465A Commercial Street

 
Hulk (Beachcombers’ clubhouse) | (Former) William Boogar Foundry | McGuire Gallery and Studio

You could walk dozens of times past this nondescript old waterfront building — the Hulk is its official designation — without realizing that it has long been a locus of power, influence and camaraderie in the Provincetown art colony. I certainly did. And you know what? The Beachcombers are fine with that. They deliberately assume a low profile. Almost nothing about the Hulk gives away its purpose publicly, except a small hand-painted sign saying, “Parking only while in the Beachcombers.”

So who are the Beachcombers? Think: Century Association and Skull & Bones — in a camel costume. That is, an arts organization that takes its mission and itself quite seriously, but that can’t help indulge sometimes in hijinks that would have been more or less appropriate for a boys’ summer camp. It is no coincidence that it was founded two years after the Provincetown Art Association across the street, and by many of the same people. As the art colony grew in the early 20th century, it needed both a place to exhibit its work seriously and a place to fraternize privately. Its 1916 constitution said its purpose was “to promote good fellowship among men sojourning or resident in or about Provincetown who are engaged in the practice of the fine arts or their branches” or “who are intimately connected with the promotion of the fine arts” — defined to mean painting, etching, engraving, sculpture, architecture, designing, illustrating, writing, music and acting. Officers, committees and events were given maritime names.

The first Skipper was the printmaker George Eyster Senseney (1874-1943), the first First Mate was George Elmer Browne (1871-1946) and the first Second Mate was Charles Webster Hawthorne (1872-1930). Senseney’s first report — written “by hand while sober, clothed and in my right mind” — recounted that the club “was conceived in the cave I call my studio, and later born and baptized at Cesco’s Restaurant,” 211 Bradford Street, in 1916. Ted Robinson’s 1947 history, The Beachcombers, noted that the next stop was a house on Knowles Wharf, at the foot of Bangs Street, which the club purchased in 1917 for $2,000. This structure, dubbed the Hulk, was badly battered in a 1927 storm. “The Hulk was on a wharf, its long dimension stretching out into the harbor,” Robinson wrote. “In spite of recent repairs, the wharf was weak, and the storm so weakened its essential piling that the whole structure threatened to go afloat. It cost us $1,200 to get the building put into its present position, at right angles with its original orientation, and $500 more for a new bulkhead.”

“Good fellowship” was understood from the first to mean adolescent merriment. Regrettably for posterity, the debut theatrical effort, in 1916, was a minstrel show, following a standard three-character formula in which an Interlocutor (played in this case by Senseney) exchanges remarks with Bones and Tambo (played by different members of the club), interspersed with songs. For the Beachcombers’ show, Browne sang Camptown Races, Hawthorne sang Old Folks at Home. Where the Beachcombers’ show parted with customary minstrelsy was its closing act, a skit called Freedom, written by John Reed. In the 1918 show, The Streets of Baghdad, Harry Campbell starred as the Camel Keeper. The forelegs were played by E. Ambrose Webster and the hindlegs by Oscar H. Gieberich.

The theatrical productions were quickly supplanted by costume balls as the summers’ big events. Robinson described them as exceedingly picturesque. “People did not turn their coats inside out, put on a burnt-cork mustache, and claim they were in costume,” he wrote. “They vied with one another for the prizes, and many gorgeous costumes appeared. The prize for originality one year went to a masker who came as The Monument.”

Beginning in 1931, the Beachcombers rented their clubhouse at nights to Inez “Nez” Hogan (1895-1973) and Francis Euler, who ran it as the Ship, described by Robinson as “a nightclub of the most innocent variety ever known during the Prohibition era. Candles in beer bottles, electric bulbs shaded by nutmeg graters, furnished the so-called illumination. Prices were low and the crowds were well behaved and respectable.” As well they should have been in an establishment run by a well-known author and illustrator of children’s books, although not the sort of books we would welcome today. Hogan is best known for her Nicodemus character, an African-American boy with all of the unfortunate stereotypical traits one might expect of a caricature created by a white artist in the 1920s.

In any case, the Ship did not sail much beyond Repeal. In 1935, Manuel “Pat” Patrick installed the Flagship restaurant in the Beachcombers’ dining room. “A bar was put into the main cabin of the Hulk, and we began to be tenants in our own place,” Robinson wrote. “The Flagship furnished our dinners at a set price and paid us a higher rent than we had been getting.” But members were also starting to feel pushed around by Patrick’s operation, particularly when they had to vacate their own clubhouse on Saturday nights to make way for the Flagship’s diners. Once Patrick expanded next door, into the Webster art school at 463 Commercial, the Beachcombers abrogated the arrangement and reclaimed their space.

Notwithstanding their low profile, the Beachcombers are behind one of the first monuments that visitors see in Provincetown if they arrive by sea and have sharp eyes. It is the cross near Long Point Light that marks the Charles S. Darby Memorial. Staff Sgt. Darby, an artist and Beachcomber, was killed during World War II when his plane was shot down over Holland.

