Former Ruth Gilbert Real Estate | BEKS Condominium (Unit 7).
How appropriate that the most conspicuous and picturesque unit in the BEKS Condominium should have been the headquarters for two decades of one of the town’s living landmarks: Ruth Gilbert, real estate broker, 18-year FinCom member, Provincetown Art Association trustee, and an “ambulance driver” of the station wagon that ferried patients with AIDS and H.I.V. to and from hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ offices in Boston in the 1980s and ’90s. Gilbert and Milton L. Isserlis (1922-2009) purchased Unit 7 in 1992 from the BEKS Limited Partnership, for $190,000. She owned it for the next 20 years, selling it to a resident of Newton for $610,000. It is now owned by a couple from Fort Lauderdale, who bought it in 2015 for $700,000.
Gilbert, a 1973 graduate of Southern Connecticut State University, came to town that year with a friend — in a Triumph Spitfire — after being laid off from her job as a social worker at Yale-New Haven Hospital. It was a lark. In fact, they didn’t think of going any farther than Falmouth at first. But once they got here … well, you know what happened.
Sand got in their shoes.
Left: Unit 7 in a 2019 photo by David W. Dunlap. Right: Ruth Gilbert in a photograph from the website of Atlantic Bay Sotheby’s, where she continues to work.
They opened a terrarium shop in the old Whaler’s Wharf artisans’ complex at 237 Commercial Street, and actually made a small profit. After flirting with a return to life off Cape, Gilbert settled full-time in Provincetown in 1975. Her first husband, Jim Green, ran the Picture Yourself Portraits caricature gallery, also in Whaler’s Wharf. Her first volunteer job, in the late 1970s, was at the Drop-In Center, 6 Gosnold Street, a free, communal medical clinic and counseling office. She worked the night shift, meaning that she saw a lot of kids strung out on hallucinogens.
In 1979, she and Green took custody of his two young children. Gilbert became an “instant mother,” and recognized that a summertime terrarium shop might not be the most stable and remunerative of career paths. So she studied for a real estate broker’s license in Hyannis and was hired in 1980 at Roslyn Garfield Associates by Garfield (1921-2012) and Phyllis Temple (1928-2008), whose office was then at 115 Bradford Street.
Not long into Gilbert’s new professional life, gay men in Provincetown began dying from infections caused by a virus that did not yet even have a name. “I started seeing all these sick people,” she recalled in a 2010 interview with Ann Maguire for the Our Town program on Provincetown Community TV, “and I knew I just couldn’t do nothing.”
What she began doing — after an organizing meeting at the home of Preston Smith Babbitt Jr. (1941-1990), 158 Commercial Street — was driving patients to medical appointments in Boston in a little red station wagon that had been purchased for the purpose. She took the wheel at least once a month and thought of herself as an “ambulance driver.” Looking back on almost a decade of volunteer work in 1997, Gilbert told Jan Young of The Cape Codder:
“Things have changed so dramatically. In the beginning, there were only two hospitals in Boston — Deaconess and Mass General — which would even see AIDS patients. Due to the new drug therapies, the clients are much healthier now. On my trip the week before Christmas, two of the seven passengers returned from their appointments to announce that their doctors could find no traces of H.I.V. It made me cry.”
Look very closely at this 2009 photo, and you can see the Ruth Gilbert sign. Dunlap.
This ad appeared on the cover of The Banner’s Real Estate section, 17 November 2005. The Bay Harbour development replaced the Tides motel at 837 Commercial Street.
Gilbert’s indefatigable volunteerism made her a familiar face around Town Hall. At first, in the mid-1980s, she served on the Planning Board, under Alix L. L. Ritchie, who would go on to become the founding publisher of The Provincetown Banner. The condo boom was in full swing by then. “Planning really got overwhelmed in the ’80s because of subdivisions and multifamily developments,” Gilbert said in the Our Town interview. Moreover, she was encountering too many potential conflicts of interest from working simultaneously as a town planner and a real estate broker. So she broached the possibility of serving on the Finance Committee with Garfield, who was then the town moderator. The words had scarcely escaped Gilbert’s lips. “You’re on,” Garfield said.
“When you love a town,” Gilbert said, “you pay back, you give back to it.”
Gilbert served the remainder of a three-year term, then five full three-year terms until 2009, broken by a brief hiatus. Referring to the uncomfortable — if historical — wooden seats in the Town Hall auditorium, Gilbert joked to Maguire that she’d spent so much time on FinCom “because we had soft, cushy seats up front” during Town Meeting.
In 1994, she married Isserlis, a native of Pawtucket, R.I., an alumnus of Brown University, and a World War II veteran of the Army Air Forces, in which he had served as a staff sergeant stationed in England. He received a law degree from Boston College and spent 25 years in the Providence firm that came to be known as McOsker, Isserlis & Davignon. Then he moved to Provincetown in 1989, studied for the Massachusetts bar, and began practicing law here. Clients sometimes paid with artworks. Or lobsters.
Ruth Gilbert Real Estate, founded in 1990, operated out of 167 Commercial from the early 1990s until 2010, with Mary Ann Cabral as associate. There are several houses in town that Gilbert said she had sold three times in her career. A year after closing 167 Commercial, both Gilbert and Cabral turned up across the street, working for Atlantic Bay Sotheby’s; Gilbert on a part-time basis so she could spend winters in Florida.
The dedication of Gilbert and Isserlis to the town was returned with a communal embrace after he died at Cape Cod Hospital. After an all-night vigil in Hyannis, Gilbert and members of his family drove down to Provincetown early the next morning.
“We pulled in the driveway, and there was a quart, a plastic container, in a bucket, with ice in the bucket. And it was a quart of scallops. Just sitting on my front steps. No note. No anything. But I knew immediately who they were from, because it was somebody he had helped. Obviously, word had already gotten through town that he had passed away. And there they were.”
In the coming days, Gilbert was to receive some 400 sympathy cards. “You can’t suffer alone in this town,” she said, “unless you want to.”
From across the square, in 2011. By Dunlap.
The gables of Unit 7 modestly evoke the bargeboards that can be found on buildings like 115 Bradford Street, where Gilbert also worked, as a young broker. 2019, by Dunlap.
¶ Last updated 31 July 2020.
167 Commercial Street on the Town Map.
Also at 167 Commercial Street:
Thumbnail image: Photo, 2019, by David W. Dunlap.