After decades of quiet existence as home to the Cook and Snow families, 143 Commercial Street passed from this world in 2001 in a blaze of controversy. The artist Jay Critchley — meaning to comment on the impoverishment of Provincetown’s historic fabric — hung a tattered banner and signs on the dilapidated house, declaring it to be the “Outermost Alms Museum.” Far from being amused, the owner, Christopher J. Snow, Esq., accused Critchley of trespass and destruction. The Town filed a criminal complaint against the artist that was dismissed nine months later in Orleans District Court.
The unlikely flash point of this encounter was a house with a prominent two-story bay, constructed around 1870, according to town records. It was purchased in 1908 from Stephen F. A. Atwood (1858-1914) and Minnie E. Atwood (1861-1939) by Capt. Manuel M. Cook (1864-1937), whose wife was Mary (Paige) Cook (1872-1961). At the time of the purchase, the Cooks also owned the abutting 141 Commercial Street, but they sold that the next year to John W. Deutra. Manuel Cook was the custodian of the Pilgrim Monument after he retired as a fisherman. Their daughter was Madeline V. Cook (1892-1955).
An early photograph shows the house on the move. It was not uncommon in town to physically transport entire houses from one site to another. This photo was posted by Salvador R. Vasques III in My Grandfather’s Provincetown on Facebook, 8 May 2016.
In 1914, when she was working as a clerk, Madeline married Ralph Powers Snow (1887-1957), a Provincetown native and surfman with the United States Life-Saving Service (later to become the Coast Guard). As was common at the time, Ralph moved into his in-laws’ house, working at the nearby Atlantic Coast Fisheries Cold Storage as a pipe fitter and fireman. Nearly 40 years after her parents had relinquished the abutting 141 Commercial property, Madeline Snow purchased it in 1946 from the estate of Bessie Florence Tyler, who had operated a well-loved sweet shop there. Mrs. Snow continued the business.
“My grandmother did operate a sweet shop at 141, where Bessie Tyler was, mainly to attract and provide a shop for kids, which she loved,” Christopher J. Snow told me in 2019. “She also allowed neighborhood children access to and use of the beach in summer. She also offered delicacies such as pickled pigs feet, and a warm coal stove around which men’s yarns were spun.” Ralph worked at Madeline’s Sweet Shop with his wife. She died two years before he did.
John Clifford Snow knew where he was going early in his life at 143 Commercial Street. His ambition, he said in the 1936-1937 Long Pointer year book, was “to study law.” Image from the School Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 5821.
The Snows’ only child was John Clifford Snow (1920-1985), who was to become one of the most powerful and influential figures of his generation in Provincetown — attorney at law, real-estate broker, town moderator, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, and town counsel. John still claimed 143 Commercial as his home address in the 1940 census, though he had by that time graduated from Provincetown High School and attended the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London. Snow served in the Navy during World War II, as boatswain’s mate second class. He married Joan Fitzgerald (1922-2011) in 1950, and the couple soon departed for Washington, where Snow — by now a graduate of the Boston University School of Law — worked three years as a trial attorney with the Department of Justice. When they returned to Provincetown, he opened the John C. Snow Real Estate agency next door, at 143 Commercial Street.
Provincetown was shocked in February 1985, when Snow was grievously injured in a three-car crash and hospitalized in Hyannis, where he succumbed, at the age of 64. His death occurred just before that year’s Town Meeting, at which he was to have moderated. When the meeting convened, Roslyn Garfield was elected acting town moderator — from the floor — in his stead.
143 Commercial Street in later years. Photo courtesy of George N. Tagaris.
A color photograph of the house was posted by Salvador R. Vasques III in My Grandfather’s Provincetown on Facebook, 8 May 2016, FBID=1711718402433858.
In the years after his death, 143 Commercial Street slowly fell into disrepair. “My father grew up there,” Christopher Snow told me in 2019, “and really had no ambition to change, sell, or rent it. After his death, we had an estate-related influenced purpose not to invest in improvements until settled.”
Eventually, the Town filed suit against Christopher Snow and the 141-143 Commercial Street Realty Trust to compel the demolition of the dilapidated structure. This work was completed in December 2001.
