Gifford House Inn
In a resort town where accommodations come and go by the year — and by the dozens — the Gifford House Inn is an astonishing stalwart. It is more than 140 years old. With 77 Bradford Street, it occupies the crest of Mill Hill, from which surprisingly generous vistas of the town and harbor can be enjoyed. Beautiful, it is not. Grand, it is not. But with 26 guest rooms and the Club Purgatory, Porchside Lounge and Thai Sushi Café by Ying, it’s certainly lively. And that’s saying a lot for a hotel of its age — whatever that age may be.
The early story is a little bit foggy, as so much town legend tends to be. The inn’s own historical account says that the “original hotel was the last stop for the stagecoach as early as 1858.” An 1869 news account noted that James Gifford had purchased land formerly owned by M. L. Adams (who lived at 10 Carver Street) and that “he intends remodeling in order to accommodate a few boarders during the summer season.” Gifford also owned the Pilgrim House. The History of Barnstable County, Massachusetts, also said that Gifford “rebuilt” the hotel in 1869, strongly suggesting an earlier incarnation. Gifford himself would have been 48 years old. The oldest section of the Gifford House is the wing behind the parking area on Carver Street, immediately recognizable by the deep wrap-around porch and the Greek Revival pilasters in the facade. The side that faces the harbor was once the principal elevation.
This was a good moment to be building a hotel in Provincetown. Rail service had already reached Orleans and would make it all the way to the tip of the Cape in 1873. A shrewd entrepreneur would surely have been willing to gamble that once folks from Boston could get to such a picturesque and inexpensive spot as Provincetown in (relative) ease, tourism might take off. Indeed, one of the earliest visitors by rail was President Ulysses S. Grant, who came to town on Aug. 28, 1874. The Gifford claims him as a guest, as it does President Theodore Roosevelt and President William Howard Taft, but none of the presidents stayed in town overnight.
However, it did fall to James Gifford to offer Provincetown’s official civic greeting to President Grant: “To whatever of enjoyment or interest there may be found on this far-off end of Cape Cod — a place memorable in the history and the institutions of the Pilgrims of the May Flower — during your brief stay, we bid you hearty welcome.”
“I regret that my stay in Provincetown cannot be longer,” President Grant replied. “I am not unmindful of what has been done by the men of this peninsula for the history of this country, nor of their influence upon the nation.”
Gifford held on to his namesake hotel until 1903. His son, Moses N. Gifford, was president of the First National Bank of Provincetown and lived a few doors down, at 8 Carver Street. James died in 1913 and was buried, fittingly enough, in the old Gifford Cemetery. Moses survived his father by five years and is buried in the same plot.
The Merrills were the next family in charge of the Gifford House, which they would run for 60 years. Paterfamilias was George A. Merrill, a native of Maine, who came to Provincetown in his early 40s to take over the Gifford House. In 1910, Merrill added the large, blocky Bradford Street wing that dominates the ensemble. “Immaculately comfortable lodgings, the best of food, pleasant surroundings, and quiet, were the principles of Mr. Merrill’s conduct of the Gifford House,” The Advocate said on his death in 1951 at the age of 92. He and his wife, Amelia (Leland) Merrill, had two sons: Daniel C. Merrill, who succeeded his father in the management and ownership of the hotel, and Charles A. Merrill, a renowned correspondent and editor at The Boston Globe.
In 1918, Daniel Merrill married Carrie M. Matheson, whose father had been president of the First National Bank. They lived at 8 Carver Street. Merrill himself became president of the First National in 1959. Their daughter, Nancy O. Merrill, was also associated in the management of the Gifford House until she became the curator of glass at the Chrysler Museum. She lived until 2007.
The Merrills sold the Gifford House in 1963 to John Atkins, Dr. Thomas F. Perry, Alton E. Ramey and Francis Rogers, ending nearly a century of single-family stewardship. One of the first things the new owners did was redecorate the cocktail lounge in a marine motif, complete with driftwood bar, and rename it the Compass Room. The next step was taken by E. Ruth Rogers, Francis’s wife, who redecorated the lobby and dining room in early American décor — presuming that early Americans painted their dining chairs pink. Mrs. Rogers, who died in 2004, was not only the innkeeper at Gifford House, she also ran the Norse Wall Guest House at 7 Cottage Street.
The Gifford’s cultural apogee occurred in the summers of 1966 through 1969, when the Act IV Café Experimental Theater operated in the cellar. Intended as a showcase for experimental, deliberately provocative short plays, Act IV was described by The Advocate as the creation of a “talented theatrical trio”: Robert Costa, Doug Ross and Eric Krebs. (Krebs later founded and directed the John Houseman and Douglas Fairbanks Theaters in New York.) “With little money and a small basement playhouse it introduced dozens of plays over a four-year span,” Donald Wood wrote in Cape Cod: A Guide (1973).
Act IV is chiefly remembered today because of the involvement of the actor Beverly Bentley and her husband, Norman Mailer. “Act IV seemed a good way for Beverly to have a creative life separate from her husband’s, but this was not to happen,” Hilary Mills wrote, in Mailer: A Biography (1982). “Instead the project stimulated Mailer’s own theatrical interests.” Following Sharon Thie’s Soon Jack November, Mailer’s Scenes From the Deer Park, based on his novel, opened at Act IV in the summer of 1966, directed by Leo Garen. It moved to the Theatre de Lys in Greenwich Village in 1967. Bentley performed in both the Off-Broadway and Off-Bradford versions.
The summer of 1966 saw the performance of Dutchman by Amiri Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones. The play probes the destructive state of race relations through the fatal encounter on a subway between a black man, Clay, and a white woman, Lula. At Act IV, the role of Clay was played by Charles Gordone, an actor and playwright who would win the Pulitzer Prize in drama three years later for his play, No Place to be Somebody. Bentley played the role of Lula. Its two-week engagement drew capacity crowds. During this season, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara appeared in John Mortimer’s Lunch Hour.
The 27-year-old Al Pacino appeared at Act IV in its second season as Murph in The Indian Wants the Bronx, by Israel Horovitz. With him, as Gupta, was John Cazale, who would later play Fredo Corleone to Pacino’s Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part II. The play moved to the Astor Place Theater six months later, and The New York Times described Pacino’s portrayal as “painfully accurate (and often funny).”
Just a week after Indian‘s brief run, Rosalyn Drexler’s Hot Buttered Roll was presented at Act IV, having scandalized Boston. Warren Finnerty starred. Two more plays by Baraka, The Baptism and The Slave, were also presented in the 1967 season, during which The Advocate praised Costa and the playhouse. “Its productions have continued to be of top professional caliber and its programming has been searching, often daring, and always interesting.” John Waters recalled going enthusiastically to every performance in the first two seasons of “great theater.”
Terrence McNally’s Sweet Eros was staged during the third season, several months before it opened in New York with Sally Kirkland. Act IV closed the next year, 1969 — appropriately enough, after its fourth season.
Public spaces in the hotel have undergone numerous transformations and name changes over the years. The restaurant has been known as 11 Carver, Stillwaters and Thai Aroi. The Porchside Lounge was once the Porch Bar. The basement bar was called Back Street (an old name for Bradford) and is now known as Club Purgatory, which features karaoke nights on Thursdays, disco nights on Fridays, underwear parties on Saturdays and leather nights on Sundays.
The Gifford’s current proprietor, James Foss, also owns the Watership Inn.