James M. Burke was among the largest and best known boats in the Provincetown fishing fleet in the mid-20th century. And this is where himself — Capt. James M. Burke (±1865-1941) — berthed, when he wasn’t out on his namesake vessel or aboard Amelia D. or Cormorant, which he also owned. Burke, a Provincetown native whose parents were born in Ireland, was chiefly known around town as a master politician. From 1915 to 1940, he was the chairman of the Republican Town Committee — when such a thing could even be imagined to exist in Provincetown. In 1900, he married Ada Holmes (±1866-1948) of Brooklyn. Mrs. Burke operated 68 Commercial Street both as a kindergarten and as a rooming house. Early in the Burkes’ occupancy, at the turn of the 20th century, the house was denominated 55 Commercial Street.
The Golden Age at No. 68 may be said to have begun in 1969 when it was acquired by Rhoda (Perlstein) Germain (1925-2015), a cultural patron who would soon marry the lawyer William Rossmoore — and the painter James Upham, one of the “Alternate Six” shown at the Jules Brenner Gallery, along with Red and Mimi Grooms, Domic Falcone, and Irving Marantz. This evocative description of the period comes from her obituary:
After renting several houses in town for the summer, she bought 68 Commercial on that magical corner of Commercial and West Vine Streets. Renting rooms to many of the performers at the Blues Bag and various other interesting characters, that house (and stoop and the badminton court that was the front yard) at 68 became one of the epicenters of the West End counter-culture scene. It was there that she prepped, exhibited and sold Wendy Everett’s amazing painted bread boxes and other furnishings from the front yard, helped raise the gang of West End kids that roamed the neighborhood along with many of the families of the West End and began her married life with Will Rossmoore. They made a deal: he wanted to live on the water and she always wanted to have a tan. For the next 36 years they did just that and they were the happiest years of their lives.
Rhoda Rossmoore was president of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum at the time of “The League at the Cape” exhibition in 1993. Her house remained in family hands until 1994, when it was sold by her son Neal Germain. It’s been owned since 1999 by the New York literary agent Harvey Klinger, joined on the deed in 2001 by Donald Bowie, author of Cable Harbor and Station Identification: Confessions of a Video Kid.
There is a wonderful story behind the perceptible bend in the sidewalk outside 68 Commercial Street. It was here that one of the town’s great willow trees stood, more than five feet in diameter, with the sidewalk skirting around it. Though long gone, it still exerts its presence — if you know where to look.
¶ Last updated on 5 July 2018.
Amy Whorf McGuiggan wrote on 21 January 2014: Legend has it that the willows that once graced Commercial Street were all grown from cuttings taken from Napoleon’s grave at St. Helena. During his exile, Napoleon is said to have spent many hours beneath the shade of a majestic willow, an emblem of sadness and sorrow. Near the time of Napoleon’s death in 1821, the willow was blown down and cuttings from it were planted around his grave. American whale ships calling at St. Helena, including those from Provincetown, took away cuttings of the tree and planted them back home. The fast-growing willow is a native of western Asia but seems to be adaptable to many climates, even the sandy soil of Provincetown where grand willows, like the one at 68 Commercial Street, once thrived.
The giant willow outside 68 Commercial Street, pictured on a 1915 postcard. Image courtesy of the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Dowd Collection, Page 4655. (Scrapbooks of Althea Boxell, Book 11, Page 11.)