PROVINCETOWN – “One of the things I love about Provincetown: there’s a surprise around every corner,” journalist David W. Dunlap said, during a stroll with Cape Cod Wave down Commercial Street earlier this spring.
Dunlap, a longtime reporter on architecture for the New York Times, has taken on the hodgepodge of colorful history that defines the town on the Cape’s tip for his latest project, “Building Provincetown,” a sort of social and cultural encyclopedia in book and online form.
His idea was to write a Provincetown guidebook about not just history and architecture but also the people and the culture.
The Story of the People
“One of the things that dawned on me is, you see enough wood-framed buildings with gabled roofs. You have to tell the story of the people, even though what you’re doing is using the buildings as an organizing principal,” he said.
The story of the buildings, he said, is incomplete, “without the stories of the people in them, the people who built them, the people who live in them, who created art in them and raised families in them.”
He has spent years interviewing locals, including people of Portuguese descent whose families lived in town for generations, as well as local artists and historians.
The book is expected to be published in August 2014, but much of it is already available to browse online at Dunlap’s website, Building Provincetown.
There a reader can find a fresh perspective on the Provincetown streetscape.
Saltworks & Ice Houses
As an example, what’s that mass of lumber sticking up behind the Angel Foods grocery store? A replica saltworks partially built by historian George Bryant who had planned to construct a windmill to go with it before his wife put the kibosh on the project.
Further east is the five-story Ice House Condominiums. Incongruously large and boxy, the building is not well-loved.
But Dunlap said the structure is actually a historic part of the skyline, indicative of the town’s industrial past.
“I think that really is a significant building,” Dunlap said about the former ice house. “It tells us any number of things. It is a very old building given a new purpose. It tells you a lot about Provincetown. It was very much a working port. It’s a fishing town and fish have to be kept cold to be marketable.”
In fact, Dunlap said, Provincetown had seven similarly sized cold storage buildings along the waterfront where fishermen would bring their catches before they were shipped to Boston.
Dunlap said the idea of having a home on the beach is a relatively new notion.
“Fishermen lived inland. The waterfront was for working,” he said.
Cape Cod Wave’s interview with Dunlap took place during a walk down Commercial Street beginning at his “favorite” corner.
Though he hesitated to choose a favorite, he picked the corner of Cook Street and Commercial Street in Provincetown’s East End as a good starting point because of the variety of interesting buildings nearby and the sheer beauty of the harborfront view. He points out how the majestic captain’s house on the corner has a lot that extends across Commercial Street to the beach.
“This is just sublime,” Dunlap said, looking out toward the water.
Next to the beach lot is the former home of Admiral Donald MacMillan, an Arctic explorer whose name was given to Provincetown’s largest wharf—and is the reason there is a stuffed polar bear in the Provincetown Museum.
“A great hometown hero,” Dunlap said, “who after traveling to the North Pole lived out his years a few doors down from where he was born.”
The Provincetown Museum also has audio recordings of MacMillan who frequently gave lectures during his retirement.
Dunlap said he got a kick out of hearing MacMillan’s stentorian voice in the old recordings, sounding like world leaders from a distant time.
Dunlap demonstrated the accent, a combination of FDR and JFK: “We found a frozen harbor. . .”
One the other side of the waterfront lot is a picturesque cottage, a favorite of painters, that long belonged to the well-known Brown/Malicoat family.
“There’s that tremendous history of that great artistic clan,” Dunlap said about the house.
Looks Can Be Deceiving
The next house down is a modern box of a house, now another condominium.
It is very plain looking, but Dunlap quickly explained its importance.
“That doesn’t look like much of anything, but that is one of the greatest galleries of the 1950s, where Nat Halper had his HCE Gallery. The front was originally a jalousie window wall,” he said.
Researching that gallery took Dunlap to the archives of the Smithsonian Institution, which has material on the early years of Provincetown’s art colony.
Further east with its ornate tower is the Schoolhouse Gallery, originally built in the 19th century as the Eastern School. Over the years, it served as a community center and an American Legion post and there was even talk of turning it into a shoe factory to bring industry back to town.
But in the 1950s, Leo Manso and Victor Candell established an art school in the space. It morphed from that, Dunlap said, into the Long Point Gallery, one of the town’s most prestigious artist cooperatives.
Thoreau Was Here
The building was constructed in the 1840s and Dunlap said one of the nice things about it is that given its vintage, “you can safely assume that Thoreau laid his eyes on this.”
Thoreau in his writings about Cape Cod, spoke of a schoolhouse in Provincetown where sand was up to the top of the desks. The one he was referring to was probably Central School on Bradford Street, Dunlap guessed, which was torn down many years ago.
