471 Commercial Street

 
The ardently independent spirit of Harry Kemp lives on, in the person of George Bryant (b 1937). And Bryant lived for nearly 35 years in this house. Like Kemp, Bryant has marched indefatigably to the tune not simply of a different drummer, but of a different band entirely. He is architect, home inspector, consultant, public servant, gadfly, and — above all — historian. By turns sweet, funny, impatient and irascible, Bryant’s approach is not welcomed by everyone in town. But Provincetown without him is inconceivable. His living memory — an encyclopedic amalgam of personal lore, structural provenance, illuminating history and dark rumor — is the mortar that helps hold local history together. [See, for example, “George Bryant: A Personal Tour.”] He knows more about the town’s buildings, and who occupied them, than anyone alive. (Full disclosure: He’s always been enormously generous in sharing his knowledge with me, so you may detect favorable prejudice.) In this respect, Bryant differs markedly from Kemp, who was the Poet of the Dunes, more in love with style than substance. Bryant on the other hand is all about substance, facts, tangible matter. He is a storehouse. Quite literally. And that was his downfall at No. 471.

But let’s back up a moment, to about 1905, when this house was constructed for Elijah J. Rodgers (±1879-1960), who was Provincetown’s first electrician and who was married to Clara (Bangs) Rodgers. They sold the property to Phebe E. Freeman in 1915, presumably around the time they moved to Boston, where Rodgers worked as an operating engineer. At least in the 1930s, Freeman let rooms here. Also on the property is a shed that once served as the blacksmith shop for the Atlantic Coast Fisheries Company, built and tended — as the plaque says — by Joseph M. “Joe Sax” Souza (1900-1976).

John Chester Herring (±1883-1965) and Cora (Allen) Herring bought the house from Freeman in 1944. Herring was a summer resident for a half century and ran an art gallery in town. His stepmother, Jessie Fremont Gale Herring (±1860-1937), had been active in the establishment of the Provincetown Art Association. Frances E. Gray bought the property from Mrs. Herring in 1965 and ran it as the Harbor Guest House.

Enter George Bryant, in 1977.

Born in Fall River — “it was the closest decent hospital,” he told me in a 2009 interview — Bryant grew up in several different places: on West Vine Street, on Bangs Street, and behind his grandmother’s restaurant at 129 Bradford Street. He attended the Center School, the Governor Bradford School and Provincetown High School, at which he was valedictorian of the Class of 1955. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in architecture from M.I.T., he joined the Peace Corps in 1963 and was stationed in Peru. “I was the first native Cape Codder to join the Peace Corps,” he said. “We were called the Kennedy Kids.” Stationed in Lima, under Frank Mankiewicz, he learned how to fly an airplane because Corps members were forbidden from riding motorcycles, as they were too dangerous. One of his instructors was a cropduster named Hitler Gonzalez. Bryant’s principal job was the construction of a 120-unit housing project called Sol de Oro.

Back in Boston, through M.I.T. connections, Bryant began working for the large architectural firm of Campbell, Aldrich & Nulty in 1966. He was involved largely with interior space planning and building detailing. Among his largest projects were the First National Bank of Boston Building, the one with the big bulge, and the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Me., where millions of mice are cultivated and bred for scientific research. During this time, he also bought and renovated three buildings in Cambridge, at Franklin and Sidney Streets. He remained with Campbell, Aldrich until 1970.

“Then I came back here when my oldest son was born,” he said. “I had no intention of coming back but my former wife liked it down here.” That was Kristen Anderson of Connecticut, and their first son was Hale Duncan Bryant. Eric Cushman Bryant was the second. Bryant later married Dr. Rosemary Elliott, who had no use for Bryant’s salt works reconstruction project next door, at 467 Commercial Street.

The family settled first at 457 Commercial Street, better known today as Mischa Richter’s house. Bryant designed several building additions in town and began a home inspection business. He also recalled spending about half of every day working for his mother at Bryant’s Market, 467 Commercial. “I built up a good wine clientele,” Bryant said. “I worked hard and got wines retailing for $3.99 and $4.99 that were much better than anybody else could find.”

Bryant was elected to the Board of Selectmen in 1976 and served on it for the next 10 years, allowing as how there was little love lost between him and the other board members. “I speak my mind,” he explained. Then he ran successfully for the newly created Assembly of Delegates, the legislative branch of the Cape Cod Regional Government (Barnstable County), becoming Provincetown’s first representative in 1988. At the time I interviewed him, Bryant was the chairman of the assembly’s health and human services committee. “I spend a lot of time doing that,” he said. After 22 years, in which he earned the title of dean of the assembly, Bryant dropped out of the 2010 race, but then jumped back in again. He was defeated by Cheryl Andrews. At his final meeting, Bryant — “the only delegate his hometown of Provincetown has ever known since the 1988 charter that created the assembly,” as The Barnstable Patriot put it — was given the title of honorary dean.

By now, the condition of his properties was casting a cloud. The line between collecting and hoarding may be a fine one, and a discerning eye like Bryant’s can often pick out important remnants and artifacts. But town officials were sufficiently alarmed by the accumulation of stuff at Bryant’s house that they obtained a judgment in 2006 prohibiting him “from storing or stockpiling any junk, refuse or debris.” The order had little effect. In 2009, his brother Eugene began eviction proceedings. The house was becoming uninsurable and the town was looking to collect $100,000. A nadir was reached in 2010 when Bryant was arrested for violating another court order, not to trespass at Angel Foods. He suffered a heart attack a day later. (Pru Sowers, “Bryant Hospitalized Following Provincetown Arres,” The Banner/Wicked Local, 18 March 2010.) The next year, as yet another trial was about to begin, an agreement was reached in which, as the 2011 Annual Town Report put it, Bryant “agreed to stay away from the property.”

The house, for which Bryant had paid $87,500 in 1977, was being offered for sale in mid-2012 for $1.595 million. The narrative in the Multiple Listings Service made its plight plain: “Although the house needs T.L.C., the rewards of restoring this diamond in the rough will be well worth it.”


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