But not before Critchley turned the house into a cause célèbre in November 2001, when he hung a red-and-yellow swallowtail flag and two signs on the front bay proclaiming: “Outermost Alms Museum.” Critchley described his guerrilla art installation as a “symbol and lamentation on the recent and dramatic changes in the Provincetown community.”
“Provincetown has been a working class town. It was a charitable town that took care of its own: the wives and children of fishermen lost at sea, those needing help — the poor, the destitute — and more recently, people with AIDS.
“As one of the last underdeveloped homes in Provincetown, and the last on this heavily traveled downtown street, 143 Commercial Street sat in its decaying state for decades, an icon to the past as the community became gentrified. It enlisted inquisitiveness and concern from the hundreds of visitors and passerby who walked by it every day.
“The building is a reflection on the character of Provincetown, marking this passage in the story of the community. It is also a wake-up call for the community’s heritage and historic preservation, as more and more buildings are being destroyed.”¹
John Snow’s son, Christopher, was having none of it. Like his father, Snow is a prominent and influential lawyer. He called the police on Critchley.
“With malice aforethought, [Critchley] boldly assembled a ladder and tools to brazenly ignore the ‘NO TRESPASSING’ sign, then photograph it to market his cheap and insulting rendering in the name of ‘ART,’” Snow wrote to me.²
Left: The house after the banner was hung. Photo courtesy of Jay Critchley. Right: Critchley said he was honoring the vanished historic fabric of Provincetown by placing a spotlight on 143 Commercial. Christopher J. Snow said he was grandstanding, trespassing, and insulting his family. This article appeared in The Banner on 30 May 2002.
The Town charged Critchley with trespass and defacing property. Taken together, the charges could have resulted in 30 days’ imprisonment and fines of up to $200. As the case made its way through Orleans District Court, it also generated an exhibition, “Outermost Alms Museum: A Sampler,” at the DNA Gallery, 288 Bradford Street. “It all came out of a single action — putting a sign on the building,” Critchley told Sue Harrison of The Banner. The show included artifacts from about two dozen people — Hawthorne’s easel, a 19th-century high school year book, a ship’s bell — that spoke to the disappearance of Old Provincetown.⁴ Not long after the show ended, in August, Judge Joan E. Lynch of Orleans District Court dismissed the charges, fining Critchley $25 in court costs attendant to dismissal.³
Snow said the affair amounted to shameless self-promotion, Emily C. Dooley wrote in The Cape Cod Times, and an insult to his family. “I’m not interested in Mr. Critchley’s message,” Snow said. “Never have been, and I doubt I ever will be.”³
The distinctive red front door with oval window has survived in Snow’s hands.
The vacant lot left behind by the demolition of 143 Commercial was recorded for the Massachusetts Historical Commission in 2004.
¶ Last updated on 15 June 2020.
143 Commercial Street on the Town Map.
Also at 143 Commercial Street:
Thumbnail image: Photo posted by Salvador R. Vasques III in My Grandfather’s Provincetown on Facebook, 8 May 2016, FBID=1711718402433858.
For further reading online
• Minnie E. Atwood (1861-1939)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 119520388.
• Stephen F. A. Atwood (1858-1914)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 119492458.
• Manuel M. Cook (1864-1937)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 11542726.
• Mary (Paige) Cook (1872-1961)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 128512929.
• Outermost Alms Museum
“Outermost Alms Museum” web page.
• John Clifford Snow (1920-1985)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 170892974.
• Ralph Powers Snow (1887-1957)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 129413164.
• Madeline V. (Cook) Snow (1892-1955)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 128568717.
² Email to the author, 26 March 2019. Also, “Trespassing Complaint Rooted in Community Changes,” by Emily C. Dooley, The Cape Cod Times, 7 February 2002.
³ “Judge Dismisses Charges in ‘Trash or Art’ Dispute,” by Emily C. Dooley, The Cape Cod Times, 8 August 2002.
⁴ “Critchley Parlays Arrest Into Art,” by Sue Harrison, The Provincetown Banner, 30 May 2002, Page 40.