Heading back toward the center of town, there is the old Flagship Restaurant, now a private home. The owners have let Dunlap chronicle the before and after of their transformation of the building.
“It looks much more like [artist Ambrose] Webster’s studio, which it was,” he said.
The Disappearing Fleet
In the course of researching the book, Dunlap came upon another realization, that writing about the built environment of Provincetown would be incomplete without the fishing boats, “so I have tried to record as many of those as possible.”
Dunlap said the captains of Provincetown’s fishing fleet have been “enormously generous about letting me on their boats.”
“They are very amused when I clamber down into fish holds and engine rooms,” he said.
Dunlap said he was wide-eyed while spending time with the fishermen.
“People have no idea how large the fish hold is. There were fish on deck above the scuppers. I had to capture all that,” he said.
It is no secret that the fishing industry in Provincetown is dying a slow death, as a way of life is strangled by ever more stringent regulations. There are only about 15 to 20 boats left in the Provincetown fleet.
Since Dunlap researched his book, two of the vessels he wrote about have sunk, both with a loss of life.
One was one of the last Eastern-rigged boats, a style in which the pilot house is located in the stern.
But near the end of Macmillan Pier in the midst of other fishing boats is another Eastern-rigged beauty, the Richard and Arnold, a 1920s vessel that Dunlap said was converted into a fishing vessel in the 1930s and has had the same name since then.
It was allegedly built for the mobster Dutch Schultz to use as a rumrunner.
“It was designed as a motor schooner and the lines are very much like a schooner—very graceful,” he said.
Dunlap said tourists disembarking onto Macmillan Pier from the Boston ferries may not know about the town’s rich maritime past.
“They are in search of history and history is floating right in front of them,” he said.
The Old Portuguese Families
No research of old Provincetown is complete without talking with the descendents of the Portuguese families and Dunlap has interviewed many of them.
He said he had the good fortune to be able to interview Jessica Lema in the home she lived in since 1939, before she passed on at the age of 100.
Besides modern plumbing, her house was virtually unchanged since the 17th century.
About the rusticity of her house, Dunlap observed, “She had a wonderful attitude. Who needs a doorknob?” Instead the Lemas had the old gravity latches that came with the house.
The project is nearing an end, Dunlap is continually finding new people to interview and new stories to tell. He feels it is his mission to capture and record the disappearing aspects of Provincetown life.
On the changing nature of the town, which had to close its high school last year and has among the highest housing prices on Cape Cod, Dunlap was circumspect.
“I think there’s no question that a town with less and less of a year-round community is a diminished community. To my mind, the closing of the high school, while absolutely inevitable given the current circumstances is a tragedy. Simply a tragedy. There’s no other way to say it.
“I’ve not spent a winter here but I’m told by those that do, with every passing winter, it just becomes quieter and quieter,” he said.
As people buy up the old houses and restore them, Dunlap said, “The town looks prettier and prettier but without a large full time year-round community, I don’t know what you have left.”
Dunlap said a couple of things prompted him to write the book. “The first was my own curiousity about a lot of the buildings in town that were not covered in the abundant guidebooks and histories that are out there. There are shelves of books, many wonderful books, but there was not comprehensive guide. I was astonished. In a town full of artists and writers and historians, how could there not be such a book.”
He decided to give it a try.
A Labor of Love
He started on the project in 2007. In 2009, he started the website, which he quickly realized was a way to keep the project continually up to date. People can submit comments and personal recollections to the website and those can then make their way into the book.
The book is a non-profit venture, a collaboration with the Town of Provincetown.
Dunlap, who is doing the book pro bono without any compensation at all, is working closely with Provincetown Town Clerk Doug Johnstone, Stephen Borkowski, former chairman of the Provincetown Art Commission and current member of the Historical Commission, and Eric Dray, head of the Provincetown Historical Commission.
Town Meeting members voted $12,500 in Community Preservation Act funds to print copies of the book.
Dunlap said he has room for about 580 entries in the book, but the website already has about 2,500 entries and counting. If the book sells well, there may be an updated, larger edition in the future, he said.
Dunlap said he hopes the first edition of the book will be available by late summer. But just when he thinks he has finished chronicling the town, he finds something more.
“In Provincetown, it never ends. Just yesterday I went to spend two hours with just about the last lobsterman who lives in town, Alex Brown,” Dunlap said.
Brown’s house on Franklin Street is set on a hillside where he keeps his lobster traps and and at the base of the hill, as Dunlap described it, is a completely rusted out but still recognizable 1938 Chevrolet that was used in the bootlegging business.
“So,” Dunlap said, “whenever I think I’ve seen everything Provincetown has to show, suddenly I’m in the presence of a 1938 Chevy.”