In the late 19thcentury, art colonies needed three things: a beautiful location, easy access to New York City, and cheap housing. With the arrival of the railroad in 1873 and the
devastation of the fishing economy from the Portland Gale in 1898, Provincetown added ease of transportation and cheap housing to its luminous landscape. Charles Hawthornearrived in 1899 and established the Cape Cod School of Art. The rest, as they say, is a contiguous history.
But the painting community is just one branch of the Provincetown art colony. Less celebrated is the arrival of Mary Heaton Vorsein 1905. Vorse, arguably, established the writer’s community in Provincetown. And without a doubt, her loan of Lewis Wharf to the group who’d become the Provincetown Playersin 1916 changed American Theater forever. The artists Vorse attracted came primarily from Greenwich Village, and along with them came a second patron of the arts, Mabel Dodge.
If contemporary stories are to be believed, Vorse and Dodge didn’t get along. Dodge tried to recreate her NYC salon in Provincetown, going as far as acquiring the old Life Saving Station at Peaked Hill Barand recasting herself as an interior designer
(purportedly creating the Cape Cod style of white on white on blue). After a wildly successful first party at her remote summer house, the artists in town didn’t return. Why walk five miles into the dunes when there was plenty of bootleg liquor in town – often flowing at Mary Vorse’s house!
Defeated, Dodge contacted Eugene O’Neill’s father, James O’Neill– then the most famous actor in America – and suggested that her redesigned Life Saving Station would be a good writer’s retreat for the playwright. It became a wedding present. Soon after, in 1917, Dodge and her husband left for Taos, New Mexico. Without competition from Mary Heaton Vorse, she was successful in expanding the infant art colony in New Mexico!
Mary Heaton Vorse continued to be an important presence in Provincetown until her death in 1966. Today she’s best known as the author of Time and the Town, a history of Provincetown published in 1944. But her patronage of other artists and her own literary work did much to put Provincetown on the map as an artist community. Today her house is being restored by Ken Fulk as a retreat for visiting artists.