The tentacular reach of the United Fruit Company in the 20th century earned it the name by which it was known in the “banana republics” of Central America: el Pulpo — the Octopus. Only a few people know that it reached all the way into the cornerstone of the Pilgrim Monument, where a copy of its annual report was deposited in a sealed copper time capsule. The connection between the monument and United Fruit was Capt. Lorenzo Dow Baker (1840-1908), who began importing Jamaican bananas to Boston in the 1870s. He co-founded United Fruit in 1899 and was a director of the Cape Cod Pilgrim Memorial Association. He and his family owned 162 Commercial from 1900 to 1918.
The next owner was equally noteworthy: George Elmer Browne (1871-1946), an accomplished American Impressionist and one of the leading instructors whose summer schools turned Provincetown into a thriving art colony in the early 20th century. He was also, Dorothy Gees Seckler wrote in Provincetown Painters, 1880s-1970s, a vintage Bohemian character. “Wearing his natty white cotton hat, he was a perennial partygoer, and most happily in his element at the annual Beachcombers’ clambake.”
“His watercolors were as skillful and popular as his oils; in either medium, the challenge for Browne was to capture the drama of a place. He was not content, as were most of his academic friends, to pose a model and fill in a landscape background from imagination. His style required the handling of people and place as a unit, equally saturated with light, moving to the identical rhythm.”¹
The house at 162 Commercial was constructed in the mid-19th century, according to the Historic District Survey, though its central chimney and hipped roof suggest to me that it might have been somewhat older. At the end of the 20th century, it was owned by William T. Atkins (1853-1902) of Provincetown, and his wife, Bessie Elsworth (Beaver) Atkins (1858-1931) of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Atkins was a nephew of William A. Atkins (1818-1897), owner of the magnificent house next door, 160 Commercial Street.
On the morning of Wednesday, 31 August 1898, the Atkinses’ 4-year-old daughter, Lillian Russell Atkins, went out to explore the Central Wharf across the street, which must have been a source of irresistible curiosity for a small child. Just beyond the sail loft — and probably not even noticed amid the tumult of activity on the wharf — Lillian stepped through a hole in the deck and plunged to her death in the high tide below. Her parents never recovered. They couldn’t bear to look out their windows to the wharf across the street.¹⁵
In 1900, they sold 162 Commercial Street to Baker. (The widow Atkins would later remarry one Andrew T. Powe.) Captain Baker was then approaching the height of his power and influence. A year earlier, in 1899, he and Andrew Woodberry Preston had merged their Boston Fruit Company — centered at the time on Jamaica, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic — with the multifarious interests of Minor Cooper Keith — centered at that time on Costa Rica and Colombia — to form the giant United Fruit Company combine. It was the largest banana producer and seller in the world. And Baker was known as the “Banana King.”
“In almost every respect, Baker was the picture of a 19th-century New England seafarer,” Dan Koeppel wrote in Banana. “He was weathered, broad-chested, with a rough beard framed by sometimes-wild sideburns. He didn’t speak so much as shout, and he possessed the classic circumspection that characterizes both his home and his profession.”²
Left: Capt. Lorenzo Dow Baker. Right: Lorenzo Dow Baker Jr. Both portraits are taken from The Pilgrims and Their Monument, by Edmund J. Carpenter. Father and son were both directors of the Cape Cod Pilgrim Memorial Association, which built the Pilgrim Monument.
Frankly, I don’t know yet how the Baker family used the property at No. 162, since they were deeply settled in Wellfleet. But it is a fact that both Baker Sr. and his son, Lorenzo Dow Baker Jr. (1863-1950), were intensely interested in the Pilgrim Monument, to which the father gave liberally. His death, at 68, robbed him of the chance to see the monument completed. Baker was eulogized by Edmund J. Carpenter in The Pilgrims and Their Monument for having “imparted to the movement much of the same energy shown by him in the establishment of the large and lucrative banana trade with Jamaica.”³
It’s impossible today to accept the contemporary characterization of Baker as a benevolent and generous man who lifted the island out of despond following the collapse of the sugar industry by opening an enormous new market to its produce. “Regarded as Benefactor by Citizens of Jamaica,” The Boston Globe declared in the front-page headline announcing his death on 22 June 1908.
A different interpretation has long since come to the fore. “White supremacy permeated the lives of UFCO employees,” James W. Martin wrote in Banana Cowboys. “By the early 20th century, U.S. industrialists had long understood the utility of racially segmented work forces headed by whites, who exploited racial and cultural differences to thwart labor activism and keep wages as low as possible.”⁴
Baker’s winter home was an estate in Port Morant, near the southeastern tip of Jamaica, just a mile or so from the site of the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion. In this infamous episode, the British colonial governor brutally suppressed an uprising by black Jamaicans protesting the injustice and poverty pervading their lives, even though they were nominally free. The appalling death toll of the white government’s response numbered in the many hundreds of people.
