos from 1977 to 1988. It was so large that holes had to be cut in the ceiling of the main sanctuary to accommodate the masts. And its bowsprit poked into the next room. The museum sponsored the restoration of the trapboat Charlotte, to preserve a vestige of weir fishing. It closed in 2000.
By this time, the Public Library had outgrown 330 Commercial. Voters approved turning the museum into the library in 2001, during the directorship of Debra DeJonker-Berry and chairmanship of Edward “Mick” Rudd. The architects were Perry Dean Rogers Partners. In 2002, the 29-foot-tall belfry was removed to permit structural work, including the addition of steel pilings. The interior reopened in 2005. The belfry returned in 2007. The project was finished in 2011. Today, the library is a center of civic life and a cultural destination, with the Rose Dorothea model, the Lipton Cup won by the original Rose Dorothea, paintings by notable artists and, outside, Tourists by Chaim Gross. Matt Clark is the current director.
More than 2,000 buildings and vessels are searchable on buildingprovincetown.com. The Building Provincetown book is available for purchase ($20) at Town Hall, Office of the Town Clerk, 260 Commercial Street, Provincetown 02657.