Red Inn (Atkins-Strachauer house).
There are few hostelries in town as charming, romantic, or photogenic as the Red Inn, which has been receiving guests for a century, and has operated under the current name since 1915, according to David Silva, a third-generation native who now owns it, with Sean Burke and Philip Mossy Jr. Sitting at a slight bend in the road, lushly planted, sharing a bit of its expansive water frontage with passers-by, it really resembles nothing so much as one of those pastel-tinted, linen-paper postcards of the early 20th century, come to life.
At the core of the complex is a Federal style house that was built in about 1805. This is the building you see as you approach the inn through the Commercial Street gate. Some sources say that Capt. Freeman Atkins (1790-1854) constructed the house for his wife, Miriam “Maria” (Gross) Atkins (1794-1877). Others point out that Atkins was a teen-ager in 1805 and that the couple didn’t marry until 1812. Well, that’s Provincetown history for you: just pay attention to the story you enjoy most. The great age of the house was indicated by the fact that its front door faced the harbor, which was Provincetown’s main thoroughfare long before the creation of Commercial Street.
The Widow Atkins sold the house in 1872 to Hermann Strachauer (1838-1913), a German-born musician and music teacher.¹ In June 1873, Strachauer placed an advertisement in The Advocate announcing the beginning of his 10-week summer season as a “Teacher of Piano, Singing, Organ, and Musical Composition.” His ambition was greater yet:
Mr. S. desires to call the attention of the Church choirs of Provincetown (and of those who read music) to his proposition of forming these into one grand choir for a general improvement in singing and the practice of a high order of Church and secular music.²
His concerts were evidently quite popular. The Advocate described Strachauer’s performance on 21 August 1879 as an “exhibition of skill and brilliancy known to but few organists in the country.” A post card caption from this period makes the point even more clearly: what had been the Atkins home was now known as the Strachauer House.
Strachauer’s children were themselves fixtures of Provincetown life. Leonora (Strachauer) Cowing (1859-1934) owned the Willows, at 25 Tremont Street, while Hermina (Strachauer) (Hunt) Hotchkiss (1864-1931) owned 15 Commercial Street until 1909, when she transferred the title to her brother, Dr. Clarence Strachauer (1860-1941), a dentist. He belonged to an entire colony of Provincetown residents who left Cape Cod in 1879 to resettle in the very young state of Minnesota.³ Clarence’s son, Dr. Arthur C. Strachauer, a surgeon, spent summer vacations in town. But his son, Hermann N. Strachauer, didn’t pay his first visit to Provincetown, from Minneapolis, until 1966; an event recorded in The Advocate.⁴
The era of the Red Inn began in 1914 when the Strachauers sold 15 Commercial Street to Henry Wilhelm Wilkinson (1869-1931), a prominent architect in the Arts and Crafts movement.⁵ A Cornell graduate, Wilkinson worked in Boston for Ralph Adams Cram before being hired in 1900 by the Gustave Stickley Company in Syracuse, N.Y., where he is credited with having helped design Stickley’s line of “New Furniture.” In 1909-1911, Wilkinson was the designer and one of the developers of the Harperly Hall coöperative apartment building at Central Park West and West 64th Street in Manhattan, praised by Christopher Gray in The New York Times as an “Arts and Crafts masterpiece.”
In Provincetown, Wilkinson doubled the size of the Strachauer House with an adjoining structure to the south; virtually an echo of the original Atkins home, complete with hipped roof, but offset slightly to the west. This expanded building was inaugurated in 1915 as the Red Inn, run by Wilkinson’s sister, Marion Wilkinson (1861-1932), until her death. Among her guests in 1920 was the 28-year-old poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, three years shy of winning the Pulitzer Prize.⁶
For a view of the Wilkinson addition, please see 15 Commercial Street.
Charlotte May Wilson (1895-1980), a Smith alumna of the Class of 1917, succeeded her aunt in 1934 as the manager of the Red Inn. She was in charge for the next 32 years, an exceptionally long tenure for any Provincetown innkeeper. Early in her proprietorship, in 1936, she expanded the inn 40 feet westward, toward Commercial Street.
For a view of the Wilson addition, please see 15 Commercial Street.
During this period, the Red Inn also maintained the Red House, 18 Commercial Street, as an annex to house the staff and overflow guests.
Wilson transferred the title in 1967 to Robert C. Dickinson of Truro and Joseph B. McCabe of Provincetown.⁷ But she was one of three grantees in 1971 when the title changed hands again, this time also to Frederick N. “Ted” Barker and Marceline Cooke Abare-Barker (1929-2017).⁸ “Ted Barker, its new owner, is restoring the entire inn as it was in 1915,” The Advocate said in August 1971.
He wants to keep it small and intimate, in the scale of the West End and reflecting its history. He has recovered some of the original furnishings and is restoring them. Some of the china that he uses in the restaurant dates back to 1915. Barker is also planning to restore the original silver used by the inn.⁹
At some point, the sculptor Conrad Malicoat was engaged to create one of his astonishing fireplaces and chimneys, which greets visitors in the anteroom.
For a view of the Malicoat fireplace, please see 15 Commercial Street.
The Barkers transferred their title in 1983 to her son, Richard J. Abare, who sold it in turn in 1985 — for $1.115 million — to Duane A. Steele, the publisher of The Advocate. He ran it with his wife, Mary-Jo Avellar, who was the manager of the inn.