Golden Vale, a Jamaican banana plantation at Port Antonio run by Baker’s Boston Fruit Company — predecessor of United Fruit — around 1894. From Popular Science Monthly, through Wikimedia Commons.
(Long after Baker’s death, in 1944, United Fruit introduced the world to “Miss Chiquita,” a singing and dancing banana anthropomorphized as a Yanqui vision of a Latina entertainer, complete with fruit-basket hat. Under subsequent owners, the company was renamed United Brands in 1970 and Chiquita Brands International in 1999.)
Baker Jr. sold 162 Commercial Street to Browne in 1918. Baker died in January 1950 at 82 Bradford Street, the home of John F. and Dorothy E. Linskey, after what The Globe called a long illness. That building is now part of the Crowne Pointe Historic Inn and Spa complex.
Not many months after acquiring 162 Commercial, Browne opened his West End School of Art in the house. He taught landscape and figure painting, in oils and in water color. Classes continued there at least until 1921. By 1930, his school — by then known as the Browne Art Class — was being conducted at 60 West Franklin Street. But Browne continued to use No. 162 as a summer residence, as did his wife, Lillian Brooks (Putnam) Browne (1864-1954), and their son, Harold Putnam Browne (1894-1931), who was also a painter.
Browne arrived at 162 Commercial with a formidable reputation, one that kept growing while he was here. A native of Gloucester, he had studied under Frank W. Benson and Edmund C. Tarbell at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (now the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University); Joseph DeCamp and Ernest Lee Major at the Cowles Art School in Boston (defunct); and Jules Joseph Lefebvre and Tony Robert-Fleury at the Académie Julian in Paris (now Penninghen).
George Elmer Browne in 1919. From the Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art, through Wikimedia Commons.
An advertisement from the 1919 catalog of the Provincetown Art Association, in the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 5626.
The French government purchased Browne’s The Bait Sellers of Cape Cod from the Salon of 1904, evincing a higher regard for the painting than at least one earlier critic, as Browne related:
“I was working there on the coast of the Cape, the canvas was a large one, and the work was pretty well along. An old sea captain coming up from a neighboring boat flung a great sized cod down by my easel
“‘Look at that for a fish, man,’ said he.
“‘That is a huge fellow,’ I replied, admiring the fish at some length. ‘By the way, what do you think of this picture?’
“‘Umph,’ he replied, and then after a few moments’ reflection, said, ‘Say! but isn’t that fish a whopper?'”⁵
Four of Browne’s paintings were accepted for the 1914 Salon — “the maximum that any exhibitor is allowed to have hung,” as The New York Times noted. By that time, he had already shown twice at the highly influential New York gallery, M. Knoedler & Company.⁶
George Elmer Browne, a portfolio
The Bait Sellers of Cape Cod was purchased by the French government from the Salon of 1904 and pictured in The Burr McIntosh Monthly of June 1907.
Untitled (Provincetown Landscape), a 12-by-15-inch oil at the Julie Heller Gallery.
Untitled (Stella), 1930s, an 8-by-10-inch pencil drawing in the collection of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, was given by Dana Jordan, Accession No. 1572.D99.
The Wain Team, c1909, an 53½-by-63⅝-inch oil painting in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, was given by William T. Evans, Object No. 1910.9.3. “Wain” is an archaic term for wagon.
The acquisition by the Metropolitan Museum of Art of Browne’s Abandoned, a 40-by-50-inch oil painting, occasioned an article in The New York Times issue of 23 January 1936. It was acquired through the Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, Accession No. 36.15.
Harbor Scene With Fishing Boats, c1910, a 10⅜-by-13¾-inch oil painting in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, was given by Dr. Naomi M. Kanof (Mrs. Max Tendler), Object No. 1981.147.1.
A great deal of the appeal of Browne’s work — at least to me — lies in the spare power of his landscapes and seascapes. “There is one large mass set against another,” Cora E. Wells explained in 1907, “one central tone in juxtaposition to one of greater or less value, and throughout the canvas a simplicity in the lines of composition that excludes any definite detail work but suggests an infinite amount of it to the mind. The general effect is one of bigness.”⁷
Browne was made skipper of the Beachcombers in 1919 and 1920, an associate member of the National Academy of Design in 1919, a member of the committee to draft a constitution and by-laws for the Provincetown Art Association in 1921, an Officier de l’Instruction Publique et des Beaux Arts by the French government in 1925, a full National Academician in 1928 — hence the “N.A.” you’ll frequently see after his name — and a chevalier (knight) of the French Legion of Honor in 1936, the same year that the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired Browne’s haunting Abandoned, a four-foot-two-inch-wide depiction of a derelict dory on the beach edge of a mountainous shore.
