When Mother Avellar died, just shy of her 90th birthday, she left 10 children, 23 grandchildren, 30 great-grandchildren, 1 great-great-grandhild — and the entire community of Provincetown. Angelina Jacinta (Soares) Avellar (1866-1956) was known as “Mother Avellar” far beyond her own brood at 437 Commercial. That brood, “Clan Avellar,” merited an entire chapter in Mary Heaton Vorse’s Time and the Town. “There was never a home with so much life and so much happiness in it,” Vorse wrote. The family included Father Avellar — Jose or Joseph Maria (1864-1946) — and the children: Antone Jason (1885-1961); Florence May (1888-1974); Katherine (b 1890); Angie (1892-1893); Albert Joseph (1894-1962); the twins, Gerald E. (b 1895) and Arthur E. (b 1895); Justin (1899-1900); Justin Francis (1902-1988); Ruth (1904-1904); Walter E. (1907-1964); Raphael (b 1908); and Izabel M. (1909-2007).
The structural bones of 437 Commercial take the form of a half Cape — that is, an asymmetrical Cape Cod style house with windows on only one side of the door. Lore attached to the house suggests that it was floated over from Long Point. The two front windows to the left of the entrance door were replaced by French doors in 1971, when the artist Harvey J. Dodd (1933-2011) opened his gallery here. At that time, the second floor of No. 437 was extended to meet No. 439, forming a gated breezeway between the buildings. Dodd also discovered the remnants of a circular cellar while laying a new floor. The most fundamental change to the property came in the late 1980s when dredging operations led to the dumping of tons of sand along Provincetown beaches, pushing the mean high-water mark out into the harbor and leaving the “landing” on dry land.
“Previously one could dive off the landing at high tide, or watch (and hear) the tide recede, placing the landing 14 feet above the sand at low tide, twice a day,” Dodd wrote in a brief history of the place. “Now one can jump off the end of the landing onto sand five feet below. The price for this protection against storming seas is the permanent loss of one of the unique charms of Provincetown.”
Once upon a time, it was Avellar’s Wharf. Both Mother and Father Avellar were born on the island of Flores, one of the more far-flung of the Western Group of the Azores. Family lore had it that they met on the barque that was bringing them both to America when she was 14 and he was 16. They were married in 1884 and moved to 437 Commercial Street in 1908. (A 1910 street atlas, pictured here, misspells their name as “Avola.”) Even then, No. 437 shared the tax lot with No. 439, which it still does today.
In his early days, Father Avellar had sailed to the Grand Banks. He was also a manager for Atlantic Coast Fisheries. But first and foremost — and for 40 years — he was a trapboat captain until his retirement in the mid-1930s.
Trapboat fishing, as its name suggests, involved catching fish in stationary traps; as opposed to dragging nets through the sea. The traps were known as weirs. Each of the huge weirs was made of about 70 hickory poles that were driven into the harbor floor, with tarred netting stretched between the poles. The first part of the weir was the “ladder,” a single fence of netting perpendicular to the shoreline, running about 900 feet out to the business end of the trap. Fish encountering the ladder would simply follow its course out to the business end of the trap: the “heart” and “bowl” chambers. Once in the heart, the completely disoriented fish were directed further into the bowl, where they would simply swim around and around until the trap was pursed. One single draw of the trap could yield as many as 200 barrels of fish.
Carrying such bounties, returning trapboats found themselves besieged by the skipper of powerboats known as gasoliners. Vorse picks up the story:
“With frightful rapacity each captain of a gasoliner would try to board the weir boat first. Captain Joe would stand there, a fishfork like a trident in his hand. He would defy the captain of any boat to set foot on his vessel before his name was called.
“‘Gorramighty,’ he would cry, ‘you try to get on my vessel before I tell you and I won’t leave enough of you to make bait,’ and he would follow that up with such artistry of invective in English and Portuguese that men listened to him as though to a mighty orchestra, proud that they belonged to the same species.”
Back home, Mother Avellar “aided so many young men during their early impoverished years in Provincetown, on their start toward fame and fortune, that many not her own called her mother,” The Advocate said in its obituary. These included the writers Sinclair Lewis and Wilbur Daniel Steele.
Vorse and her husband, Joe O’Brien, lived not far from the Avellars, at 466 Commercial Street. “Our two families were so close we scarcely knew where the Vorse-O’Briens left off and the Avellars began,” Vorse wrote. “Vorses and Avellars ate interchangeably in either home. They often slept in each other’s houses.”
“Mother Avellar, besides being the best mother in the world, or perhaps because she is the best mother in the world, is also a famous teller of tales,” Vorse wrote. “I would rather hear Mother Avellar tell the daily doings around her house than read a book of short stories by any famous author.” Look again at the picture of 437 Commercial and imagine it housing 10 children. (Three others were lost in infancy.)
