Descended from Miles Standish and Roger Sherman, who signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution, Prescott Townsend was a Boston Brahmin, a Harvard graduate (Class of 1918), an architect, a social theorist and an early gay activist. Very early. And very active. He probably began coming to Provincetown in the mid-1920s, Douglas Shand-Tucci wrote in The Crimson Letter. Among his friends was Catharine Sargent Huntington, the producer behind the Provincetown Playhouse on the Wharf. Townsend helped organize the Boston chapter of the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest “homophile” organizations, in 1957. And in 1965, along with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, Townsend participated in one of the very first anti-discrimination demonstrations — four years before Stonewall, as Shand-Tucci points out.
Around this time, he spent summers in a compound of his own design, Provincetownsend, near the Moors restaurant. His own home, the Gangway, was made of driftwood planks and plastic walls — “an attempt to make an adequate house reasonably priced,” he explained in 1963. In an adjoining dormitory, Townsend housed just about anyone to whom he took a fancy: artists, writers, musicians, “straight and gay, young and old, and of every race,” Al Kaplan (d 2009) recalled in his Price of Silver blog. “There was always a place to crash and always something to eat.”
In the summer of 1967, this teeming bohemian cohort included 21-year-old John Waters and 20-year-old Nancy Stole of Baltimore (soon to become much better known as Mink Stole, a name Waters gave to her). She was briefly engaged to Townsend. Also dwelling in Townsend’s this “tree fort” were Nancy’s sister, Sique, and Alan Dahl. “It was like living with a lunatic Swiss Family Robinson,” Waters wrote in Shock Value. “Part of the apartment was made out of a submarine, and trees grew right up through the living room. … The only real problem was that when it rained, it was like being outside. … There was no rent. You just had to be liked by the incredibly eccentric landlord.”
No matter. Waters recalled in an interview with Gerald Peary for Provincetown Arts: “I can remember it as some of the happiest moments of my life, of complete freedom for the first time. I was away from everything I rebelled against.” Two or three [1969/70?] years later, Provincetownsend burned down. Though an earlier fire had been caused by faulty wiring, there were those who couldn’t shake the feeling that this blaze had been set to rid the town of an unorthodox commune. Townsend died in Boston in 1973. (Waters still spends part of every summer in town, in recent years as the tenant of the artist Pat de Groot.)