He played other roles in civic affairs. As the Beachcombers’ skipper, Browne was a member of the executive committee charged with planning the 1920 tercentenary of the first contact (or the Pilgrims’ landing, as it used to be called). At one point, the idea was floated to create an elaborate Beaux-Arts processional approach from the harbor all the way to the monument, which Browne painted. The notion was championed by Edwin Atkins Grozier’s Boston Post. A barrel-vaulted, open-air pavilion would have projected into the water, about where Fishermen’s Wharf is. Next would have come a gazebo, then a quadrangle on the east side of Town Hall, with a fountain at its center. The north-south axis of the quadrangle would have ended at a sculpture, behind which three broad flights of stairs would have led up High Pole Hill — a kind of pedestrian forerunner to the current Bradford Access Project inclined elevator. What got built instead was the Town Green and Signing the Compact, a/k/a the Bas Relief. Ryder Street was also widened, though not as much as in Browne’s rendering.
George Elmer Browne’s architectural rendering of a processional approach from the harbor to the Pilgrim Monument may be seen in person at Town Hall or online at the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 1384.
The Brownes’ son, Harold, was 37 when he died in June 1931 of hypostatic pneumonia. Only three months earlier, his water colors had been exhibited at the Milch Galleries, 108 West 57th Street, where he was introduced to the public as “an artist by heritage, a New Englander by birth, a cosmopolitan by interest, and a wanderer by inclination.” Fluent in French, Harold Browne had served in Europe during World War I as a sergeant in the Army’s Corps of Intelligence Police.* He was buried with military honors in Salem.⁸
His father followed him almost exactly 15 years later, in July 1946, just as his summer school was reconvening. He was stricken by an embolism in this house after returning from dinner on a Friday night. The cast of pall bearers attested to the regard with which Browne was held in the art colony: the artists Jerry Farnsworth, Charles Lloyd Heinz, Ross Moffett, Charles John Romans, John Whorf, and Donald Frederick Witherstine.⁹
162 Commercial Street, painted white, is at the center of this remarkable postcard photograph, posted by Donna Silva on the My Grandfather’s Provincetown Facebook page, 29 June 2020. You can also see the cupola of the Grozier-Cabral house rising over No. 162.
162 Commercial Street in 1952, in a photo composite that was — let us say — inartfully butted together. It’s from the Scrapbooks of Althea Boxell (Book 2, Page 66), in the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 722.
Mrs. Browne survived him by eight years. The property passed into the hands of the painter’s brother, Ralph C. Browne (1880-1960), who is pictured in the article about Grozier Park, across the way at 161 Commercial Street. From him, it passed to his widow, Florence M. Browne (1903-2003).
She sold 162 Commercial in 1980, for $103,000, to the partners in the Boatslip Realty Trust — Roland L. “Chick” Chamberland (1920-1990), Peter E. Ryder, Charles E. “Chuck” Mehr, and Alan E. Mundy — whose principal holding was the Boatslip Beach Club across the way, at 161 Commercial Street. They sold it in 1994 for $285,000 to Kenneth C. Weiss.
Weiss was the developer of 25 Bayberry Avenue, 38 Bayberry Avenue, 99 Bayberry Avenue, 101 Bayberry Avenue; 72-74 Bradford Street; 136 Commercial Street; 48-58 Harry Kemp Way; 4 Montello Street; 48-60 Race Point Road; 3, 5, and 7 Telegraph Hill Road; and he oversaw the final phase of Seashore Point, 100 Alden Street.
Weiss told me in 2013 that he regarded the reconstruction of 162 Commercial Street five years earlier as his “proudest accomplishment” in Provincetown.¹⁰
162 Commercial Street in 2019. Photo by David W. Dunlap.
The project was not without drama, however. Weiss had sought in 2006 to demolish the building. Told he could not do that, he said he spent two years working on a plan that would allow renovation to advance. In 2007, he was permitted to remove the rear of the house while preserving the front facade.¹¹
That work, by GFM Enterprises, began 15 September 2008. A day later, the structure was found to be unstable, and the managers of the project applied to the Historic District Commission for an emergency permit that would allow for complete demolition. Gary Locke, of the William N. Rogers II civil engineering concern, told the commission the building had been found to be full of rot. But John Dowd, the chair of the commission, said that removing all the interior walls and the rear exterior wall would make any building unstable.¹²
The commission denied Weiss’s request, compelling him to retain what was left of the building. Supporting beams were inserted under the remaining structural shell and the house was lifted — whole — off the old foundation, so that a new concrete foundation could be poured. Then the shell, including its front and side walls, was returned to the new foundation, and the renovation proceeded.
