1 Bradford Street Extension

The Gangway, 1966, published in Inside Provincetown magazine. [Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum Collection, Provincetown History Preservation Project Page 5321]


The Gangway, or Provincetownsend. Some places at the Cape tip seem too fantastic even for Provincetown. Prescott Townsend’s compound behind the Moors was just such a place. Townsend (1894-1973) was part Boston Brahmin, part Bohemian, and wholly homosexual — long before American society countenanced visibly gay identities. He welcomed to his imaginative but tatterdemalion compound in the far West End whomever the tides washed ashore. Because 20-year-old John Waters was among the waifs who briefly found shelter there, and because Waters famously described conditions in the Townsend “tree fort” as “like living with a lunatic Swiss Family Robinson,” the Gangway and its creator will probably inhabit Provincetown’s popular imagination for a long time.1

The Gangway even inspired the title of one of the best new books about Provincetown, a 2015 monograph of the photographer Al Kaplan, published by Letter16 Press: There Was Always a Place to Crash.

“I’d been tilting at windmills of art and architecture,” Townsend told his Harvard classmates in 1963, “and designed … aluminum and plastic houses in Provincetown. The Gangway in Provincetown is the final house at Provincetownsend which is my summertime name and address. It was an attempt to make an adequate house reasonably priced. It used the formula of two bedrooms at the right, kitchen and bath in the center, and living room with hanging fireplace to the left. The materials I used were isocyanate [typically used to make rigid foam boards] and bubbly plastic walls. It also has sliding doors and windows with a laminated roof and driftwood planks for floors and ceilings.”2

“I’d been tilting at windmills of art and architecture.”


“Prescott Townsend,” 1962. [Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, The New York Public Library Digital Collections, Universal Unique Identifier (UUID) 798fd3f0-c5d9-012f-0110-58d385a7bc34]


“He loved to take up unpopular causes,” his biographer, Adrian Cathcart wrote. “He loved freedom, fair play, work, and boys with waist sizes of 30 inches and under. He loved being a star and the center of attention. He loved Harvard. He loved New England. He was proud to be Prescott Townsend, a state of being that involved not only himself but also his ancestors. He felt this mattered.”3

“He loved freedom, fair play, work, and boys with waist sizes of 30 inches and under.”

Like that of any great Provincetown eccentric, Townsend’s legacy includes a few tall tales and a lot of nagging inconsistencies or frustrating blank spaces. It’s presumed that many or most of his personal papers and records — which may have answered a lot of questions — were destroyed in a fire on 6 January 1972 in his home at 75 Phillips Street on Beacon Hill.4

Fire also destroyed the Gangway four years earlier. Town Reports of that era no longer contained summaries of each fire incident (as earlier volumes did), so it’s difficult to confirm exactly what happened and when. Urban mythology would have us believe that neighbors, abutters, or even Town officials took it upon themselves to torch the place or, at least, tear it down. We do know that it was condemned by the Board of Health in 1967 as “unfit for habitation.”5

[More about the Gangway and Townsend’s architecture will be found toward the end of this article, after the biographical section.]


Prescott Townsend

There always seems to be more than a kernel of truth behind Townsend’s fabulous claims, so they’re always worth examining. For instance, he was indeed a great-great-grandson of Roger Sherman (1721-1793), the Connecticut statesman who signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution.6 But it’s not accurate to say — as Townsend did, and his chroniclers have repeated — that Sherman was the only founder to sign all three documents. Robert Morris of Pennsylvania did, too.


Townsend’s great-great-grandfather Roger Sherman signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution.


Townsend was born in Roxbury to Kate (Wendell) Townsend and Edward Britton Townsend, who was the New England representative of the New Central Coal Company of Maryland and was also, as the Coal and Coal Trade Journal put it, “interested in coal mining on his own account in Kentucky, besides having important railroad and manufacturing interests in different parts of the country.” The family lived in Brookline. Prescott attended the Volkmann School in Back Bay. (Volkmann was merged into the Noble and Greenough School in 1917.) The Townsends were in the Social Register. Edward Townsend died when Prescott was 15.