With the next year came the Red Inn’s chance for international exposure, as the “Widow’s Walk” in Norman Mailer’s feature-length movie, Tough Guys Don’t Dance. Of a winter’s night, the protagonist, Tim Madden (played by Ryan O’Neal), fatefully meets Jessica Pond (Frances Fisher) and Lonnie Pangborn (R. Patrick Sullivan) in the otherwise empty bar at the Widow’s Walk. He overhears Pond loudly complain to Pangborn: “I said I wanted to go to this place on the map — Provincetown, the very tip of the little finger of Massachusetts. Now, it’s a matter of waiting, looking at one another. Right? No action. Right?”
“That’s what you get for trusting a map,” Madden says, from a few tables away. With that, Pond invites him over and Madden engages the couple with his description — almost wholly inaccurate, as it happens — of Helltown.
Madden: A hundred and fifty years ago. Out there. Across the harbor, a mile. Whores. Whalers. Pirates.
Pangborn: Pirates? In New England?
Madden: On a moonless night, they’d build a beach fire. An incoming boat would mistake it for the lighthouse and run aground. These pirates would plunder it. Orgies of plunder.
Pond: And they floated all that bedlam over here?
Madden: In certain houses, you can still hear the cries of slaughtered sailors.
Later in the movie, Madden is summoned to the Widow’s Walk by Acting Police Chief Alvin Luther Regency, who tells him that Pangborn’s body was found inside his car after the inn’s proprietor called the police to ask them to tow the vehicle. “My friend,” Regency says, “he put himself inside the trunk and pulled the trigger.”
In October 1989, real-life disaster struck when an arsonist set fire to the Red Inn. Deborah J. Addis and her husband, James E. Reed, who were staying on the second floor of the inn, later sued Steele, Avellar, and the Tamerlane Corporation, controlled by Steele, which was the legal lessee and operator of the inn. “The plaintiffs were awakened by the fire alarm,” Justice Gerald Gillerman of the Massachusetts Appeals Court wrote in 1995.
They ran down the stairs they had ascended earlier. The premises were darkness and full of smoke; the dining room was afire. First, they tried to leave by the door through which they had entered that part of the building; it was locked. Other efforts to escape from the first floor were unsuccessful. Ultimately, they returned to the second floor, forced open a window, jumped out, and were injured.¹⁰
The court found that the defendants had created a foreseeable risk by failing to provide adequate lighting and egress, but reversed the Appellate Division’s imposition of personal liability on Steele and Avellar.
As this legal battle played out, the Shawmut Bank foreclosed on the mortgage in 1992, and Robert J. Kulesza and Michael P. Clifford acquired the Red Inn at public auction.¹¹ Clifford sold the property to David Silva and partners in 2001 for $1.475 million.¹²
Silva had been the proprietor of Silva’s Seafood Connection, 175 Bradford Street Extension. Burke was working at Clem & Ursie’s, 85-87 Shank Painter Road. Mossy was his partner; at the time, in life as well as business. The couple saw the “For Sale” sign, made an offer, and closed within a week, Andy Towle wrote on Towleroad.¹³
“The energy in it was scary,” Silva told Towle. “It had a heaviness.” The new owners remodeled the kitchen, expanded the dining room, added a basement and a partial second floor, moved bathrooms and guest rooms, and rebuilt the bar with rafters salvaged from the old kitchen, Towle said. He went on to quote Silva: “We are often asked, ‘What is one of the biggest unknowns about the Red Inn?’ My response has always been the same: that the Red Inn has accommodations.”
Eight, to be precise: three rooms (Cape Light, Long Point Light, and Sunset View); three suites (Harbor’s End, Monument View, and Pilgrim’s Landing); and two full dwellings (Chauffeur’s Cottage and Delft Haven Residence). Rack rates in 2018 ranged from $160 a night for the Long Point Light Room in spring to $655 a night for the Delft Haven Residence during the summer.
The dining room, under Mossy, won the gold award for a romantic restaurant (it is certainly that) in Cape Cod Life‘s 2017 “best of” listings for the Outer Cape. In the same compilation, it won a silver for waterview restaurant.
¶ Last updated on 10 November 2020.
¹ Atkins to Strachauer, 4 September 1872, Barnstable County Registry of Deeds, Book 109, Page 513.
² The Provincetown Advocate, 25 June 1873.
³ The Provincetown Advocate, 6 March 1879.
⁴ The Provincetown Advocate, 13 October 1966.
⁵ Strachauer et alia to Wilkinson, 8 October 1914, Barnstable County Registry of Deeds, Book 335, Page 173.
⁶ The Provincetown Banner, 5 December 1996.
⁷ Wilson to Dickinson et alia, 26 June 1967, Barnstable County Registry of Deeds, Book 1370, Page 153.
⁸ Dickinson et alia to Barker et alia, 1 July 1971, Barnstable County Registry of Deeds, Book 1517, Page 528.
⁹ Provincetown History Preservation Project, Dowd Collection, Page 1108. (Scrapbooks of Althea Boxell, Book 4, Page 48.)
¹⁰ Deborah J. Addis and another vs. Duane A. Steele, individually and as trustee and others, 38 Mass. App. Ct. 433.
¹¹ Tamerlane et alia to Kulesza et alia, 12 August 1992, Barnstable County Registry of Deeds, Book 8155, Page 249.
¹² Clifford et alia to Silva et alia, 20 December 2001, Barnstable County Registry of Deeds, Book 14606, Page 227.
¹³ “Provincetown’s Iconic Red Inn Celebrates 100 Year Anniversary,” by Andy Towle, Towleroad, 2 October 2015.