Homage to Heritage Museum and Chaim Gross by Mary Spencer Nay
The Provincetown Public Library is located in the building that was once the Center Methodist Episcopal Church. This structure, like many in Provincetown, has had a long and varied history of use. When it was built in 1860 as the Center Methodist Episcopal Church it was reputed to be the largest church of Methodist denomination anywhere in the United States. It cost $22,000 to complete and could seat 900 people in the 128 pews.
The original steeple, weakened during the Portland Gale, was 162 feet tall and contained a huge bronze bell cast by George Holbrook in Medway, Massachusetts. The present spire rises 100 feet from the ground. Looking from the end of MacMillan Wharf towards town, the building is one of the most prominent on the skyline.
In 1958 the Methodist congregation sold this building at 356 Commercial Street to Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., son of the founder of the Chrysler Corporation, for conversion to an art museum. Walter Chrysler ran the Chrysler Art Museum with limited success until 1970. Discouraged when the Town of Provincetown would not help him find parking for visitors to the museum, Chrysler packed up his collection and moved to Virginia where he opened a modern facility still operating today.
For a number of years the building stood abandoned until, in 1974 two local men, Jules Brenner and Frederic Jungmann, bought the building from Chrysler for $90,000 with the idea of starting a “Center for the Arts.” Unfortunately the idea was a cultural success but a financial failure, and the building was bought back by the bank after only one year of operation.
Through the efforts of the Provincetown Historical Association and the Historic District Study Committee, the building was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. It received certification in October 1975. Subsequently in 1976, at a special town meeting, a group of citizens secured a vote to acquire the building for $135,000 and turn it into a local historical museum. The Provincetown Heritage Museum officially opened to the public on July 4, 1976. A dedicated group of volunteers set up exhibits on various aspects of the town’s heritage. It was at this time that the half scale model of the schooner Rose Dorothea was built and installed in the building. The Heritage Museum operated on a seasonal basis with a minimal staff and a dedicated group of volunteers through the summer of 2000.
Through the years the number of people visiting the Heritage Museum had gradually begun to decline. At the same time use of Provincetown’s public library, located in a small building on the corner of Freeman and Commercial Street, was steadily growing. A new library building was needed to accommodate this increased use. After much study and discussion with citizens of the town, the Trustees of the Library concluded that the building housing the Heritage Museum at 356 Commercial Street could be successfully renovated and transformed into a new library for the Town.
At Town Meeting on April 2, 2001 the Provincetown Heritage Museum property was officially conveyed to the Board of Library Trustees for rehabilitation of the property as the Provincetown Public Library. In 2002 renovations began when the firm of Perry Dean Rogers was engaged to design the new library. The Provincetown Public Library website set forth the plans, “The interior of the building will be completely gutted, reconstructed and restored to its original design insomuch as is possible. . . . Finally complying with the Massachusetts Historical Commission requirements to maintain the grand staircases and restore the vaulted ceiling in this National Historic Landmark property, the stairs will be re-railed in order to open them for use by the public, and the vaulted ceiling will be enhanced with a secondary vault to embrace and accommodate the masts of the Rose.”
In April 2005, the new Provincetown Public Library opened in the former Heritage Museum building bringing new life to this magnificent 1861 wooden structure. Inside, the Library is bright, spacious and designed to retain the feeling of the grand open spaces of the former church. The Library now occupies two main levels and a mezzanine and looks forward to future expansion space for the Library’s collection in the lower level.
Seating on the mezzanine offers magnificent views of Provincetown Harbor. The railings of the dual historic entrance staircases have been repaired and are now embraced by local artist John Dowd’s magnificent mural of the building and harbor skyline in moonlight.
There are quiet reading rooms for the traditional Library patron as well as wireless Internet access and personal computers for those with hi-tech requirements. On the first floor, much of the collection is contained in custom-built cases that were constructed by Provincetown master carpenter Bill Ingraham as a gift to the Town. The unique feature of these cases is that they re-use the mahogany arm rests from the church pews found in the basement before renovation.
Located downtown on the center of Commercial Street, the Library is heavily used and the wonderful space and light from the large windows is appreciated by patrons and visitors of all ages. The Library now houses nearly 40,000 items as well as more than 30 works of art, including the 1907 silver Lipton Cup, from the Town’s Art Collection.
One of the missions of the library is to incorporate as much of the Heritage Museum’s collection into the new Library as possible. Today, the half-scale model of the Rose Dorothea sits in the center of the Library’s Children’s Room and a small, climate-controlled room to house the Josephine C. Del Deo Heritage Archives (the documents and photographs from the Heritage Collection) is located in the lower level.