Prescott made his first appearance in the columns of The Boston Globe a year later, when he and C. E. Bissell donned cowboy costumes for an appearance at a fancy-dress carnival held on ice at the Boston Arena (today, the Matthews Arena, home of the Northeastern Huskies). If that sounds too precious, it should also be said that Townsend worked in logging and mining camps in Idaho and Montana in 1914, just before entering Harvard.

At Harvard, Townsend was initiated into the “distinct brotherhood” of homosexuality — or so he said in later years — by Frederick H. “Freddy” Harvey (1896-1936), a dashing heir to America’s first dining chain, the Fred Harvey system, which built restaurants and hotels along the route of the Santa Fe Railway, and operated the dining cars aboard Santa Fe’s passenger trains. Townsend recalled being frightened, at first, but never guilt-ridden.7


Townsend served in the Naval Reserve during World War I. His epaulet shows the rank of ensign. [Reproduced in “Who in the ‘H*ck’ is Prescott Townsend,” by Mark Krone, Boston Spirit, 15 September 2013]


On 7 April 1917, a day after the United States declared war on Germany, Townsend interrupted his studies at Harvard to enroll as chief boatswain’s mate in the United States Naval Reserve. At the time of his release from duty, in January 1919, he was the commanding officer of the naval unit at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas College Station (now Texas A&M University). His bachelor of science “war degree” from Harvard memorialized his membership in the Class of 1918. A photograph taken at this time shows Townsend to have been a remarkably handsome fellow — square-jawed and firm, with penetrating eyes framing an almost Grecian nose above full lips.

A year at Harvard Law School was all that Townsend could take. Off he went to the mountainous regions around Xalapa, in the Mexican state of Veracruz, in the company of the herpetologist Emmett Reid Dunn (1894-1956). A contemporary of Townsend, Dunn had earned a Ph.D. from Harvard, where the two may have met. (For what it’s worth, Dr. Dunn didn’t marry until he was 36.) The two men collected five small salamanders of a species that appeared not to have been previously described. With what may have been a wicked sense of humor, Dr. Dunn named the creature in his traveling companion’s honor: Townsend’s salamander (to this day classified as Parvimolge townsendi).

A vital connection existed between Townsend and Elliot Paul (1891-1958), an author, editor, correspondent, and screenwriter who was among the celebrated American literary expatriates in Paris, where Townsend spent time in 1920.8 Paul provided Townsend with a letter of introduction to André Gide.9 In The Crimson Letter, the historian Douglass Shand-Tucci (1941-2018) said they may have been lovers. Their relationship carried over into their return to Boston. “The two men were as inseparable in the New England capital as in the French one,” Shand-Tucci wrote, “both determined, it would seem, to fan the embers of Boston’s own Beacon Hill Bohemia.”10

“Determined, it would seem, to fan the embers of Boston’s own Beacon Hill Bohemia.”

By 1922, Townsend already owned a distinctive barn-like brick building at 36 Joy Street on Beacon Hill — a former stable or carriage house — two short blocks from the State House. Townsend also owned a larger abutting building on the north, Nos. 38-40 Joy Street.11 Running along the south side of the “barn” was a long passageway known as Joy Court, lined with small wooden out buildings. He obtained alteration permits from the city in November 1922 both for the rear of 36 Joy Street, and for 36½ Joy Street. Six months later, The Globe noted that — with Townsend’s cooperation — a group of “women in overalls” was transforming Joy Court into a bustling little Bohemian village.12


Left: The Barn at 36 Joy Street on Beacon Hill. [Google Street View, 2020] Right: “Directory for 36 Joy Street, Beacon Hill, Boston, Mass., 1925.” [Historic New England, Ephemera Collection, 5½ by 4¼ inches, gift of Greg Smart, October 1997, Reference Code EP001.01.024.01.02.013]


