“Tod Lindenmuth should know the meaning of Provincetown,” The New York Times declared in 1927. “For years he has been absorbing the jumble of its wharves and streets and resolving it into unified compositions in wood-block prints and paintings.” And for 15 of those years — from 1925 to 1940 — he and his wife, the illustrator Elizabeth Boardman Warren (1886-1980), lived at 56 Commercial Street, which was built in the 1840s and still shows a lot of handsome Greek Revival detail. Lindenmuth left a handful of unsigned studies in the house. They are still in the hands of Margaret and Donald Murphy, whose family has owned the property since 1954 and rents out Lindenmuth’s studio and a comfortable two-story former salt shed under the name Our Summer Place. (More than one guest over the years must have taken satisfaction from honestly telling friends, “Oh, we’re just going to Our Summer Place on the Cape.”)
Raphael Leroy “Tod” Lindenmuth (1885-1976) may not occupy the first rank in popular consciousness today, but he was a very important and influential artistic presence in his day, as a painter, a wood-block printer and a Modernist agitator at the Provincetown Art Association. As far as this viewer is concerned, his works have held up very well indeed, especially when his geometric Modernism is contrasted with a lot of the sentimental stuff that was being produced at the time. The unnamed Times critic reviewer quoted above described one Lindenmuth painting: “A red building — a strident note of red in the cold grays — comes with a shock like the sudden scream of gulls above the frozen town. This is the spirit of Provincetown Winter.” (“Modern Artists Show Work at Provincetown,” The New York Times, July 10, 1927.)
That review was of the first Modern show at the Provincetown Art Association, an event that owed itself in part to Lindenmuth. In 1926, he and Ross Moffett led the drive to open the association to modern art. They circulated a petition calling for the addition of “four painters of modernistic sympathies” to the jury for the annual show. Noting the existence of two artistic camps in town (the traditionalists were represented by Richard Miller), their petition said in part that “we regard it as unfair and out of keeping with American traditions for representatives of either group to be the sole arbiters as to what paintings shall be shown in the galleries of the Association.”
Warren was an illustrator of children’s books, among other things, so her work does tend more toward sentimentalism, but there’s no denying the sly delight — and the confident artistry — in a little work like The Biologist, which hangs at 56 Commercial. Warren’s printmaker and matte cutter, Jessica Lema, is still alive, in the house at 10 Cudworth Street where she’s dwelled since 1939.
Lindenmuth bought 56 Commercial Street from Russell and Maude Chipman in 1926. In 1942, he and his wife sold the property to Josephine A. Blanchard. When she owned the property, the old salt shed from Long Point was occupied by Dr. Fred O. Nolte, the head of the German department at the University of Washington in St. Louis, and his wife. “The Noltes made the cottage livable,” Don Murphy said. One interesting element in its typical construction by accretion is a wall plank stenciled “Hackley Art Gallery Muskegon,” forerunner of the Muskegon (Mich.) Art Gallery.
Blanchard, a longtime officer of the First National Bank of Provincetown, sold the property in 1954 to David J. and Mary E. (Carberry) Murphy. Besides raising a family there, the Murphys operated it as the Caravel Guest House. “The house is still the way it was when my folks bought it,” Don Murphy told me in 2011. To which I say, thank goodness — all the way down to the circular cellar.
David Murphy was a towering figure at Provincetown High School, where he arrived in 1930 after his graduation from Holy Cross College. Besides teaching chemistry and physics, he began coaching basketball — and did so for a quarter century. “The Provincetown varsity basketball teams Mr. Murphy has coached have repeatedly won Cape Cod championships,” The Advocate noted in 1967, when he gave up his coaching position to devote full time to his duties as a school administrator. In fact, The Advocate said, sports writers generally credited Murphy with having compiled the “most impressive record of any basketball in Massachusetts.” (“Noted School Coach Retires From Post,” The Advocate, Dec. 28, 1967.) Murphy also spent many years working as a bartender at the Provincetown Inn, 1 Commercial Street.
His son, Don (b 1940), was born at 32 Bradford Street. From there, the family moved to 71 Commercial Street, which was then owned by the Hieberts. Don recalls his parents paying $12,500 for 56 Commercial Street in the mid-50s (about $100,000 today). He recalled meeting Margaret Schiappa on an expedition “downtown” with his friend Dick Robertson. “She was impressed,” Murphy told me in 2011. “I got her into the Surf Club.” They are today husband and wife.
Murphy graduated from Provincetown High School in 1958, attended a two-year technical school and then joined a small start-up company in Maynard, Mass., called the Digital Equipment Corporation. He was employee No. 144. As DEC’s fortunes soared in the 1960s and 70s thanks to its famous line of PDP computers, Murphy was happily along for the ride. A PDP-8 was used to control the gimbals on the Apollo flight simulator, which meant that Murphy got to meet the astronauts. His excitement is still obvious. He stayed with DEC until it was acquired by Compaq in 1998. In recent years, he has been the chairman of the Portuguese Festival. Hmmm. Murphy, Murphy. Doesn’t sound too Portuguese, does it? Well, it isn’t and that’s just the point, as he told The Banner in 2008: ““Everybody wants to preserve Provincetown’s old buildings and heritage, but let’s not forget to share it. That’s what this festival is all about.” (“Festival and Blessing Strive to Keep Heritage Afloat,” The Banner/Wicked Local, 25 June 2008.)