• Antone “Tony” Avellar was in the vital business of boat refueling. He operated a gasoline and oil tank boat that serviced the fleet, first with Texaco products, then with Standard Oil. After retiring, he operated cottages near his home at 210 Bradford Street. He married Louise Strube of Alsace-Lorraine in 1911 with whom he had four daughters. He later married Nellie Cabral and had two sons. His bright, broad face was preserved for posterity by the artist Gerrit A. Beneker in a 1918 Victory Liberty Loan poster. Avellar is shown digging confidently into his pockets, under the caption: “Sure! We’ll finish the job.” The Advocate said he had been credited with inspiring the sale of $5 million worth of war bonds, without quite explaining how that calculation could have been made. Tony is actually not reaching for money, however, as The Boston Daily Post explained:
“Tony was in the midst of a problem of gasoline engine repairing in his repair shop at Provincetown when the artist Beneker paid him a visit. Tony, with his sleeves rolled up, his red undershirt showing, a battered hat joining a splotch of black grease that covered the side of his face, stood up and smiled upon his friend. Realizing that the call was in the nature of a visit, he began reaching into the recesses of his overalls for the makings of a cigarette, smiling a generous welcoming smile.
“‘Sure, we’ll finish the job,’ said Tony.
“It was in this action together with the smile and the genuineness of the spontaneous pose in Tony’s hospitable reception of him that Beneker received an inspiration which resulted in the most famous of all the posters of the Victory Loan.
“‘I couldn’t refuse Beneker,’ Tony explained.”
• Florence “Flossie” Avellar was the most globe-girdling of the clan. She served in France as a canteen girl during World War I and married Dr. Johannes J. Theron, a professor of agriculture at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. They lived in Brooklyn, a well-to-do suburb of Pretoria. A lecture hall at the university bears his name.
• Katherine “Kate” Avellar married William Cross and lived in Bristol, R.I., in the 1950s and Bradenton, Fla., in the 1960s.
• Albert Avellar was a trap fisherman with his father in his youth before serving with the Coast Guard during World War I. He ran a machine shop here, at Avellar’s Wharf, and operated a fishing cruiser called the Yo-Ho. During World War II, he moved to Quincy, Mass., to work at the famous Fore River Shipyard. He retired to Lake City, Fla. His first wife, Ida (Perie) Avellar, died in 1931 at the age of 37. His second wife, Isabel, survived him. His son, Albert Joseph Avellar Jr. (1918-2008), was one of the most prominent of the third-generation Avellars, as a founder of the whale-watch industry with the Dolphin III and as the owner and operator of the schooner Hindu.
• Gerald Avellar, Arthur’s twin, served aboard the troop ship U.S.S. Covington, a converted Hamburg-America ocean liner that had been christened the Cincinnati, during World War I. He was living in Fairhaven, Mass., in the 40s; in neighboring New Bedford in the 1950s; and back in Provincetown in the early 1960s. As boys, he and Arthur looked so much like one another that even Mother Avellar couldn’t tell them apart. They employed this gift of nature to their considerable advantage, as Vorse recounted:
“Formerly, it was the custom to have a hired boy to sweep sand out and bring drinking water and do other chores. Arthur was my hired boy and Gerald the hired boy of my next-door neighbor, Mrs. Atkins. She would call out to sea,
“‘Gerald, Gerald, come in, I want you.’
“A brown figure would jump out of the bay and call out smoothly, ‘I ain’t Gerald, Mis’ Atkins, I’m Arthur.’
“Presently I’d call out, ‘Arthur, I need some water.’
“‘I ain’t Arthur, Mis’ Vorse, I’m Gerald.’ The same boy would call.”
• Arthur Avellar, Gerald’s twin, was a machinist in the aviation corps during World War I, stationed at Carlstrom Field, a pilot-training facility near Arcadia, Fla. He lived in Bridgeport, Conn., in the 40s; Milford, Conn., in the 50s; and Boston in the early 60s.
• Capt. Justin Avellar was the most seagoing member of his generation. He took his name from an older brother, born in 1899, who died in infancy. He was a sailing captain in his younger years and a port captain in Boston Harbor. He and his nephew, Albert Jr., operated the schooner Hindu together from 1945 to 1960, at which time Justin bought out Albert’s interest to become her sole owner. On land, he was active in the Highland Fish and Game Club, belonged to the Knights of Columbus and operated his family’s property here as the Wharf Apartments. And halfway between land and sea, out on Captain Jack’s Wharf, he was introduced to the lovely Mary Josephine McGrath of Charlestown. They married in 1944 [?], living first at 520 Commercial Street, then at 240 Bradford Street. Their daughters, Mary-Jo Avellar (b 1946) and Susan Avellar (b 1947), are the leading members of the third generation in town. Justin and Mary sold Avellar’s Wharf in 1960. Mrs. Avellar died in 2011.
