Massachusetts supports it public libraries. Since 1990 the State has funded construction or extensive renovation of 200 libraries throughout the State. As a long time supporter of public libraries I often stop into local libraries. I particularly like to visit old libraries that have been renovated to see how the designers and community blend the old and the new. On a crisp winter afternoon in Provincetown I ascended the granite steps of the Provincetown Public Library and encountered a place of such wonderful contrasts and amenities it brightened the entire overcast sky.
In 1860 the Center Methodist Episcopal Church opened in Provincetown, the largest Methodist church in the United States. A pair of curvilinear mezzanines flanked the three-story high nave to create a sinuous interior void reminiscent of a giant hull. The church’s 162-foot steeple addressed the harbor as it towered above Commercial Street. The steeple toppled in the Portland Gale of 1898 and was reduced to a 100-foot tower that is still majestically tall.
The congregation whittled and sold the building for $22,000 to Walter P. Chrysler, Jr in 1958. The automotive giant’s son turned it into the Chrysler Art Museum. The Museum enjoyed variable success and relocated to Virginia in 1970. The building stood empty until 1974, when a pair of ambitious bohemians opened a center for the arts; a cultural success but financial failure. Within a year the bank foreclosed on the aging building.
Faced with a functionally obsolete but architecturally and culturally significant building, the Provincetown Historical Association and the Historic District Study Committee placed the building on the National Registrar and the citizens of Provincetown allocated $135,00 to purchase the building and turn it into a museum. The Provincetown Historical Museum opened on July 4, 1976.
Flip back 69 years. In 1907 the tea millionaire Sir Thomas Lipton offered a $650 prize and the largest silver trophy ever made, the Lipton Cup, to the winner of the Fisherman’s Cup Race between Boston and Gloucester. Despite losing her foretopmast in the final moments of the race, Provincetown’s fishing schooner, Rose Dorothea, won the prize. The Fisherman’s Cup was never run again, the giant trophy came to Provincetown, and the Rose Dorothea brought in many great catches before being sunk by a German U-boat in 1917.
In 1977 the Provincetown Historical Museum began an ambitious exhibit: a half-scale replica of the Rose Dorothea built within the sanctuary of the former church. Master ship builder Francis A. ‘Flyer” Santos, sail maker Ernest W. Smith, and master rigger Frank James spearheaded construction of the 66’-6” long by 12’-6” beam wide by 48’-0” high model. They used seasoned wood, some from the building itself, to create this accurate facsimile.
Despite this amazing boat within a building, patrons to the Provincetown Historical Museum dwindled while the town’s library, a few blocks away, became tight on space. In 2002, the building was repurposed yet again as the public library, but many elements of the Provincetown Historical Museum, including the Rose Dorothea, where integrated into the building’s renovation.
Over 150 years, Provincetown’s Public Library has been a church, museum, abandoned shell, community center, and museum again. Floors were filled and removed, and this gigantic folly of a ship pokes through the ceiling. Provincetown’s rich and eclectic history comes alive in this unique library where computers sit tight against the hull and the travel books are next to the Lipton Cup Trophy. The flights of fancy that libraries offer us all are made real within the walls of the Provincetown Public Library.
Provincetown Public Library from the Town Dock
Provincetown Public Library
The Lipton Cup at the Library’s entrance
Pews from Central Methodist Episcopal Church form ends of book shelves
Rose Dorothea model
Rose Dorothea from the Mezzanine