Take a good look at 71 Commercial Street. This may be the future of large swaths of the historic district. In Provincetown, 511 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places lie within federally defined flood hazard areas, according to The Banner, citing the historic preservation specialist at the Cape Cod Commission.¹ That means that when the buildings undergo substantial repair, addition, rehabilitation, alteration or reconstruction, they may well have to be raised above the base flood elevation for the area — just as 71 Commercial Street has been.² As sea levels rise and once-in-a-lifetime flooding becomes once-every-couple-of-years, structures in the floodplain will have to be protected. Until a better answer comes along, it appears that lifting them up over the floodwaters’ path is the best bet.
Eleanor V. Pannesi bought 71 Commercial in 2010, not realizing that her renovation plans would trigger a requirement that the structure be raised four feet. Today, the house sits on pilings that are hidden from view by breakaway panels that can give out if the force of water against them grows great enough. That measure of mandated protection cost between $150,000 and $200,000. But the building pulled through the punishing back-to-back floods of January 2018. “The water from those storms came in and went under the house,” Eleanor’s partner, Ro Andersen Pannesi, told Katy Ward of The Banner. “It did exactly what it was supposed to do, and it was a beautiful thing.”
Though the once-modest building now looks bulked up, it’s not as if 71 Commercial Street hasn’t changed numerous times over its existence. Ro said evidence came to light during the reconstruction that what appeared to be an L-shaped building had originated as a Cape-style home and a waterfront fishing shack. Certainly no later than 1886, the site was home to the fisherman Manuel Williams (±1823-1906), who had been born on the island of Pico in the Azores. In the 19th and very early 20th centuries, this parcel was denominated 54 Commercial Street, under the old street-numbering system.³
In 1910, four years after Manuel’s death, his heirs collectively transferred ownership of 71 Commercial Street — “with the dwelling house thereon” — to their brother, Capt. Jackson R. Williams (1861-1935), better known to posterity as the Captain Jack of Captain Jack’s Wharf.⁴ One of his sisters, Lizzie B. (Williams) Foster (1870-1956), lived across the street, at 70A Commercial Street, and was prominent in civic and church affairs.
Captain Jack died in 1935. A year later, the administrator of his estate, Robert A. Welsh, sold the property — “with the wharf and buildings thereon” — to Dr. Daniel H. Hiebert (1889-1972), the celebrated town doctor.⁵ The Hiebert family was to own 71 Commercial Street for almost exactly 60 years. They rented out apartments to summer visitors, the most prominent of whom was probably Harold V. Cohen (1906-1969), the movie and drama critic of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. For a time, the Hieberts’ daughter, Ruth E. Hiebert (1922-2004), lived in a second-floor apartment at No. 71, which she called Dinghy Dock. “The name came from the state requirement under Chapter 91 [the Massachusetts Public Waterfront Act] that she allow public access to the wharf’s end for yacht dinghies,” Ed Fitzgerald, the nephew of Hiebert’s life companion, Maurice Fitzgerald, recalled in 2014. Among her tenants was Connie O’Meara, co-founder of Connie’s Bakery.
Hiebert sold 71 Commercial to John R. Dreyer in 1995 and moved out to the end of Pleasant Street. Dreyer sold the property in 2010 to Eleanor Pannesi, the owner and manager of two residential buildings in Watertown. She and Ro, a registered nurse in Lowell, deliberately waited a year before planning renovations. “We very much believe in the integrity of the house and intelligence of the prior owners,” Ro told The Banner. “There’s a reason people put a kitchen in a certain place. There’s a reason bedrooms are where they are. They know what the prevailing wind is, when the tide comes in, what winters are like. You don’t know that when you first purchase a house. You have an idea of what you want it to look like, but that might not be the best way to maximize your enjoyment of the usefulness of the house. We wanted to honor that.”
In some ways, 71 Commercial Street is a fundamentally different building now. But that may be the only way it can survive. “We are living through climate change,” Ro said.
¶ Last updated on 10 July 2018.
Ed Fitzgerald wrote on 12 June 2014: Ruth Hiebert lived in a second-floor apartment at 71 Commercial for many years, renting out the rest. She named it the “Dinghy Dock” around the time that she sold Captain Jack’s. The name came from the state requirement under Chapter 91 that she allow public access to the wharf’s end for yacht dinghies as a condition of the sale. When she sold 71 Commercial to move to 67 Pleasant, the name stayed with the property.
Ro A. Pannesi wrote on 13 January 2015: Dinghy Dock was built by the family of Manuel Williams. In 1935, following the death of Capt. Jack Williams, the property was purchased by Dr. Daniel (Doc) Hiebert, the town physician, although there is no evidence he lived there. Doc Hiebert left the property to his daughter Ruth. She was a town philanthropist, especially supportive of the Center for Coastal Studies. She also owned the property next door at No. 73, where her mother, Emily, lived. Ruth Hiebert lived in the upstairs unit and rented three smaller units on the first floor. For a number of years, Connie, of Connie’s Bakery, lived there. Ruth, an avid gardener, maintained a renowned garden joining the two properties, highlighted for many years on the annual Garden Tour. In 1995, J. R. Dreyer purchased both properties from Ruth Hiebert. Fifteen years later, in 2010, he sold the property to Eleanor Pannesi. She undertook an enormous restoration of the property and wharf. Work included raising the house four feet to accommodate new FEMA floodplain regulations, and returning it to the single-family home it once was. Details such as pocket doors painted by local artist Linda Singer and the original newel posts were retained. During demolition for the project, builders discovered evidence that the L-shaped building was once composed of a waterfront fishing shack and a traditional Cape-style house. A postcard from the turn of the 20th century shows a dress shop located on the first floor in the area of the bay window. Over time, the dormers were raised and the shack connected to its existing footprint.
Before renovation, in 2008, the building was four feet shorter.
Ruth E. Hiebert gave it the name “Dinghy Dock,” as seen in 2008.
There really is a dock at Dinghy Dock, as this nighttime view from 2009 shows, at the right. Photos by David W. Dunlap.
¹ “The Big Lift: Climate Change Hits Provincetown’s Historic District,” by Katy Ward, The Provincetown Banner/Wicked Local, 5 July 2018.
² The base flood elevation is the height of flooding that might be expected in a 100-year flood. It is not measured from ground or sea level, but from a benchmark called the North American Vertical Datum of 1988. A “100-year flood” is more of a threat than it may sound. It’s not a flood level that can be expected to happen once a century, but a level that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year. In other words, several 100-year floods may follow one another in rapid succession. Whether a building is partly below or entirely above the “B.F.E.” has a tremendous effect on flood insurance availability and rates, which in turn affect whether an owner can get a mortgage.
³ Care must always be exercised researching addresses on Commercial Street before and after the early 1900s, as the street-numbering convention changed completely. There is no easy formula to calculate the difference between the two systems. One giveaway is that in the old system, even numbers like 54 signified harborside properties. Today, odd numbers like 71 signify harborside properties.
⁴ Williams et alia to Williams, 19 December 1910, Barnstable County Registry of Deeds, Book 303, Page 485.
⁵ Welsh to Hiebert, 7 December 1936, Barnstable County Registry of Deeds, Book 523, Page 156.