“Directory for 36 Joy Street, Beacon Hill, Boston, Mass., 1925.” [Historic New England, Ephemera Collection, 5½ by 4¼ inches, gift of Greg Smart, October 1997, Reference Code EP001.01.024.01.02.013]


The Barn Theater, home of the Boston Stage Society, was already operating in the main building. Nearby were the Barn Book Shop, selling limited, first, and autographed editions; the Brick Oven gift shop and tea room (read: speakeasy); the Saracen’s Head Coffee House, where a dinner could be had for 75 cents; and the Parlour, a Victorian furniture and decorating business. Other businesses around the court included Townsend’s wrought iron and antiques shop; a costume designer; an architectural renderer, engraver, and printer; a basket maker and furnishings restorer; a ballet instructor who also taught soft-shoe tap dancing; and a photographer.

“Boston’s fake Bohemia of the latter 1920s, the Joy Street gang, was definitely queer,” Allen Bernstein (1913-2008), wrote in “Millions of Queers (Our Homo America)” in 1940, an early and clarion-clear defense of homosexuality.13 “In 1929 Bernstein would have been 16 years old, and could have first made personal acquaintance with this ‘gang’ while attending Tufts University,” Randall L. Sell and Jonathan Ned Katz wrote. “That queer ‘gang’ almost certainly included Prescott Townsend.”14

Lucius Beebe described Townsend as a “rangy youth” in Boston and the Boston Legend, “whose strictly accountable background and actual supply of ready cash were not particularly held against him even in the most enlightened circles.”15

“A rangy youth … whose strictly accountable background and actual supply of ready cash were not particularly held against him.”

Catharine Sargent Huntington (1887-1987), an actor, director, producer, and impresario of the Little Theater Movement, was the founder of the Boston Stage Society. Her Barn Theater opened with The Clouds by Jaroslav Kvapil, who was an actual Bohemian, since he’d been born in the Kingdom of Bohemia in 1868. The third season at the Barn began with Huntington’s own adaptation of Anatole France’s novel, The Revolt of the Angels.


This annotated detail of an 1867 insurance map by D. A. Sanborn shows the Barn Theater in its earlier incarnation as a stable or carriage house, and the abutting Joy Court, where Townsend’s Bohemian village would be created. It also shows the African Meeting House, the oldest surviving Black church structure in the nation. [“Insurance map of Boston: volume 1: plate 10,” Boston Public Library, Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Digital Commonwealth Identifier G1234_B6G475_S2_1867v1_0011]


Huntington is important to our story because she furnishes a potential link between Townsend and Provincetown. She and John Dos Passos, another Provincetown figure, were among the high-profile defendants arrested for a “death watch” at the State House on the night Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed in 1927. Years later, Huntington’s New England Repertory Company took over the lease of the Artists’ Theatre at the foot of Gosnold Street and turned it into the Provincetown Playhouse on the Wharf.

Although Townsend was never the fee owner of any property in Provincetown — at least, under his own name — he did acquire a parcel in Orleans in 1927 from his younger sister Katharine Wendell “Kate” Townsend (1897-1987).

Thanks to the Advocate‘s “Personals” column, we can confidently place Townsend in Provincetown as early as 1931.16 And we know Townsend was well enough settled by 1932 that he could “very nearly give me his house in [P]rovincetown for a month,” the novelist John Cheever (1912-1982) told his editor at The New Republic.17 Unfortunately for Cheever, the month was March. Charles Flato (1908-1984), a writer who shared the sublet, described their lodgings as being “on a wharf without heat and the floorboards wide enough to see the water at high tide.” The young writers typed — or tried to — in gloves and overcoats.18

“Floorboards wide enough to see the water at high tide.”

