Centenary Methodist Church (1909).

Provincetown is a long way from any prairie. But I can’t think of a better way to describe this truly original work of architecture than as Prairie style. That distinctive 55-foot-tall tower — shingled, battered corner buttresses running all the way from ground to belfry, capped by a shallow pyramidal roof with deep overhanging eaves — wouldn’t have looked out of place in Oak Park, among the early domestic works of Frank Lloyd Wright, many of which were also constructed in the early 20th century. The main sanctuary had a Gothic stye pointed-arch window, but the massing was low slung, resembling an extruded gambrel roof. I’m sorry I don’t yet know the architectural provenance, because the second Centenary church was evidently designed by someone with imagination. I’m sorrier still that such a fine building should have lasted so short a time; only 40 years from its dedication to its sale for lumber scrap.

Photo of the church posted by Salvador R. Vasques III on his My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection Facebook page, 27 May 2019.

The brief from the Centenary congregation to the architect was probably pretty simple: no tall towers, please. That’s because the predecessor church at 170 Commercial Street burned down in 1908 after its steeple, reaching 165 feet into the sky, was struck by lightning. In fact, Nancy W. Paine Smith wrote in The Provincetown Book, there was considerable pressure on the congregation not to rebuild at all. However, the Methodist conference already owned this choice corner parcel, there were insurance proceeds, and the parsonage (5 Winthrop Street, I believe) had emerged unscathed. Smith credited Phebe Elizabeth Freeman (1865-1962), of 165 Commercial Street, with holding together Centenary’s Sunday school, while Elizabeth B. “Lizzie” (Williams) Foster (1870-1957), of 70A Commercial Street, canvassed the community for gifts. “Thus was built by the devotion of a few, when it would have been easy to sit still, the convenient and beautiful chapel which stands to bless the whole West End,” Smith wrote. Fun fact: Lizzie Williams’s brother Jackson was the Captain Jack.

Phebe Elizabeth Freeman kept the Centenary Sunday school going between the 1908 fire and the reconstruction. The undated photo comes from a digital album in the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 5281.

The second Centenary church was dedicated on 7 November 1909. Less than a decade later, with the United States in the midst of a Great War in Europe and Provincetown boys serving far abroad, the Rev. William T. Johnson conducted Sunday evening sing-alongs here, no doubt to boost morale, spirits, and resolve.

In 1931, the most consequential of Centenary’s pastorates began, with the arrival of the Rev. William Herbert Moseley (1873-1964) and his wife, Alice (Purchase) Moseley (1880-1973). Though his father was English and his mother Welsh, Moseley had been born in Pelotas, Brazil, in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. Presumably, he was fluent — or at least conversant — in Portuguese, which may explain his earlier assignment by the New England Southern Conference to a Portuguese Methodist Mission in (I believe) New Bedford. Once Moseley arrived in Provincetown, the conference kept reappointing him to the Centenary church, at which he served a full decade.

Postcard published by the Provincetown Advocate, in the author’s collection.

While Moseley was pastor, in 1939, the nationwide Methodist Episcopal Church reunited with the Methodist Protestant Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South to form — simply — the Methodist Church. (“Episcopal” in this context refers to the governing system. Methodism began in the Church of England, but is not itself Anglican.)

On behalf of a denomination that preaches abstinence from alcohol, Moseley threw himself into a fight in 1938 to make Provincetown “dry” again, five years after the repeal of Prohibition. A three-part question on the ballot in the state election that year asked voters whether their cities or towns should permit the sale of any and all alcoholic beverages, or restrict the sale to wine and beer. It also asked whether liquor stores (package stores) should be permitted in their communities.

These atlases show how much more modest the second Centenary church was than the first. Left: Sanborn Fire Insurance Map From Provincetown, Barnstable County, Massachusetts (1902), from the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. Digital ID g3764pm.g038261902. Right: Sanborn Fire Insurance Map From Provincetown, Barnstable County, Massachusetts (1912), from the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. Digital ID g3764pm.g038261912.

