This is one of the most important commercial buildings in town, not least for the fact that it is astonishingly intact. It’s also significant as a wharfhead structure, though the wharf behind it is long gone. Tom Boland said of this storefront that it “survives as an excellent representation of commercial properties in the 19th century.” A comparison of photographs (above and to the right), taken about 120 years apart, discloses how little altered this building property has been. Even the three bays of nine large lights in the storefront persist. The most notable change is probably the dormer sheds that were added on either side of the gabled roof. Otherwise, it doesn’t take much visual imagination to conjure the day in the 1870s or 1880s, say, when this was John L. Rich’s men’s emporium, selling boots, shoes, clothing and accessories. A thorough account of the building’s first half-century comes to us through Herman A. Jennings in his book Provincetown, or Odds and Ends From the Tip End.
James Chandler, Lemuel Cook and Joshua Bowly built the structure in 1845-46, attached to a wharf known by several names over the years: Market Wharf and the Joseph Atwood Wharf. “The business done was general fitters of vessels and buyers of cod and mackerel,” Jennings wrote. Capt. Benjamin Rider bought the whole operation in 1857 and turned it into a lumber wharf, while renovating the upper half of the main building as a residence.
The store space on the ground floor, Jennings said, was used for various businesses like groceries and fancy goods, until the arrival of John L. Rich in 1873, who leased half the space for a boot and shoes business. This was successful enough that Rich’s emporium began spreading through the rest of the ground-floor space, taking it over entirely in 1887.
Just a sampling of the many tenants who have come and gone since then:
The silversmith Ed Wiener was at No. 197 in 1946, followed two years later by Lamp Shades by Polly Allen. Josephine Couch del Deo opened the Sea Weaves Shop, a weaving store, in 1950 and operated it for three years. Directly underneath Sea Weaves, Frank Lee and Jim Simpson sold porcelain handcrafts at the Circular Cellar. (This was a classic Cape cellar, in a 30-foot-diameter circle so the pressure of sand would not collapse the walls.)
In 1959, Lenore Ross opened the Plain and Fancy restaurant at Nos. 195-197. It was Provincetown’s “first openly-gay owned restaurant,” Karen Christel Krahulik said in Provincetown: From Pilgrim Landing to Gay Resort. Ross then hired Pat Shultz, later to become one of the town’s leading real-estate brokers, with an office at 406 Commercial Street. Plain and Fancy catered to lesbian and gay customers discreetly and discretely, by seating them downstairs “while herding straights and families upstairs,” Krahulik wrote. Income from the restaurant allowed Shultz and Ross to begin buying and renovating older homes.
More recently, the upstairs storefronts have been occupied by Mazel Tov Restaurant, followed in time by the popular Café Heaven; a fashionable men’s apparel store called No. 5; Robinwood, a houseware and gift shop; and Miandra. The current retail tenants are Café Heaven, the Coffey Men clothing store and a unit of the Melt franchise chain.
As a technical matter, 199 Commercial Street is part of a unified lot with 193 Commercial Street; together on the lot are 20 condominium interests.