by Steve Desroches
While blooming flowers, breaching whales, and singing birds are all familiar signs of spring in Provincetown, but so too are the sounds of buzz saws and hammers, saw dust in the air, and the smell of fresh paint. Such is the case at the top of Carver Street as the iconic Gifford House undergoes a renovation of structure and a revival of its spirit. At the end of March, the historic hotel changed hands when Steven Azar bought the Gifford House from Jim Foss and Harvey Wilson, who had owned it for almost 30 years. As he settles onto a bar stool with a smile and sigh Azar shakes some saw dust from his hair and scratches at a bit of paint on his right hand. He looks around and sighs again before saying how there’s much still to be done, but that at its core the Gifford House is and will continue to be jewel in the crown of Provincetown’s independent culture and business community as well as an important part of its LGBTQ history and legacy.
“I just want to make her shine,” says Azar. “I think the hotel has such great natural bones.”
The sale of such a big property from one small LGBTQ business owner to another was welcomed buck to the trends of private equity groups and corporations gobbling up commercial real estate in town. With a 33-room hotel, a large restaurant and event space as well as three gay bars, at time when LGBTQ spaces are disappearing, the Gifford House was not only attractive to a local business owner like Azar, but for those investment groups looking to add a Provincetown property to their already large portfolios. But Foss and Wilson had no interest to selling to a corporate entity and Azar rolls his eyes and shakes his head when thinking of how the local phenomenon can dull local culture, LGBTQ expression as well erode community.
In a town with a long, long history of shedding its skin frequently and businesses changing not just ownership, but name and purpose with relative speed, those that last for decades gain a great importance to the town and its community as well as to visitors. That continuity is hard to maintain in a place like Provincetown with the unique challenges of its remote location, cost of real estate, the housing crisis, shrinking labor pool, and of course the season economy. But the Gifford House is nothing short of a miracle, as its one of the oldest continuous businesses in town, joining the ranks of place like the Atlantic House and the Crown & Anchor for longevity. According to David Dunlap’s Building Provincetown project, in which he documents the entire inventory of the town’s built environment, the Gifford House is over 150 years old and is often referred to as the original hotel in town providing accommodations to visitors different from traditional stage coach stops or rooming houses. Another marvel is that the original historic structure is largely the same as when it was built, also something that Foss and Wilson wanted to maintain in the future and to which Azar agrees.
As for its cultural legacy, a grand building perched atop Mill Hill, the Gifford House couldn’t help not only witness history, but make it. While it is rumored that Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft all stayed as guest (none spent the night in town), it is likely they were entertained at the Gifford House while visiting Provincetown with the namesake James Gifford giving the official welcome to Grant in 1874. A variety of owners maintained it as a top hotel and restaurant for decades to come as a major player in the development of Provincetown’s tourism economy as shifted from whaling to fishing to the art colony to a party town. Come the 1960s the Gifford House embraced the cutting edge when it was home to Beverly Bentley’s Act IV experimental theater company. An actor and wife of writer Norman Mailer, Bentley operated the Act IV from 1966 to 1969 presenting new works by playwrights like LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka), Terrence McNally, and Israel Horovitz with young actors like Al Pacino, John Cazale, Jerry Still, Anne Meara, and Jilly Clayburgh. Come the 1970s the transformation to a queer space would be rapid with the opening of Back Street in the former performance space of Act IV, now better known as Club Purgatory.
And, of course, under the ownership of Foss and Wilson, the Porch Bar became a hot spot with longtime manager Greg Daniels Streisel, and entertainment in what would later become home to restaurants like 11 Carver and Thai Aroi. Azar has quickly committed the history to memory, eager to put his own vision on the Gifford House, while paying respect to tradition and keeping the use of the building largely the same with the Porch and Piano bars and the basement nightclub. But what to do with the long empty room adjacent to the hotel lobby?
“It could be anything and everything,” says Azar. “It can be more than just a restaurant. It can be an event space, host to catered events. It can handle everything from readings to drag shows to becoming a 100-seat black box theater. There’s a lot of potential in just that room alone.”
A native of New Bedford, Massachusetts, Azar came to town for years as a visitor, moving here in 2019 to help open the Provincetown Brewing Company and then shortly thereafter buying a guest house and operating it as the Stowaway Inn on Bradford Street in the East End. In 2022 he sold the inn to the Summer of Sass, the non-profit program founded by comedian and Jill-of-all-creative-trades Kristen Becker that houses young LGBTQ adults from oppressive parts of the United States to start anew in Provincetown. With the sale complete he was looking for a new project and made an offer to Foss and Wilson on a whim. And now the yellow beacon of Carver Street, and not only her legacy, but future is in his hands as he takes the reins to welcome thousands of visitors as the summer season approaches.
“When it comes down to it it’s about community,” says Azar. “This is a gay and lesbian mom and pop business. We’re looking forward to carrying on such a great tradition and welcoming everyone here. I hope people support it.”
The Gifford House is located at 9 Carver St. For more information call 508.487.0688 or visit giffordsprovincetown.com.