378 Commercial Street

 
Somerset House Inn

Stephen Cook (1817-1888), whose house this was — that’s his fourth wife, the former Jennifer E. Churchill, at left — was a significant figure in the development of Provincetown and especially of this neighborhood, where he possessed not only this conspicuous dwelling but storehouses across the road and, beyond them, a wharf at what is now 381 Commercial Street. This business was passed on to his nephew, George O. Knowles (b 1842), whose mother, Delia (1821-1898), was Stephen Cook’s sister. Cook was a longtime officer of the First National Bank and served as its president for the last 11 years of his life, at which time the bank’s stock was trading at its highest price ever.

The connection between Cook’s home and wharf is made plain in the view below from the Scrapbooks of Althea Boxell, which has been tinted on Building Provincetown to show the house clearly over the dory and fish flakes and sail loft.

Cook’s parents were Capt. Stephen Cook (1786-1859) and Delia (Conwell) Cook (1788-1872). He first married Lucy Ann Wiley, who was 24 when she died in May 1847 giving birth to their daughter, Lucy Ann, who herself died three months later. Cook next married Mary A. Higgins, who was 33 years old when she died in 1864 That same year, their six-year-old son, Charles, died too. It’s hard to imagine going forward after so many tragedies, but Cook married again a year later to Julia Francis Higgins. (She was not Mary’s sister.) She died eight months after they wed, at 37.

What could have been going through the mind of Jennie E. Churchill when Cook proposed? Any fears she had were unfounded, as she outlived her husband by 24 years, dying in 1912 at the age of 71. The entire Cook family is buried in Hamilton Cemetery.

In 1901, the property was acquired by Dr. William S. Birge and his wife, Dr. Ella F. Birge, whose specialties were “diseases of the eyes and refraction.” What an exceptional presence a woman physician must have been in turn-of-the-century Provincetown. They turned 378 Commercial Street into the Ocean View sanatorium. At some point under their proprietorship, it evolved into a more conventional accommodation called the Ocean View House. Their granddaughter, Amy S. Birge, married the prominent artist Bruce McKain in 1939.

Paulino and Florence (Croft) Urtiago (d 1955) acquired the property in the mid-1940s and renamed it Casa Gernika. Urtiago was a Basque native, so it seems very likely that he chose the name to memorialize the town that had been ruthlessly bombed in 1937 by the Luftwaffe in support of Francisco Franco’s efforts to overthrow the republican government of Spain. Though better known in the States as Guernica (thanks to the title of Picasso’s enormous depiction of the horrific event), the town’s name is spelled Gernika by the Basques.

Urtiago was a jack of many trades, and a master of at least one: bartending. He was a celebrated bartender in New York City — or, at least, so The Advocate said — who’d included among his satisfied customers former President Herbert Hoover. He was also a fisherman and served on the crew of the Charlotte G.

John [Jon?] and Helen Gerrity bought the property in 1970 from a brief intermediate owner. They changed its name to the Somerset House, recalling the Somerset, a 64-gun ship-of-the-line that wrecked on the Back Shore in 1778.

Ownership and management changed again in 2005, when Bob Klytta and Dan Hoort took over. They offer 13 rooms, ranging in size from 167 to 320 square feet. Klytta manages the property while Hoort, a certified public accountant, serves as Provincetown’s finance director.


 

 

 

 


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