Rose & Crown Guest House.
Distinctive enough for its noble, 18th-century, Federal-style lines — to say nothing of its bosomy figurehead — the Rose & Crown is also a landmark in the history of Provincetown’s communal response to the AIDS epidemic. In 1982, Preston Smith Babbitt Jr. (1941-1990), the proprietor here, began working with Alice Foley (1932-2009), the town nurse, to prepare whatever desperate lines of defense they could against a killing disease known as GRID, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. The next year, they organized what would become the Provincetown A.I.D.S. Support Group (now the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod). For the first couple of years, the agency basically operated out of Foley’s car and Babbitt’s home. Irene Rabinowitz, an early volunteer, told the interviewers and authors Jeanne Braham and Pamela Peterson: “I can imagine what some people must have thought when they checked into Preston’s elegant Victorian guest house and stumbled over six cases of condoms.”¹
The Rose & Crown Guest House in 2008. Photo by David W. Dunlap.
John Dowd noticed the Ionic portico that was still in place at 158 Commercial when this photo was taken in the 1890s. The picture was posted by Salvador R. Vasques III on his My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection page on Facebook, 15 April 2019.
The Massachusetts Historical Commission survey dates the building to 1790. Like so many properties in this part of town, it was once owned by the Nickerson family. At the time, it still had an Ionic portico not unlike that at 396 Commercial Street. Julia Davis (Marston) Fisher (1846-1924) acquired the property from the Nickersons in 1903, two years after the death of her husband, Isaac. In 1916, she sold it to the Graces.
There began a half-century history in the hands of a single family: Rose Elizabeth (Costa) Grace (1881-1965); her husband, Capt. Manuel J. Grace (1861-1932); their daughter Natalie Julia “Nettie” (Grace) Patrick (1908-1997); and — most importantly for our story — their daughter Jessica Henrietta (Grace) Lema (1911-2012). You read her dates correctly; Mrs. Lema lived to be 100 years old. At the age of 94, with her daughter, Jessica Lema Clark, she wove a lovely reminiscence of life in this house as a child:
“My mother and father bought the house at 158 Commercial Street when I was a baby and kept it in mint condition: the shades were always drawn halfway and the ruffled curtains all matched, except in the kitchen. The front yard was two plots of grass with a brick walk in between and two little plots of flowers against the house. …
“One of my earliest memories is of playing house under our big dining room table. And my mother preparing crackers and cocoa and serving the cocoa from a tall pot with a Japanese design into small cups and saucers for me and a friend outdoors on a small table and chairs in a corner of the yard made by the addition of the kitchen and the side of the dining room. I also remember coming home to find my doll, with a new dress or a new crocheted sweater or hat, sitting on the back steps.
“My father was semi-retired when I was a baby due to kidney disease
and became a fish buyer for a firm in Havre de Grace, Maryland. … In the evening I remember my father cracking walnuts and sitting around and eating them. My father put apples halfway back on the coal stove and we’d eat them half cooked. … I remember coming home from school and smelling fragrant cigar smoke when I opened the door. My father said he smoked only good cigars.
“In the fall, my father would go to Boston to check on some stocks or other business matters and he would order a barrel of crackers and a barrel of cookies, a bushel of apples, bushels of potatoes, sugar, flour, etc., which was delivered by train and by a big flatbed horse-drawn conveyance. He would bring home a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of wine; the wine was saved for Thanksgiving and Christmas and each night be would mix a little hot water, a little whiskey, and a pinch of sugar in a tiny glass and drink that at nine o’clock and say, ‘It’s bedtime.’ These two bottles lasted all winter.
“My mother routinely traveled to the Jordon Marsh department store in Boston where she exhibited hand-appliquéd and hand-quilted blankets. Every year, she won an award. She would also visit a factory where she would purchase wool remnants for $10 a bag and would pass the next winter making braided rugs.
“When my father died, my mother had two upstairs and downstairs verandas removed to authenticate the square colonial captain’s house. The house was always perfectly painted.