In Boston, the early 1930s proved to be a tumultuous spell. For one thing, Joy Court and a parallel alleyway were plagued in 1932 and 1933 by gunshots and giant firecrackers, one of which blew out about 20 windows, making the front page of The Globe, along with a photo of Townsend.19

Townsend was accused in 1933 of unlawfully taking $2,000 worth of art (about $40,000 today) from a room he had rented to the painter Donald Carlisle Greason (1897-1981). Townsend maintained that Greason, drunk, had failed to pay rent, after which Townsend moved the artist’s effects to a trailer.20 Greason’s creditable paintings and drawings, some of which are in the National Gallery of Art, included male nudes and boxing scenes.

More curious and intriguing is the case of Bobby Mythen, a 19-year-old from Winthrop who disappeared on Christmas Eve 1934 while he and three young friends were in Louisburg Square, two blocks from the Barn. Townsend reached out to Mythen’s father and offered to look for Bobby in New York and Florida if the father would pay his traveling expenses. After Mythen’s body was found in the Charles River in March 1935, Townsend was called into the State House for questioning. He told the assistant attorney general that he never knew Mythen, but had offered to help search for the boy “after he had heard certain rumors.”21 There was nothing to link Townsend to Mythen’s disappearance. The boy’s death was eventually declared to have been an accidental drowning.


Townsend’s photograph was published on the front page of The Boston Daily Globe on 16 January 1933, with a story about mysterious firecracker explosions and gunshots around his Joy Street property. [Newspapers.com Image 432255871]


Freddy Harvey and his wife were killed on 19 April 1936, when the airplane he was piloting crashed and burned in the Allegheny Mountains, east of Johnstown, Pa. I have no idea what state of acquaintance — if any — existed between Harvey and Townsend at this point, but the dramatic death of such a well-known figure was front-page news nationally, so Townsend had to have known.

By 1940, Townsend had moved to 75 Phillips Street on Beacon Hill, which had a small rear courtyard backing on to an abutting property, 15 Lindall Place, which Townsend also owned. Lindall Place, once a snug cul-de-sac off Cambridge Street, was sliced in two and largely flattened in 1911-12 by the construction of the Longfellow Bridge Viaduct where the Red Line ascends from below ground on its way across the Charles River.

The course of Townsend’s life was truly set in the early 1940s, during World War II, while he was working at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy.

In March 1942, he was arrested in Boston and charged in Suffolk County Superior Court with “indecent assault and battery” on one Raymond Richards and of committing an “unnatural and lascivious act” with Richards. Having waived his right to a jury trial, Townsend was found not guilty on both counts.22 “Rumor always had it that it was in one of those deep entryways on Beacon Hill’s historic Mount Vernon Street,” Shand-Tucci wrote.23

“According to legend, when the judge asked what he had to say for himself, he replied, ‘So what’s wrong with a little cocksucking on the Hill?’ ” the gay liberationist Charles Shively (1937-2017) wrote in his essay “Prescott Townsend (1894-1973): Bohemian Blueblood — A Different Kind of Pioneer.”24

Just a few months later, Townsend was arrested again — this time in Fall River (not to be confused with Fore River) — and charged again with violating Chapter 272, Section 35 of the General Laws by “committing an unnatural and lascivious act,” this time, as it happened, with a man 30 years younger than he was.25 Townsend maintained that he could have avoided arrest had he been inclined to pay a bribe.

“I helped win the incredible battle of Midway by working two years down at Fore River …. Then I was thrown in jail for refusing to pay graft.”

“I helped win the incredible battle of Midway by working two years down at Fore River with a shipfitter’s wedge, one time at 10 below zero,” he told his Harvard classmates in their 50th anniversary class book. “Then I was thrown in jail for refusing to pay graft for an act that is not against the law in England nor in Illinois.”26 (His somewhat self-serving assertion was correct when written in 1968 — Illinois had been the first state to decriminalize sodomy, in 1962. But at the time of his arrest and sentencing, sodomy was against the law in the United Kingdom and the United States.)

On 9 February 1943, Chief Justice John P. Higgins of Suffolk County Superior Court sentenced Townsend to 18 months of confinement and hard labor at the House of Correction on Deer Island in Boston Harbor. (This is where the gigantic egg-like anaerobic digesters of the Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Plant now nest.)