“It is a mistake,” Moseley said, “to assume that the sale of liquor is of any benefit, either in town revenue or private business. The only businessmen who gain by the sale are the dealers themselves, and for every dollar of revenue, Provincetown has to spend three to combat the effects of liquor.”

When the ballots were counted, Provincetown stood foursquare with liquor, voting 742 to 361 to allow the sale of any alcoholic beverage; 726 to 329 to allow the sale of wine and beer; 740 to 290 to allow package stores in town. (Maybe the big news was that one-third of the voters supported the temperance line. In Provincetown!)

Moseley wisely stayed out of the 1939 fight over banning shorts and halters in public. “The whole controversy is a tempest in a teapot,” Moseley told the Advocate at the time. “In the interests of decency there should be some restriction, but it should be elastic. If some of the folks who wear scanty beach garb could see how ludicrous they look, there’d be no need of any restriction.”

That year, he organized a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the building’s dedication, at which readings were performed by a young Grace Gouveia, who would go on to become — with Phebe Freeman — one of the town’s most popular and revered teachers.

Photo of the church posted by Salvador R. Vasques III on his My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection Facebook page, 9 August 2014.

Despite Moseley’s energetic pastorate, it was growing clear by the late 1930s that Centenary was dwindling in importance. After his departure in 1941 for a new post in East Hartford, the conference appointed no one in his place. Instead, for a time, the Rev. Roy Q. Whiting of the Center Methodist Church doubled his own duties, leading a morning service in the East End and a vespers service in the West End. On 1 June 1942, he joined Jane W. Atkins and Harold W. “Bill” MacFarlane in holy matrimony. It was to be the last wedding performed in the church.

Finally, in 1943, the Centenary and Center congregations agreed to reunite, 95 years after they’d parted ways. They voted in April to rename themselves the “Provincetown Methodist Church” and to move all of their activities to the larger church, at 356 Commercial Street, which is now the Provincetown Public Library.

Above and below: Centenary Methodist Church under demolition in May 1949. Posted by Salvador R. Vasques III on his My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection Facebook page, 30 November 2016.

This all happened when America was in the depths of World War II. The West End building was simply boarded up for the interim and several years beyond. Then, in December 1948, as the economy stabilized, the property was sold to the First National Bank of Provincetown to be used as the site for its new headquarters.

“Building For Sale,” declared an advertisement placed by the bank on 14 April 1949. “Former Centenary Church building at corner of Commercial and Winthrop Streets, Provincetown, containing a large amount of excellent lumber.”

John F. Noons of North Truro won the bidding on 25 April, requiring him to clear the premises within 60 days. He rose to the challenge. On 12 May, the Advocate reported that the church was “scarcely more than a sorry shell. … The tower is down and the bell, weighing about a ton, lies on the floor below the point where it once hung and swung, calling the faithful to service.”

The death knell. From the Provincetown Advocate of 14 April 1949.

¶ Last updated on 30 September 2020.

170 Commercial Street on the Town Map.

Also at 170 Commercial Street:

Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church of 1866.

Joe Coffee | Curaleaf Provincetown Adult-Use | 170 Commercial Street Condominium | Former First National Bank of Provincetown.

Thumbnail image: Postcard published by the Provincetown Advocate.

In memoriam:

• Elizabeth B. “Lizzie” (Williams) Foster (1870-1957)

Find a Grave Memorial No. 207061580.

• Phebe Elizabeth Freeman (1865-1962)

Find a Grave Memorial No. 167674896.

• Alice (Purchase) Moseley (1880-1973)

Find a Grave Memorial No. 205016307, New Bedford.

• William Herbert Moseley (1873-1964)

Find a Grave Memorial No. 205016178, New Bedford.

2 thoughts on “170 Commercial Street

  1. Thank you, Rob. I think a strong case can be made for calling the Centenary church a Shingle-style work. I just wish I knew who designed it so that I stood a chance of knowing whether Wright or his contemporaries had served as any kind of inspiration. And thank you for your kind words.

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