“My sister, Natalie, ‘Nat,’ and I slept in a small bedroom off the dining room where we could see Highland Light circling in the harbor that put us to sleep in minutes. With the building of the Boatslip Motel, Highland Light is no longer visible.”²
Left: Jessica and Natalie Grace in the early 1910s. Right: Their mother, Rose Grace, is indicated by the arrow. She stands next to her sister Agnes at the front door of No. 158. Both pictures come from a family memoir entitled Nana and Poppy: A Provincetown Love Story, compiled by Jessica’s daughter Jessica Lema Clark.
Harriet C. Leonard, the proprietor of the Hobby Shop, was a tenant of the Graces. The ad comes from The Provincetown Advocate, 27 July 1939, Page 4.
Lawrence S. Richmond took this photo in the 1940s. Lauren Richmond, his daughter, furnished it to Building Provincetown in 2020.
Althea Boxell created a composite panorama made of three photos butted together. They were taken in 1952 and can be seen in Book 2, Page 65 of the Scrapbooks of Althea Boxell, on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 700.
Left: Mary Gove Bacon Bicknell was a tenant of the Grace family in the late 1940s. The photo comes from an obituary found in Book 4, Page 33 of the Scrapbooks of Althea Boxell on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 26. Right: This watercolor Self Portrait was painted in 1922 by Fritz Pfeiffer and given to the Provincetown Art Association and Museum in 2002 by Helen and Napi Van Dereck.
Left: Broken Dock is a white-line woodblock print by Hope Voorhees, Fritz Pfeiffer’s wife. It can be found in the Town Art section of the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 1684. Right: The Children’s Corner is a 1938 monoprint by Pfeiffer. It can be seen in Town Art section of the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 1680.
Among the Graces’ more important tenants over the decades was Harriett C. Leonard, a craft artist whose principal medium was loom weaving. For at least one season, 1939, Leonard operated the Hobby Shop here, selling copper work, greeting cards, paintings, pewter work, pottery, prints, textiles and weavings. She was also a promoter of Provincetown craft workers, superintending a public exhibition in 1940 at the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union (forerunner of Economic Mobility Pathways), 264 Boylston Street, Boston. Leonard cited her landlady, Mrs. Grace, for special praise as a rug-maker. “The enthusiasm shown for both hooked and braided rugs adds weight to my often expressed conviction that rug-making could easily be developed into a paying project,” Leonard wrote in The Advocate. “The surprise expressed and the praise given to the finer crafts [like photography] was gratifying and proof of their excellence.”³
Mary Gove Bacon Bicknell (1873-1968), the organizer of the Wharf Players Theater at 83 Commercial Street, lived in the rear cottage during the summers of 1948 and 1949, after the death of her husband, the artist and etcher William Harry Warren Bicknell.
Rose Grace applied in 1955 for a license to operate a studio at 158 Commercial. That probably paved the way for the arrival of the family’s most significant tenants: the artists Fritz Pfeiffer (1889-1960) and his wife, the artist Hope Voorhees Pfeiffer (1891-1970).
The Advocate described Fritz Pfeiffer as “one of the earliest of the purely abstract painters in Provincetown,” and one who “remained remarkably consistent in his point of view and in his ideals regarding art.” For instance, Pfeiffer had three paintings in the 1934 Modern Exhibition at the Provincetown Art Association: The Vacant Lot, Vase and Candle, and On the Dunes. During World War II, The Advocate said Pfeiffer was among a small band of artists who helped the association “survive its most difficult period.”⁴
Pfeiffer was at home here on the afternoon of Friday, 10 June 1960, when fire broke out in the house. Lieut. Leo Morris of the rescue squad and Firefighter William Costa found him, overcome by heat and smoke, on the floor between the kitchen and living room. Morris administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until the ambulance arrived, after which he continued to be treated under the direction of Dr. Daniel H. Hiebert. The rescue squad ambulance took him as far as Mayflower Heights, where Pfeiffer was transferred to another ambulance for the trip to Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis. Hope Voorhees, who had been at the Public Library at the time, rushed home on receiving the news.
