In local theatrical history, the Provincetown Playhouse was a landmark second in importance only to Lewis Wharf, 571 Commercial Street, where Eugene O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff was first performed in 1916. (How important? Enough to draw the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, to a performance of Mrs. Warren’s Profession in August 1961.) But in true Provincetown fashion, the structure had more than one use and more than one distinction. As a maritime landmark, it served as the shop in which the surf-cleaving boats of the United States Life Saving Service were perfected, sparing the lives of untold numbers of coast guardsmen, who were as much in peril at a shipwreck as the crew members and passengers they were trying to rescue.
Two lively traditions — the theater and the arts — are embodied in this dilapidated but utilitarian shed, exactly the sort of place in which much of the town’s cultural flowering occurred. It has been in the hands of the Heller family since 1972/1973, when Lester Heller (1919-2009) and Adele Heller (d 1997) took over the Provincetown Playhouse on the Wharf, here at 2 Gosnold Street, and converted it into an Equity house. Sadly, they were given little time to implement their vision. Arsonists destroyed the theater and adjoining costume and set shop in 1977, though the box office and Eugene O’Neill Museum (located in this building) survived.
The Provincetown Playhouse on the Wharf’s wharf, built by Capt. Charles Cook, had a workshop in which Charles Gardner and Capt. George Bickers perfected the Race Point surfboat. The boatbuilder Jonathan “Jot” Small followed. He was succeeded by the artist Heinrich Pfeiffer, who renamed it the Art Colony Wharf and built a theater. It opened in 1937, showing foreign films. In 1940, the New England Repertory Company — Catherine Huntington, Virginia Thoms, and Edward Dodge Thommen — turned it into a playhouse. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy attended a performance of Mrs. Warren’s Profession here and a UMass undergrad named Richard Gere appeared in a Tom Stoppard play.
Lester Heller and his wife, Adele, were the last owners and directors of the playhouse, which they converted in 1973 into a resident Equity company. They opened an O’Neill museum in a shed that doubled as the box office. In 1977, arsonists set fire to the complex. The theater and shop were destroyed. William Warner’s design for a new building, won a competition judged by I. M. Pei. Financing never materialized. The Hellers’ daughter Julie turned the surviving box office into the engaging Julie Heller Gallery. She specializes in local artists, so a trip here amounts to a history lesson in a continuum stretching from this salon deep into the town’s past.
More than 2,000 buildings and vessels are searchable on buildingprovincetown.com. The Building Provincetown book is available for purchase ($20) at Town Hall, Office of the Town Clerk, 260 Commercial Street, Provincetown 02657.
Former Provincetown Drop-In Center
The Drop-In Center, a free, communal medical clinic and counseling center aimed at helping Provincetown’s burgeoning underground community in the early 1970s, lasted only a decade. But its impact was tremendous. It divided old Provincetown from emerging Provincetown, sometimes bitterly, and was itself swept away as the town continued to change, from a hippie free-for-all into a manicured gay resort. The Drop-In was both a harbinger and a lightning rod. Most important, it undoubtedly saved many vulnerable lives. (Its staff is shown here in a 1979 photo.) None of that is legible in the building of today, for 6 Gosnold is — as it was built — a comfortable large home in physical form. More pictures and history
I’m a sucker for a well-turned Ionic column, so it figures that I’d regard the Bowley-Small House as one of the loveliest in town. But I’m clearly not alone. This neo-Classical gem, with its double facade, its veil of wisteria vines, its trellised front portico, its acutely angled ell, its whimsical wall of bird houses (one of which looks suspiciously like 7 Gosnold) and its side portico whose column capitals are perpendicular to the house has attracted photographers and painters and postcard publishers for more than a century. Other admirers have included Josephine Del Deo, Ross Moffett and Edmund V. Gillon Jr., who used two views of the house in his 1986 album, Provincetown Discovered.
Best known for his stewardship of the Flagship Restaurant, Manuel Francis “Pat” Patrick (d 1964) also managed the Bradford Inn from 1929 to 1937. The three-story building had been a hotel since the 1860s and was once known as the Monument House, run by Harry Clark. (The uphill road to the Pilgrim Monument began just outside.) More history»