The experience on Deer Island is said to have steeled Townsend’s resolve to devote himself to what was then known as the homophile movement; a precursor of gay liberation in which activists — often at enormous risk to their jobs, their well-being, and their standing in society — petitioned not for affirmative civil rights but simply for the freedom to be treated decently and left alone, without arrests, beatings, and constant harassment.

Leading the homophile movement nationally through the 1950s was the Mattachine Society, which Harry Hay had founded in Los Angeles at the beginning of the decade. Townsend helped form a Boston chapter in 1957, with Antonio Giarraputo and others. Given Townsend’s sex-positive worldview, however, it didn’t take him long to come into conflict with his nominal allies. “The general public wasn’t prejudiced against just homosexuals, but against sex per se,” he would say.27

“The general public wasn’t prejudiced against just homosexuals, but against sex per se.”

Sex wasn’t his only contrarian cause. The Globe found him at the State House in 1958 as one of only two speakers opposing a bill to outlaw hitchhiking and in 1963 as the sole speaker against a bill to increase penalties on sellers of lottery tickets. (“He said the only way to stop gambling would be to change human nature,” the newspaper reported. Nine years later, the Commonwealth decided it was easier to join lottery sellers than to beat them.)28

Narrative continues after photo gallery

A photo gallery by Al Kaplan
From There Was Always a Place to Crash

“Looking out from the inside at the entrance to ‘Provincetownsend,’ Bradford Street, Provincetown, September 1965,” by Al Kaplan.


“Inside ‘Provincetownsend,’ Bradford Street, Provincetown, September 1965,” by Al Kaplan.


“Inside ‘Provincetownsend,’ Bradford Street, Provincetown, September 1965,” by Al Kaplan.


“Prescott Townsend, Provincetown, July 1963,” by Al Kaplan. [There Was Always a Place to Crash: Al Kaplan’s Provincetown 1961-1966, Letter16 Press, 2015]


When he proposed in 1959 that Boston Mattachine undertake to overturn the Commonwealth’s anti-sodomy law, he requested support from New York Mattachine. Its president, Curtis Dewees, told Townsend by reply letter: “It is still too early in the history of the Mattachine to sponsor a bill in a state legislature concerning change in the sex laws. I personally feel that we should wait until we have the support of psychiatrists, ministers, lawyers, and others who could testify on behalf of such an action, and who could vouch for our integrity.”29

[Chapter 272, Section 34 of the General Laws remains on the books as of this writing: “Whoever commits the abominable and detestable crime against nature, either with mankind or with a beast, shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than 20 years.” So does Section 35, the “unnatural and lascivious” statute, under which Townsend was imprisoned. State Rep. Jay D. Livingstone, whose district includes Beacon Hill and Back Bay, is currently seeking to amend §34 by striking the words “either with mankind or,” and to repeal §35 altogether.30]

Unwanted at Mattachine Boston, which didn’t last much longer in any case, Townsend formed his own organization in 1962, referred to in various accounts as the Demophil Society, Demophile Center, or Demophile Union.31 (A demophile is a person who likes people.) The Demophil discussion group would gather in Townsend’s Paul Revere Book Shop on Thursday nights.

To Townsend’s already dizzying orbit of friends, disciples, hangers-on, boarders, and sex partners now came the journalist and rights activist Randy Wicker; the poet Stephen Jonas (1921-1970); and the tyro Rene Ricard (1946-2014), on his way to becoming an accomplished poet and what The Times called “a notorious aesthete who roamed Manhattan’s contemporary art scene with a capacious, autodidactic erudition and a Wildean flamboyance.”32 He referred to Townsend as “Foxy Grandpa.”33 When Ricard had an affair with the actor Charles Ludlam (1943-1987), the two were staying with Townsend in Provincetown.34

Ricard, Townsend, and Joy Bang appeared together in An Early Clue to the New Direction, a 28-minute film released in 1967 by the director Andrew Meyer (1943-1987). The film title comes from a line in Hard Day’s Night. (And if you remember the dive-bar scene in Play It Again, Sam, you remember Joy Bang.)