• Walter Avellar was a real-estate broker in Playa del Rey, Calif., at the time of his death at the age of 58.
• Raphael “Ray” Avellar was a newspaperman who cut his teeth as a reporter on The Advocate after dropping out of Dartmouth for want of money. After a course up and out of smaller suburban newspapers, he wound up as a feature writer for The New York World-Telegram, a Scripps Howard paper nominally descended from Joseph Pulitzer’s World. Among the stories he covered was the disastrous sinking in 1930 of the Morro Castle cruise ship off Asbury Park, N.J. Ray and his wife Katherine, whom he met in town when she was a student at the Art Students League, retired to Stonington, Conn.
The era of the Avellars and the Wharf Apartments came to an end in 1960 with the sale of the property to George P. Harvender and Floyd C. Linder (±1916-1963) of New York, who renamed it Harvender’s Landing. Harvender seems to have been a painter. Linder was the president of a real estate concern in New York, Cranford & Linder. A bachelor, he lived in Greenwich Village and was involved in the preservation of historic buildings. He was also an art collector, a friend of the artist Yeffe Kimball and a patron of the Chrysler Art Museum. He died at 47 of a cerebral hemorrhage. The next year, Harvender sold Harvender’s Landing. (A 62-year-old man named George Harvender, boarding in a house in Boston, was seriously wounded in a violent attack in 1985.)
Wallace J. Feagins and Saul Kaplan owned the property only a year before selling it in 1965 to Richard Lischer, under whom it flourished and gained the identity it still carries: Poor Richard’s Landing. At the time of the purchase, Linder was already operating an establishment called Poor Richard’s at 432 Commercial, as successor to Peter Hunt’s Alley. It would seem as if he simply grafted the names together: Poor Richard’s + Harvender’s Landing – Harvender’s = Poor Richard’s Landing. As it exists today, the Landing is composed of two long out-buildings, parallel to one another and perpendicular to the shoreline. The pathway to the apartments is reached through a gate nestled between No. 437 and No. 438. Pat Moran of the Dreamlanders crew remembered a time when there wasn’t even a sign out front. “When you’re in there,” she said, “you can sit in back and watch 20 thousand million stars.”
For most visitors in the late 20th century and early 2000s, the name most closely associated with this complex was neither Avellar, Harvender, nor Lischer. It was Dodd. Harvey Dodd. He arrived in town in 1959 and went to work as a sidewalk portrait artist. His first portrait stand was set up outside what was Snelling’s Garage, and is now Marine Specialties. Then he moved in front of Café Poyant, 256-258 Commercial Street, where he was pictured at work in a well-circulated postcard. He opened his gallery at No. 437 in 1971. “Over the years he turned out more than 5,000 likenesses,” Sue Harrison wrote in a 2008 profile. “When a gallery assistant noted that he sold plenty of his watercolors and pastels and suggested he put his time into those more lucrative sales, it was like a light went off, he says. He let her to run the gallery and began to spend his days in the studio, painting landscapes and street scenes. Having that uninterrupted time gave him freedom to refine his paintings and immerse himself in the work. (Sue Harrison, “Dodd’s Universal Take on Art,” The Banner, 15 May 2008.) Dodd closed the gallery in 2008 and died three years later.
The artist John Mark Lucas occupied the space in 2009 and 2010 as the J. Lucas Gallery, exhibiting his work and that of other artists, including the painter Ilona Royce Smithkin, the photographer Frank Mullaney and the jeweler Larry Vrba. Lucas wrote an electronic book, Ilona Royce Smithkin: The Sixties, New York and Provincetown, about the “dark, moody portraits” that she produced while studying at the Art Students League in Manhattan. Lucas’s own work is an expression of color and geometry through what might almost be called the architecture of flowers. Lucas was as aware as anyone that it would be a while before Provincetown ceased to think of his space as the “old Harvey Dodd studio.” In 2011, it was converted to Foc’sle, the East End showcase of Alex Carleton’s Rogues Gallery clothing store at 206-208 Commercial.
Smithkin — a celebrated dynamo-about-town whose copper-gold eyelashes nearly reach Truro — has owned Poor Richard’s Landing since 1991, together with Karen B. Katzel. They are also partners in the Karilon Gallery. The current commercial tenant at No. 439 is the William-Scott Gallery, whose roster of artists includes John Dowd, probably the town’s best known contemporary landscapist.