From Alden Street to Young’s Court: A Living History of Provincetown’s Built Environment

May 1, 2013 8:00 am0 commentsViews: 501
David Dunlap

David Dunlap

by Steve Desroches

New York Times reporter David Dunlap first came to Provincetown in 1989. Like many gay men, he and his then boyfriend came here to enjoy a world famous “gay resort.” But upon arrival his idea of Provincetown changed dramatically as he walked through town captivated by the design and architecture of each building and the history each held within.

“My jaw must have dropped,” says Dunlap regarding his first time seeing Provincetown. “This is so much more than just a summer resort.”

With an insatiable sense of curiosity, journalistic prowess, and perseverance to dig through history, Dunlap began Building Provincetown, a townwide survey documenting the “built environment” of the town and placing it in historical context combining architecture, civic history, and local culture.

The result is a constantly expanding blog featuring an historical document the likes of which has never been done in Provincetown before. Building Provincetown is a mind-blowing, comprehensive document that encompasses every element of a town with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to history.  At its core the project seeks to collect the history of the town’s structures, both inside and out, and in turn tell the story of the town and have it available for future generations.

Dunlap laughs when accused of having a fabulously productive case of O.C.D., signifying it isn’t the first time he’s received this armchair diagnosis. Is he really going to photograph and document EVERY building in town? No. A rough estimate places the number of buildings in town at 4,000.  And included in his project are important buildings that no longer exist, lost to fire, development, and other causes. Thus far he has documented about 1,400 buildings as well as about 1,000 vessels.

“You can’t do this and just ignore the boats,” says Dunlap. “They are as important or more so than the built history of the town.”

When completed, Building Provincetown will hover somewhere around 2,500 buildings. However, to narrow it down to that number and ensure the final product is as complete as possible, Dunlap is looking into every nook and cranny, eave and rooftop, front and back door throughout all of Provincetown.

“It’s a constant journey of discovery and re-discovery,” says Dunlap.

In addition to his 30 plus years as a reporter at the New York Times, Dunlap has tackled similar, and bigger projects of the same nature in the past. He’s the author of From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship and On Broadway: A Journey Uptown Over Time, both books that obsessively document each building relating to the geographical subject matter.  Dunlap’s father William was an architect with the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and worked on the Sears Tower in Chicago. The family tie to architecture and an interest in history as well as his enchantment with Provincetown result in his unique style of door-to-door reporting.

But this type of project would not have been possible ten years ago, says Dunlap. Access to historic information and documents in New York City are plentiful, but it is only recently that there has been a push to make information and collections more accessible to the public in Provincetown via preservation and digitization, as well as continued efforts to organize and expand on historical resources in town.  The Provincetown History Preservation Project, spearheaded by Town Clerk Doug Johnstone, with the help of volunteers and the town’s Historical Commission, scanned a treasure trove of historical information and made it available via the town’s Web site.  In particular, digital access to the archive of the Provincetown Advocate and the scrapbooks of Althea Boxell (who herself obsessively chronicled the town’s history), owned by artist John Dowd, have been especially helpful, as have individuals like Stephen Borkowski.  Those resources along with the Barnstable County Registry of Deeds, the Provincetown Public Library, the town assessor’s database, and the town’s digital copies of the Cadastral and Sandborn maps open up a world of history previously unavailable.

All of the information made public in Building Provincetown is either from public records or from interviews with property owners who gave permission to publish their stories. And Dunlap says he focuses on honoring privacy when requested. However, perhaps the best asset to the success of this project is the gleeful generosity and willingness to participate of the town’s residents and property owners. Wrinkled brows and a concerned “may I help you?” at the sight of a stranger with a camera and notepad, have turned to a smile and a welcoming “I’ve heard about this; come on in” once people know the reason for the knock at the door.

Anyone familiar with Provincetown knows how myths and legends spread quickly, adding a challenge to making sure the history recorded is complete and accurate.

“I’ve come to the conclusion after six years of intensive research that every house in town started off at Long Point and was floated over,” says Dunlap with a sweet, sarcastic smile.

While not every building in town is historically or culturally significant, the survey is far from myopic. It tells the whole story, reflecting the great diversity on every level that makes Provincetown special,  not just whaling captain’s homes and the cottages of artistic and literary greats.  From grand stately homes built in the 1880s to traditional Cape Cod ranch houses built in the 1950s, through a combination of factors of design, who lived inside, function, and history, the homes chronicled tell a fascinating story.

In 2010 town meeting voters approved $12,500 of Community Preservation Act money to cover printing costs of a book version of Building Provincetown (Dunlap will not receive any money for his efforts as he is doing this pro bono). The target publication date is 2014, to coincide with the centennial celebration of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.

To learn more about Building Provincetown visit www.buildingprovincetown.wordpress.com. For more on the Provincetown History Preservation Project visit