Pfeiffer died four days later.
Among the surviving family members still in town is a great nephew, Shaun D. Pfeiffer, artisan and proprietor of Provincetown Picture Framing, 288A Bradford Street.
On Rose Grace’s death in 1965, the property was sold to John H. Quinn, of Provincetown Realty & Consultants. He sold it in 1970 to Jane Bramley and Catherine S. Touchette. They sold it three years later to the Damon family: H. Gilroy and Virginia P. Damon, of Wallingford, Pa., and William F. Damon of Provincetown. The Damons sold it in 1976 to Romain Roland (1927-2008) and his wife, Eileen (Rusling) Roland (1932-2017).
I don’t know whether the Damons or the Rolands transformed the property into the Owl’s Nest guest house, but it was listed as such in a Provincetown business directory printed in 1975, just before it changed hands. “It is now modernized and refurbished to function as a comfortable year-round gay guest house, featuring apartments and large private rooms with baths,” the directory said.⁵ Gay guest houses rarely advertised themselves so explicitly in general-interest publications in the mid-1970s. David Jarrett recalled the proprietor of the Owl’s Nest as Bernard Cohen. “Young guys rented from him at very low rates,” Jarrett told me in 2014.
The Rolands also operated the Chez Romain restaurant, 157 Commercial Street, and lived next door to the restaurant, at 155 Commercial Street. “While they were renovating Chez Romain across the street, they would serve full breakfasts to the public at the guest house,” Stephen Milkewicz recalled. They sold the guest house in 1979 to Preston Babbitt and his partner, Thomas F. Nascembeni, of Northampton.
The Massachusetts Historical Commission survey of 1973-1977 at the Provincetown Public Library includes this photo of 158 Commercial, called the Beacon House.
Preston Smith Babbitt Jr., in the photo accompanying his 1990 obituary in The Cape Codder. It can be found in the Safe Harbor/AIDS Archive collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 4841.
This ad appeared in the 1981 guide book prepared by the Provincetown Chamber of Commerce. “Tom” is Thomas F. Nascembeni.
Born in Braddock, Pa., Babbitt attended high school in Warren, R.I., then the University of Massachusetts. He was teaching art in Ludlow at the time that he and Nascembeni purchased 158 Commercial Street, which Babbitt renamed as the Rose & Crown, according to the official website. They were co-proprietors of the guest house as the first cases of Gay-Related Immune Deficiency — later named Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome — began appearing in Provincetown, often in the form of ravaged young gay men who could find neither care nor support anywhere else.
In Starry, Starry Night, Jeanne Braham and Pamela Peterson described how Babbitt and Foley came to create the Provincetown A.I.D.S. Support Group:
“Alice Foley, the town nurse, was among the first to encounter people with a ‘mysterious killing virus,’ several of whom were referred to Provincetown because ‘the gay community will take care of its own.’ One day, while visiting a man who was ill and undercover, she met Preston Babbitt ‘going in as I was coming out. We made plans to meet and talk about our perceptions of what was going on.’
“Babbitt, the owner of the Rose & Crown, a Victorian guest house on the West End, was a successful businessman and energetic community leader. He handled the business incorporation while Foley began to gather and disseminate information about the disease. At first Foley and Babbitt, sensing the urgency of the problem, worked out of the trunks of cars, creating a mobile unit of sorts.
“As they realized that ‘a devastating disease was heading our way, one that was going to be affecting our friends and neighbors,’ they began wider-reaching efforts. ‘Provincetown was medically isolated, and a system of health and home-care services needed to be put in place,’ said Foley. She lobbied legislators to lift funding restrictions; she and Babbitt wrote grants which provided substantial operating monies, and gradually developed an organization which provides the current full range of services to those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.”⁶
All this time, the Rose & Crown wore a jaunty face. “The area that is now the front patio was at that time a large-scale collection of Barbie Dolls, other figurines, [and] fountains as well as many pieces of décor for passersby to marvel at, take photographs and even give donations that would then be given to local charities,” the Rose & Crown website recalled.