Weiss said the end result was a “building that looks and is exactly as it was in the 1860s,” restored “exactingly to its original grandeur.”¹³
“Remember we were working with a 150-year-old house that was also unsafe and falling down,” he continued. “The roof was literally falling in, and the structural integrity of the house was seriously compromised.”¹⁴
Left: The sign for the Gary Marotta Fine Art G-1 gallery in 2019. Right: The home page of the gallery’s website in 2020, featuring the work of Manuel Pardo.
Commercial tenants in the years just before the renovation included Captain Jim’s Cape Charters and Kinlin Grover Real Estate. Robert Paul Properties first occupied the retail space after the renovation. (At this writing, Kinlin Grover is at 374 Commercial Street, and Robert Paul is at 192 Commercial Street.)
In 2012, the Gary Marotta Fine Art G-1 gallery moved here from 432 Commercial Street. Artists represented by the gallery in 2020 included Luis Cruz Azaceta, Katy Bisby, Ria Brodell, Cara de Angelis, Carola Doll, Michael Eade, Milton H. Greene, Frank Malafronte, Joe McCaffery, Manuel Pardo, Segundo Planes, Maggie Simonelli, and Kimberly Witham.
Weiss and Michael F. Fernon transferred the deed to the property in 2015 to the Michael F. Fernon Revocable Trust and Fernon himself as trustee.
¶ Last updated on 6 July 2020.
162 Commercial Street on the Town Map.
Thumbnail image: Photograph, 2008, by David W. Dunlap.
• William T. Atkins (1853-1902)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 143821933.
• Capt. Lorenzo Dow Baker (1840-1908)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 67263471. Wellfleet.
• Lorenzo Dow Baker Jr. (1863-1950)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 152387057. Wellfleet.
• George Elmer Browne (1871-1946)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 184830864. Salem.
• Harold Putnam Browne (1894-1931)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 171515099. Salem.
• Lillian Brooks (Putnam) Browne (1864-1954)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 210300644. Salem.
• Bessie Elsworth (Beaver) (Atkins) Powe (1858-1931)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 153413159.
¹ Provincetown Painters, 1890s-1970s, text by Dorothy Gees Seckler, Syracuse: Everson Museum of Art, 1977, Pages 29-30.
² Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, by Dan Koeppel, New York: Hudson Street Press, 2008, Pages 52-53.
³ The Pilgrims and Their Monument, by Edmund J. Carpenter, New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1911, Page 259.
⁴ Banana Cowboys: The United Fruit Company and the Culture of Corporate Colonialism, by James W. Martin, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2018, Pages 41-42.
⁵ “The Individuality of George Elmer Browne,” by Cora E. Wells, The Burr McIntosh Monthly, June 1907.
⁶ “Americans at Big Salon; Unusually Large Number of Paintings by Them Accepted,” The New York Times, 29 March 1914, Page 3. “George Elmer Browne,” by Ruth Pasquine, in Paintings and Sculpture in the Collection of the National Academy of Design (Volume I), edited by David B. Dearinger, New York: Hudson Hills Press, 2004.
⁷ “The Individuality of George Elmer Browne,” by Cora E. Wells, The Burr McIntosh Monthly, June 1907.
⁸ “Exhibitions Now On in the Galleries of New York,” by Ruth Green Harris, The New York Times, 22 March 1931. “Noted Artist Dies,” The Provincetown Advocate, 18 June 1931.
⁹ “Another Fine Artist Leaves His Provincetown,” The Provincetown Advocate, 18 July 1946.
¹⁰ Kenneth C. Weiss email to the author, 11 November 2013.
¹¹ Kenneth C. Weiss, paraphrased remarks in the minutes of the Historic District Commission hearing of 1 October 2008. “Demolition Dispute,” by Pru Sowers, The Provincetown Banner/Wicked Local, 25 September 2008.
¹² “Demolition Dispute,” by Pru Sowers, The Provincetown Banner/Wicked Local, 25 September 2008. Gary Locke and John Dowd, paraphrased remarks in the minutes of the Historic District Commission hearing of 17 September 2008.
¹³ Kenneth C. Weiss emails to the author, 25 November 2013 and 30 June 2014.
¹⁴ Kenneth C. Weiss email to the author, 2 July 2014.
¹⁵ “Sad Accident,” Yarmouth Register, 3 September 1898; William Turner Atkins obituary, Yarmouth Register, 1 March 1902, Page 8. Found and contributed by Denise Avallon.