Behind the former Martin House restaurant is an appealingly three-dimensional historical secret: one of the very few remaining housefronts still oriented to face the shore, as houses did before the creation of Commercial Street. By all means take a stroll down the Fifth Town Landing and turn around when you’re about halfway along. You’ll see the three-quarter Cape, to which the larger Commercial Street structure has been grafted, overlooking a patio that was renovated in 2010-11 by the new owners, Kevin O’Shea and David Bowd.
A history of the property compiled by the former restaurant proprietor, Glen Martin, said the original house was certainly standing by 1755, when it was mentioned obliquely in an account by Capt. Nathaniel Tracy of Newburyport. Martin asserted that the owners in the mid-19th century were abolitionists who had — at least in theory — two spaces in which fugitive slaves could temporarily hide from local authorities, who were legally compelled even in free states to assist in the capture of runaway slaves. The fugitives would have been on their way — aboard fishing vessels with sympathetic captains — to Nova Scotia, which promised both freedom from slavery and safety from pursuit. The more intriguing of the two hiding places in the Martin House was a hollow nook within the massive chimney complex, a “snug harbor,” large enough for a couple of people. And easily concealed.
Martin made no claim that the property actually functioned as a safe house — not that owners would have documented such clandestine uses anyway — but others have been less cautious. The New England Folklore site by Peter M. said in 2009 that a “small family of African-American ghosts has been seen in a secret passage between two chimneys,” surmising this may have been a slave family.
By 1910, the property was owned by Esther E. Nickerson. No later than 1937, it was owned by Isabel R. Hatch and Mellen C. M. Hatch, the author of The Log of Provincetown and Truro on Cape Cod Massachusetts, a 1939 guidebook. They operated it as a boarding house known as the Hatchway, a lithograph of which appears as the frontispiece in Hatch’s book. In 1945, they moved the business — and the name — to the Octagon House at 74 Commercial Street. From the 1940s through the early 1970s, the house at No. 157 had several owners: the Pikes, the McLeods, the Goodwins and the Lovelys (the Lovelies?).
Romain Roland (±1927-2008) and his wife, Eileen Roland, purchased and renovated the property in 1978 and opened it as the restaurant Chez Romain. Roland also owned the Rose & Crown guest house at 158 Commercial Street for a time. (“Romain Roland, 81,” The Banner, 25 December 2008.) Roland was born in Italy but had grown up in France and the restaurant specialized in “classic French cuisine,” Martin wrote in his history.
After six years, Chez Romain was succeeded in 1984 by Snug Harbor, an “acclaimed Creole/Cajun bistro,” Martin wrote. It was run by Diane J. Corbo (b 1946) and Valerie A. Caranno (b 1950), the co-owners of Ravenwood, 462 Commercial Street, who brought in Ted Alexander and John Mercer of New Orleans, with whom they’d worked at Vorelli’s. In Provincetown: From Pilgrim Landing to Gay Resort, Karen Christel Krahulik offered Snug Harbor as an example of “how gay men and lesbians often worked together in Provincetown.” But the enterprise was doomed nevertheless:
“‘We had a good business,’ [Corbo] explained sadly, ‘and then AIDS hit. And it hard.’ According to Corbo, the onset of AIDS put fear into at least two kinds of tourists: straight visitors, who were ‘afraid they were going to catch the unknown virus from the toilets and from the forks coming out of the kitchens,’ and gay male vacationers, who ‘stopped coming to Provincetown for a while because they were afraid they would relax with their health precautions.'”
Snug Harbor began losing money. Worse was to come: Alexander died within three months of receiving a diagnosis of AIDS and two years later, in 1991, Mercer also died. That was when Corbo and Caranno sold the business to Glen and Gary Martin.
Martin said his family’s intent was “to create menus reflective of our region, New England, while working with ingredients that have become available at the turn of the century in an era of globalization.” Laura Reckford gave the restuarant three stars in the 2005 edition of Frommer’s Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, crediting the Martins and the chef, Alex Mazzocca. “Easily one of the most charming restaurants on the Cape, this snuggery of rustic rooms happens to contain one of the Cape’s most forward-thinking kitchens.” The 2005 season, however, was the Martins’ last.
A 2009 proposal by the New York restaurateur Nick Accardie to open a rustic Italian restaurant on the property included a proposal to seat 22 diners on the small patio outside the original front of the house, which did not make it especially popular with abutters. (Pru Sowers, “Hearing on Provincetown Restaurant Proposal Continued to Next Month,” The Banner/Wicked Local, 27 October 2009.) The plan would also have involved significant structural alterations. Accardie dropped the project two months after the neighbors’ opposition was made plain at a zoning hearing. (Pru Sowers, “Provincetown Restaurant Buyer Pulls Out,” The Banner/Wicked Local, 15 December 2009.)
That set the stage for the property’s acquisition in 2010 by O’Shea, an interior designer who is an alumnus of the Rhode Island School of Design, Starwood Hotels and Resorts, and the Morgans Hotel Group, for which his partner, Bowd, continues to work. O’Shea’s goal, in his own words, was “to return the structure back to a private home while retaining many of the elements of its colorful past.” The photographs, taken in 2011, attest to his success. The couples’ next project is the complete renovation of Dexter’s Inn, 6 Conwell Street.