Gibson Sotheby’s International Realty | 168 Commercial Street Condominium.
Real estate brokerages come and go on the Lower Cape, but Atlantic Bay (predecessor to Gibson) has stayed. And largely stayed in placed. Founded by Alan J. Wagg in 1976 at 166 Commercial Street, its home since 1996 has been here at No. 168, in the commercial units of the condominium; the first floor and basement. Increasing a sense of home is a generous front yard and white picket fence. In the past, 168 Commercial was associated with the Allen family, known for their heating, plumbing, and appliance business; with a prominent psychologist and amateur Provincetown historian; and with an award-winning architect whose projects included the Provincetown home of Rep. Gerry E. Studds.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when this parcel was denominated 167 Commercial Street, the building housed the tinware and stove business of Harvey O. Sparrow (b±1831), who was married to Oriana (Gross) Sparrow. In the 1880s, Sparrow was one of three tinsmiths and stove-makers in town. At the time, the main house came right up to the Commercial Street property line, closer even than No. 166. The tin shop was appended to the back of the house. The Sparrows’ property passed to their son Harvey O. Sparrow Jr. (±1866-1915), who got out of — or never got into — the tinplate trade. Instead, he was identified in the 1910 census as a storekeeper, and this property was carried in the assessor’s rolls of 1909 as a trading store.
168 Commercial Street in 2019. Photograph by David W. Dunlap.
(By 1909, the property was carried in town records as No. 168, after a great numbering switch along Commercial Street that has confounded historians ever since. There’s no neat formula by which you can determine the new numbers from the 19th-century numbers, but it helps to know that in the changeover, odd numbers moved from upland parcels to waterside parcels, and vice versa. As it happens, what is now 168 Commercial used to be 167 Commercial, and what is now 167 Commercial used to be 168 Commercial. The correlation between old and new numbers is rarely so perfect.)
Two years after Sparrow’s death, in 1917, his estate transferred the property to George Matheson Allen (1875-1957) for $1, suggesting a family connection of some sort. (The wife of Harvey Jr., from whom he was divorced, was Nellie M. Matheson.) That was when the house was moved about 50 feet back from the property line, to create an ample front yard were none had existed. In a town where buildings are routinely transported across bodies of water and hoisted up hillsides, it may not have seemed much to move a two-and-a-half story house across a yard. But I’m impressed. George and his wife, Helen S. Allen (1881-1964), transferred the property in 1926 to his brother David Lewis Allen (1880-1969). The older Allens lived next door, at 166 Commercial Street. The family business, Allen & Allen, was at 191 Commercial Street.
Left: A 1912 map shows the original placement of the house. “Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Provincetown, Barnstable County, Massachusetts,” 1912, Plate 4. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Digital ID. Right: A 1919 map shows the repositioned house and its original site (dotted red outline added by the author). “Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Provincetown, Barnstable County, Massachusetts,” 1919, Plate 4. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Digital ID [?].
David Allen lived in this house many years with his wife, Margaret L. (Anderson) Allen (1882-1959). They raised a daughter, Jean, who graduated from Provincetown High School in 1939. Jean Allen earned a B.A. in 1943 from the Jackson College for Women at Tufts University, which was headed by a neighbor, Edith Linwood Bush (1882-1977), of 96 Commercial Street. Margaret Allen died in 1959, at 76.
Both the main house and the rear cottage at 168A Commercial Street (entered from Central Street) were part of the sale in 1964 from David Allen to Leonard Wilson Ferguson (1912-1988) and his wife, Edith P. Ferguson, of West Hartford, Conn. Ferguson was a California native who had earned his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from Stanford in the 1930s and early ’40s. By the time he purchased 168 Commercial, Ferguson was already well known in the field of industrial psychology, having served as president the mid-1950s of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology and worked for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. While here, Edith Ferguson served as treasurer of AIM, the Association for Improving the Medical Resources of Outer Cape Cod.
