Cape Cod Cold Storage engine house.
What little aesthetic charm the cold storage plant possessed came from the deep front porch on the engine house. With its evocation of homespun coziness, this was perhaps a deliberate architectural acknowledgment that the plant stood in a residential district — an early 20th-century version of contextual design. But it was more than that. To judge from a 1938 newspaper article, the workings of the plant’s two great steam engines could be seen from outside the engine room, even across the street.¹ That touch harks back to the proud showcasing of mechanical equipment at expositions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It also foretells somewhat the future fascination with transparency.
The engine room pumped out a calcium chloride brine into the skein of cooling pipes that lined the abutting four-story fish freezer. The brine was 27 degrees below zero.
Not that the front porch and stained-glass lunette above could disguise the vents, smokestack, and freezer, but they did add a slightly homey touch to a factory on a largely residential street. Image from the Postcard Collection on the Provicetown History Preservation Project website, Page 1752.
The porch was enclosed before this photo was taken, in September 1961. It comes from the Scrapbooks of Althea Boxell, Book 2, Page 71, on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 9.
“Machinists and engineers who come vacation-bound to Provincetown are drawn irresistibly,” Bob Clarke wrote in the 1938 article. “Although their vacation plans include swimming and historical pilgrimages, visiting machinists no sooner spy the flashing gears and pistons of the ATCO engine room than they cross the street to ‘talk shop’ with the superintendent.” In summer, as many as 100 visitors might peer in daily.
Charles Nickerson Rogers (1880-1945), the chief engineer at the time, was conscious of this showcase and kept the machinery spotless and the brass components shining. “People ‘eat with their eyes,” he told The Advocate. “Anything connected with the preparation of food must look clean and well-ordered, and a grimy engine room visible to the public would tend to become a standard by which the food itself was judged.” (It’s worth noting that Rogers had been a member of the town Board of Health for six years.)
A question that Rogers had to field constantly was whether the ammonia used in the freezing process could possibly taint the fish. He would explain that in the Cape Cod Cold Storage plant — unlike some others — ammonia was used only to chill the calcium chloride brine that actually circulated within the freezer. “The ammonia itself never gets the near the fish, much less in contact with it,” he said.
Well before the engine house was demolished in January 1975, its once-welcoming front porch was enclosed. We might hope that Rogers, an ever affable host, didn’t live to see it.
The lunette endured in 1961, even after the front porch was enclosed. Why do I have a feeling that it may turn up one day in someone’s basement, attic, or garage? The image is from the Scrapbooks of Althea Boxell, Book 2, Page 71, on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 9.
¶ Last updated on 30 November 2018.
125 Commercial Street on the Town Map.
Also at 125 Commercial Street:
Thumbnail image: Postcard from the Provicetown History Preservation Project website, Page 1752.
For further reading online
• Charles Nickerson Rogers
Find a Grave Memorial No. 172140420.
¹ “Machinery Appeals to Many Visitors; Engineer Charles N. Rogers Plays Host to Young and Old,” by Bob Clarke, The Provincetown Advocate, 8 September 1938, Page 2.