Babbitt didn’t confine his energy to the cause of AIDS care and support. He served as president of the Provincetown Business Guild, president of the board of trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House, and as a member of the Provincetown Historical Commission. He died of AIDS, at 48, in his parents’ home in Tiverton, R.I.
Left: A detail of the Rose & Crown sign in 2010. Right: The figurehead, Jane Elizabeth, was added to the building in 1998. It’s shown in 2011. Photos by David W. Dunlap.
The nighttime view was taken by David W. Dunlap in 2019.
The landing page of the Rose & Crown’s website, in 2020.
Shortly before his death, Babbitt transferred ownership of 158 Commercial to the PL&C Realty Trust, which sold it in 2003 for $425,000 to Andrea M. Sousa and Ann H. MacDougall, of Warren, R.I., who transferred it in 2004 to Rose & Crown L.L.C., managed by MacDougall and Laura J. Borge. As of 2018, the manager of the guest house itself was Austin Fiszel. (Is this the Austin Fiszel who plays Chub in BearCity 2: The Proposal?)
There were six guest rooms as of 2020: the Apartment, with rates ranging from $150 off-season to $275 in high season; the Rose, $125 to $250; the Parlor, $125 to $250; the Crown, $125 to $250; the Pasha, $85 to $140; and the “cute and cozy” Eleanor, $65 to $100. The Cottage, across the rear yard, is rented for $300 a night in high season.
The figurehead, named Jane Elizabeth was added to the building in 1998.
¶ Last updated on 17 February 2020.
David Jarrett wrote on 29 December 2014: In the 1970s, Owl’s Nest was owned by Bernie Cohen, who owns a residential building on Bradford and Winthrop. … Young guys rented from him at very low rates.
Stephen Milkewicz wrote on 21 February 2020: Before Preston and Tom owned the Rose & Crown, it was owned by Eileen and Romain Roland. And while they were renovating Chez Romain across the street, they would serve full breakfasts to the public at the guest house.
158 Commercial Street on the Town Map.
Also at 158 Commercial Street:
Thumbnail image: Photo, 2010, by David W. Dunlap.
For further research online:
• Preston Smith Babbitt Jr. (1941-1990)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 171773793.
“Provincetown Activist Babbitt Dies at 48 After Long Illness,” by Lisbeth Lipari, The Cape Codder, 17 July 1990, in the Safe Harbor/AIDS Archive Collection on Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 4841.
• Mary Gove (Bacon) Bicknell (1873-1968)
Find a Grace Memorial No. 113362562.
• Julia Davis (Marston) Fisher (1846-1924)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 51239151.
• Rose Elizabeth (Costa) Grace (1881-1965)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 164599818.
• Jessica Henrietta (Grace) Lema (1911-2012)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 162458869.
• Natalie Julia “Nettie” (Grace) Patrick (1908-1997)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 162567796.
• Rose & Crown Guest House
¹ Starry, Starry Night: Provincetown’s Response to the AIDS Epidemic, by Jeanne Braham and Pamela Peterson, Cambridge: Lumen Editions, 1998, Page 57.
² Nana and Poppy: A Provincetown Love Story (Jessica Grace Lema and Joseph Lema Jr.), by Jessica Lema and Jessica Lema Clark.
³ “Boston Approves Cape End Crafts; Exhibit Definitely Points Way to Profitable Work,” by Harriett C. Leonard, The Provincetown Advocate, 2 May 1940.
⁴ “Artist Succumbs to Fire Injuries,” The Provincetown Advocate, 16 June 1960, Page 1.
⁵ Provincetown or, Odds and Ends From the Tip End (Facsimile Edition / New Bicentennial Guide), Provincetown: Peaked Hill Press, 1975, Page 214.
⁶ Starry, Starry Night: Provincetown’s Response to the AIDS Epidemic, by Jeanne Braham and Pamela Peterson, Cambridge: Lumen Editions, 1998, Pages 2-3.