Though they left soon after buying the house so that Ferguson could accept a professorship at Ohio State University, the Fergusons owned and used the property until 1982. As amateur historians, the they contributed a significant if slightly obsessive (look who’s talking!) work of local scholarship. Exhibits at the Provincetown Art Association, published in 1970, lists all 14,000 works of art shown at PAAM from 1915 through 1968. It’s arranged alphabetically by the names of the 2,060 artists represented; by the titles of the works; and by exhibition. The Fergusons also compiled a multivolume Cape Cod Collection, Unit 2 of which is devoted to Provincetown. In it, 19 articles about the town are reproduced from 13 different periodicals, covering a period from 1900 to 1977.
Cambridge Brutalism meets Cape Cod Modern in this unusual house at 91 Commercial Street designed for Rep. Gerry E. Studds by Thomas Green, who owned and lived at 168 Commercial. Dunlap, 2010.
Left: Thomas Green’s obituary photo. Right: The Gutman Library of the Harvard School of Education in Cambridge, for which Mr. Green was cited by the Boston Society of Architects. Photo, 2016, from Daderot, on WIkimedia Commons.
In 1981, the Fergusons sold the rear cottage, 168A Commercial Street, to Carol Ann (DeMello) and Ronald A. Pavao, the owners of 5 Center Street, at which time its history diverged from that of the main house. A year later, they sold the main house for $100,000 to the architect Thomas George Green (1931-2015) of Boston.
Thomas Green was a native of Iowa who originally served in the clergy. With a B.D. from the University of Chicago, he was ordained a minister in the United Church of Christ, in which he maintained a lifetime interest. Then he turned to architecture, earning an M.Arch. from Yale University, after which he joined The Architects Collaborative in Cambridge, a cutting-edge firm at the time, best known for its most senior partner, Walter Gropius. (Green was not, however, directly connected with the Murchison House project.) In 1966, he joined Benjamin Thompson, a TAC partner, in the new firm Benjamin Thompson & Associates. That placed him front and center for some of the more significant urban projects in the 1960s and ’70s: the Quincy Market-Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston, the Design Research Building and the Gutman Library of the Harvard School of Education in Cambridge, Navy Pier in Chicago, and Harborplace in Baltimore. The Gutman Library won the highest accolade bestowed by the Boston Society of Architects in 1973. Green was made a partner in the Thompson firm in 1989 and a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects.
At 91 Commercial Street, Green finished designing a house for Congressman Studds in 1983. Then, he supervised a 1999 reconstruction. The most prominent element of the design was a towering, squared-off central dormer, which looks like the kind of gesture you might expect from the hand of an architect steeped in Cambridge Brutalism. Even if the dormer irritated purist passers-by, it must have bathed the interior of the house in light. (A subsequent owner modified it substantially.) In 2004, when same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts, Green wed David Simpson of York, Me., his partner of 21 years. That was the year Studds married Dean T. Hara, with whom he shared 91 Commercial. Green and Studds are immured in the same place at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Studds’s inscription says, “U.S. Representative.” Just above that, Green’s says, “F.A.I.A.”
Atlantic Bay’s logo was a play on the Long Point “floater” plaques.
Wagg and Gregg Russo, the co-owners of Atlantic Bay Real Estate, bought the house from Green for $450,000 in 1996. Wagg transferred his interest to Russo, who converted the building to a condo. Units 2 and 3 were apartments occupying the full second and third floors, respectively.
Unit 1 (first floor) and Unit 4 (basement), were for commercial tenants — except restaurants, cafés, ice cream parlors, bars, stores selling food cooked on the premises, video and pinball arcades, and stores “selling, renting, or otherwise providing printed matter, pictures, video cassettes or motion picture film of a pornographic nature.”
In 2000, Atlantic Bay ads began including a web address.
