Because fatal fires are a rarity in Provincetown these days, they are especially shocking when they occur. Adding to the anguish over the fire at 86R Atkins-Mayo Road on 21 November 2019 was that it took the life of the craftsman John Eder (1945-2019), one of those people who give the town its special cultural character — even when they are as reclusive as Eder was in his later decades. His gift to anyone who ventured far out on Atkins-Mayo (almost as far as the Old Colony Railroad right-of-way) was a compound with fantastically fanciful palisades and signposts. Never mind that they all said, “Keep out.” You could still enjoy an abundance of improvised artwork around the fence, and if you were lucky, get a tantalizing glimpse of the artwork within the compound, including a composition of crutches that was almost worthy of Louise Nevelson.
Artwork inside John Eder’s compound, photographed in 2011 by David W. Dunlap.
The property was owned until 1972 by Mary Spencer Nay Block (1913-1993), a painter from Kentucky who studied with Boris Margo in Provincetown. In 1971, she was named distinguished professor of art education at the University of Louisville. The following year, she divested herself of several tracts of property along Atkins-Mayo Road, which were acquired by Margo, Murray Zimiles, and Josephine Del Deo. This two-lot parcel was acquired by John L. Frank, an important artist who — like Mary Spencer Nay — is not nearly as well remembered today as he should be.
The Town Assessor photographed the house in 2009.
Frank, a Kentucky native, attended Columbia University as an undergraduate in the 1950s. For his master’s degree, he studied with Robert Motherwell, a master of Abstract Expressionism who was then an associate professor of art at Hunter College. Besides Motherwell, Frank was also greatly inspired by time spent living and studying in India, Korea, and Japan. In Provincetown, Frank directed Gallery 256, which opened in 1956 at 256 Commercial Street, and taught at the Seong Moy School of Painting and Graphic Arts, 7 Brewster Street. He served on the board of the Provincetown Art Association and directed the association’s school. Frank also seems to have been instrumental in helping the 21-year-old artist Bob Thompson (1937-1966) get a scholarship to attend Moy’s school and in overcoming the hurdles faced by African-Americans looking for housing in Provincetown at the time. Frank put Thompson in touch with Nathan Roach, whose family owned and operated a cottage colony at 24 Conwell Street.¹
Frank’s own home on Atkins-Mayo Road was the scene of a physical altercation between the painter Adele (Morales) Mailer and the writer Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, urged on to combat by Adele’s husband, Norman.² Frank was appointed a professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz and, in 1986, sold this property Eder.
Left: Eder’s house sat on the 86R Atkins-Mayo lot, which was separated from the private road by the 86 (or 88) Atkins-Mayo lot, which he also owned. Right: The ornamented fence around Eder’s house, photographed by David W. Dunlap in 2011.
Though little known around town in recent decades, Eder was the proprietor of a sandal store called Renaissance Leather, at 447 Commercial Street, in the 1970s and early 1980s, Kaolin Davis told me. He had moved to town in 1970. “He did become so private and a hermit in his later years, but he was a sweet, funny, and wonderful guy,” Marie Pace recalled to K. C. Myers of The Provincetown Independent. “I’ll always think of him with this twinkle in his eye,” Pace said. “He had a Santa Claus type of face.”⁴
Eder had a son, David, from a marriage that ended in divorce. Three years after meeting Jill Richter in 1972, Eder began living with her and her young sons, Sacha and Mischa.
“He was a father figure to them and made substantial contributions to their financial support. He did homework with them, taught them how to ride a bicycle, and engaged in other age-appropriate parent-child activities. [Eder] took the Richter brothers to and from school and attended parent-teacher conferences. They ‘would draw together’ and create objects out of different material, which were activities not foreign to their future careers; Sacha Richter is an artist and Mischa Richter is a photographer. … After the Richter brothers left [Eder’s] home in 1985, he provided financial support for books, rent, and parking tickets when they were in college”³
In 2010, Eder adopted the adult Richters as his children. David unsuccessfully challenged the arrangement, as it meant that Sacha and Mischa would become beneficiaries — with David — of a trust that Eder had established for his children. In testimony, Eder explained: “When I realize that I had the opportunity to adopt Sacha and Mischa, who were more or less my kids the way they grew up, I thought why not include them in this if I could. Why not share my estate with them? Why not make our relationship legal?”³
How The Banner and The Independent covered the fire on their websites. The photos are by Vincent Guadazno at left and Jamie Demetriou at right. The screenshots of the web pages have been edited to remove extraneous visual elements.
The fire, which was ruled not suspicious, began on the afternoon of Thursday, 21 November. Laura Ludwig, whose stepson Nathaniel Mayo owns the nearest house (74 Atkins-Mayo Road) was the first to notice. “The only signs were a wood fire smell and wee wisps of smoke emanating gently from cracks around the base of the chimney and the roofline,” she recalled in a comment below. “The next sign was window panes popping from the interior heat; and that is when the flames erupted on the outside of the home.”
“It was bright orange-yellow flames like you’d see in a kid’s drawing,” Ludwig told Alex Darus of The Provincetown Banner.⁵ More than 40 firefighters responded. Vincent Guadazno of The Banner captured them at work. In time, a black plume disfigured the skyline, easily visible from MacMillan Wharf, as shown in Jamie Demetriou’s dramatic photo for The Independent. Amazingly, the firefighters confined the blaze to the house, even though it was 1,400 feet from the nearest hydrant and deep in the woods.
“The verticality of the plume testifies to the amazingly auspicious conditions that day,” Ludwig said. “The lack of wind and the quick response by the volunteer fire department saved the woods, and the home next door.”
But that was the only good news. Eder’s body was found in a rear bedroom.
This and the photos below were taken in 2011 by David W. Dunlap.
¶ Last updated 8 January 2020.
Thumbnail image: Photo, 2011, by David W. Dunlap.
¹ Golden, Thelma, Bob Thompson, New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1998. Page 38.
² Dearborn, Mary, Mailer: A Biography, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999. Page 156.
³ David Eric Eder’s Appeal From Probate, Appellate Court of Connecticut (AC 39024), 10 October 2017. Retrieved from FindLaw.
⁴ “Leather Craftsman John Eder Dies in Provincetown House Fire,” by K. C. Myers, The Provincetown Independent, 27 November 2019.
⁵ “Family Friend: Homeowner Died in Provincetown Fire,” by Alex Darus, Wicked Local/The Cape Cod Times/The Provincetown Banner, 22 November 2019.