After the war, one of many visiting firemen to the Hulk was the actor Edward Everett Horton (1886-1970), already renowned for his roles in films like The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, Holiday, Here Comes Mr. Jordan and Arsenic and Old Lace by the time he came to Provincetown in the summer of 1946 to play in Springtime for Henry. In the photo below, he is shown (barely) at the Skipper’s table with the artist Bruce McKain, who was Skipper at the time; Dr. Frederick S. Hammett; Harry Kemp; Volian Burr Rann; Ted Robinson, the chronicler of the Beachcombers; Donald Witherstine; Elmer Greensfelder; and Jere Snader.

Not every visitor was as recognizable as Horton. Frank Crotty, a writer and Beachcomber, told the story on himself of sitting next to a stranger playing the piano in the Hulk in the spring of 1957. Crotty asked if the stranger knew Paddlin’ Madelin Home, referring to a song by Harry M. Woods, who also wrote I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover and When the Red, Red Robin. The stranger began playing the song. “Wait a minute,” Crotty interrupted. “You haven’t got that melody quite right. It goes like this.” Crotty hummed the tune. “No,” said the pianist, “it goes the way I played it.” Before Crotty could object again, another club member leaned over to let him know that the stranger tickling the ivories was Woods himself.

The Beachcombers/Flagship complex was not only where art was talked and argued about. Thanks to the presence of William FJ. “Bill” Boogar Jr. (1893-1958), it was also where art was made. Or, rather, forged. Because Boogar worked in metal, largely in bronze. For my money, he is one of the finer mid-century Provincetown artists. Though not at all innovative, his sculptural work, much of it mezzo-relievo, has a lovely understated sophistication to it. It is suave. Confident. Boogar can do a seagull or a quahog that doesn’t make you cringe at the cliché, but rather that helps you see the subject with fresh eyes. One of several subtle public works executed by Boogar is the commemorative plaque to Rear Adm. Donald MacMillan, pictured above. Not many people know that Boogar actually journeyed with MacMillan on a 19268 trip to Labrador, Greenland and Baffin Island.

Boogar, a graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and of course an Able Beachcomber, established his foundry in 1933 in what had been Clarence Snow’s smithy, adjacent to the Hulk. “At the very center there is still a forge,” Mary Heaton Vorse wrote in Time and the Town of the jumbled old waterfront agglomeration. “It is as though the fire had refused to go out. William Boogar Jr., the sculptor, vasts his delicate bronze sea gulls where Clarence Snow used to swing his great sledge and put shoes on vessels as well as on horses.” In a 2002 profile, Laurel Guadazno said Boogar was the first artist to open his studio to the public. (Laurel Guadazno, “History Highlights: William F. Boogar Jr.,” The Banner, 30 May 2002.)

Besides the plaque at MacMillan Wharf, Boogar’s work may also be seen in the garden of the Church of St. Mary in the Harbor; in Town Cemetery, at the grave of John Gaspie; and at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, which houses the plaques he originally designed for a Pilgrim’s landing memorial in the far West End. His wife, Alice (Williamson) Boogar, kept the Boogar Foundry operating for many years after his death in 1958, as Boogar Bronze.

On the occasion of the first public exhibition of the members’ work, in 1999, The Banner summed up the club’s current status. (Hamilton Kahn, “Beachcombers Show Artistic Side of Bonding,” The Banner, 20 May 1999.)

There are approximately 100 living members, with a core of about 40 regulars who attend meetings year-round, and another 40 or so who attend during the summer months. Dues are $55 a year, and the centerpiece of each meeting is a potluck dinner, and impromptu music sessions are a regular feature, but there is also some structure, with elected officiers, an agenda of items to discuss, and the keeping of club records. In accordance with the rules against self-promotion, there is a strict ban on the discussing of any personal business or the sale of any items.

In the annex between the Hulk and the Flagship, Michael McGuire runs an art gallery showcasing his work. His landscapes and seascapes are clearly those of the Cape tip, but he said they are also inflected by Isla Mujeres in Mexico, where he spends a good deal of time. Trained as a sculptor, he said, “I like to build up the surface with layers of paint, applying it mostly with knives. This gives me the same feeling I get building with clay or plaster, but adding the dimension of color.”

[Updated 2018-11-28]


Gary Eggleston wrote on 28 November 2018: Mr. Boogar’s middle initial is “F”, and he sailed to the Arctic with MacMillan in 1926, not 1928. Mr. Boogar worked exclusively in bronze, and the bulk of his work was not “mezzo-relievo.” The plaques that he did were not that great in number. Fountains and sun dials were always sought after pieces of his work. The sea bell door knocker, which is pictured, was crafted with the two scallop shells and the seahorse knocker. He patiently created the sound of the bell to be the same as the bell buoy in Provincetown Harbor, which gave it additional appeal.


 

 

 

 

 

7 thoughts on “465A Commercial Street

  1. Hello … I recently had a seahorse lamp restored that was made by my Great Uncle Bill Boogar and given to me by his sister Dorthy, my Grandmother. It’s very cool to read about Bill and his works and his life. I remember being told about the trip to the North Pole in 1928 when I was a kid and who’s now, I paid more attention to my Grandmother! I would like to one day come for a visit and experience some of what Bill did.

    David Middleton

  2. Hi Dave Im a big fan of Bills work and have many pieces. I have a few lamps but have never seen a seahorse lamp. I would love to see a picture of it. Thanks Todd

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