Hmmm. Well, you could argue that multimillion-dollar real estate listings offer vicarious thrills, too. In any case, Atlantic Bay moved here in 1996. In the central bay on the first floor, the firm hung its distinctive “AB” sign — a simplified takeoff on the “floater” plaques designed by Claude Jensen showing a Cape Cod house on a scow on the waves. At the time, Russo was the principal. Wagg, David M. Nicolau, and Diane B. LaFrance were brokers, and Lincoln K. Sharpless (1955-2014) was an associate.
Nicolau, who moved to Provincetown in 1974, joined Atlantic Bay in 1984. He has served as chair of the Zoning Board of Appeals and as chair of the Community Preservation Committee, and has been a member of several other town boards, as well as the Local Comprehensive Plan Committee. He was the co-owner of the Provincetown Gym, with Betty Villari. Nicolau has also worked as a contractor. Sharpless was a native of Hawaii — her father had twice been city manager of Honolulu — who began her working career in Provincetown as a masseuse, before becoming a real estate broker. She would go on to be a full partner in the business. In time, they were joined by Emily Flax, who came to Provincetown from Chicago in 1998. She and Carol Lynn Neal owned the Tucker Inn at 12 Center Street from 1998 to 2001. Flax, who is a board member of the Center for Coastal Studies, joined Atlantic Bay in 2005. She became a co-owner in 2011.
The former logo of the company.
Atlantic Bay became an independently owned and operated affiliate of Sotheby’s International Realty in 2005. Lest this conjure a picture of periwigged toffs gathered for tea in a Mayfair drawing room — “Oh, I say, do you think 32 Bradford Street in the Colonies rises to the standards of Picasso’s Garçon à la pipe?” — it’s worth noting that “Sotheby’s” in this context is a name licensed by the operators of the venerable auction house to Realogy Holdings Corporation of Madison, N.J.
As the summer of 2020 began, Atlantic Bay Sotheby’s International Realty was co-owned by Nicolau and Flax. Also in the office were Sue Buerkel, a broker associate; Mary Cabral, a broker associate; Mark Lynett, a broker associate; Iskren Georgiev, a sales associate whose presence testified to the growing Provincetown-Bulgaria connection; Nathan Butera, a sales associate; Delwyn Trent, the rental manager; and Eva Enos, the office manager. In addition, the celebrated Ruth Gilbert, who did business for years at 167 Commercial Street, was listed as a broker associate.
Larry Rideout, the chairman of Gibson Sotheby’s International Realty, center, joined David M. Nicolau and Emily Flax, co-owners of Atlantic Bay Sotheby’s International Realty, in August 2020 to announce the acquisition of their company by his. Photo courtesy of Gibson Sotheby’s International Realty.
In August 2020, Atlantic Bay Sotheby’s International Realty was acquired by Gibson Sotheby’s International Realty, the largest independently-owned brokerage based in Massachusetts. Betty Gibson began the company in the South End of Boston in 1962. Selby Turner and Nicholas Russo bought the business in 1974. Gibson DomainDomain was purchased in 2006 by Larry Rideout, a former senior vice president of Realogy, and Michael Hansen. Operated by Rideout and partner Paul McGann as Gibson Sotheby’s International Realty, it has grown to 24 offices covering eastern Massachusetts, from the North Shore down to the Cape. Rideout, the chairman, joined Nicolau and Flax for the announcement of the acquisition. They will remain as senior broker associates.
However, the exigencies of rebranding meant that the Atlantic Bay name had been retired. The fate of the “floater” logo was still up in the air — or out on the waves — when this article was published.
¶ Last updated on 21 September 2020.
168 Commercial Street on the Town Map.
Also at 168 Commercial Street:
Thumbnail image: Photo, 2008, by David W. Dunlap.
• David Lewis Allen (1880-1969)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 119733280.
• Margaret L. (Anderson) Allen (1882-1959)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 119733591.
• Leonard Wilson Ferguson (1912-1988)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 55762696, Turlock, Calif.
• Thomas George Green (1931-2015)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 167365803, Cambridge.
• Harvey O. Sparrow Jr. (±1866-1915)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 143519269.