According to summaries I’ve read, Meyer’s loosely structured film concerns a romantic triangle between the three, which gives way to a scene in which Townsend expounds to Bang on his “snowflake” theory of sexuality: homophiles are each as different from one another as snowflakes are.

That performance would have been a triumph for Townsend. In other respects, however, 1967 was the beginning of the end. The Gangway was declared uninhabitable and then burned down. (More about this in the next section.)

Townsend made it to New York in June 1970 for the Christopher Street Liberation Day March and Central Park “Gay-In,” held on the first anniversary of the uprising at the Stonewall Inn. (This was to become what is now the annual Pride March.) Well on his way to the shaggy and unkempt appearance of his last days, Townsend was photographed in Sheep Meadow with a gaggle of thin, handsome, and — let us say it — courageous young men, including the 32-year-old Wicker.


“Peter Ogren, Prescott Townsend, Tom Doerr, Mark Golderman, and Randy Wicker in Sheep Meadow,” 1970, by Kay Tobin. [Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, The New York Public Library Digital Collections, Universal Unique Identifier (UUID) e1e58c00-c5d9-012f-7dd1-58d385a7bc34]


Back in Boston, the authorities were closing in on him; not because of his homosexuality, but because he was a dreadful landlord. City officials had been trying for several years to close down both 75 Phillips Street and 15 Lindall Place as unsafe and unsanitary. Through the last half of 1971, five small fires had been reported in Townsend’s home.35 City officials finally succeeded on 12 November 1971 in obtaining a court injunction forbidding occupancy of the buildings.36

Then, in late December, Townsend “and a group of hippie types” snuck back into the buildings, The Globe said. “Prescott was never one for having his chimneys swept,” Shand-Tucci wrote, “and a chimney fire wrote finis to it all.”37 The final blaze broke out at 2 p.m. on 6 January 1972, and was elevated to two alarms when firefighters couldn’t maneuver their apparatus easily through the cars parked on the narrow street. Townsend and two other persons escaped safely. He was arrested a day later and charged with violations of health and sanitary codes.38

Having lost his houses in Provincetown and Boston, Townsend died on 18 May 1973 in the home of a friend at 50A Garden Street. He was 78 years old.

Less than a month later, a measure to repeal the antiquated and discriminatory prohibitions against gay sex in Massachusetts — introduced by a rising young Boston lawmaker named Barney Frank — was defeated in the House of Representatives, 208 to 16.


Prescott Townsend’s Architecture

Among many other things, Townsend styled himself an architect. But if he left behind any tangible structures that are identifiably his work, I don’t know of them — at least, not yet.

He is credited in some sources as having designed five A-frame buildings in Provincetown, but I have seen no references to addresses or owners.39 Shand-Tucci also notes that Townsend credited himself with having designed the exterior of the Church of the Holy Spirit in Orleans in the 1930s — where, you’ll recall, he was a property owner.40 That’s definitely worth exploring further.

In August 1946, the artist Chester “Chet” Pfeiffer (1909-1982) signed a 10-year lease to Townsend for a portion of his lot at 288A Bradford Street. The document refers to a “certain parcel of land situated on Blueberry Hill, a sand dune, in northern part of my property across the railroad tracks.”41 Even today, the Pfeiffer property is 1,100 feet long. But it used to reach even more deeply into the coastal scrub forests and dunes, across the railroad right-of-way that’s now the Old Colony Nature Pathway.

On his leased parcel, Townsend was to erect “an arch aluminum house of panel construction or any other building.” The structures were to remain his personal property. He was free to remove them at any time, thereby terminating the lease. Townsend was to pay Pfeiffer $10 a year for the land, plus any real-estate taxes levied on the dwelling. As the lease was nearing an end, the State took a portion of Pfeiffer’s property for a planned realignment of Route 6. Townsend, as lessee, relinquished any claim to damages from the taking in a document dated 27 December 1954.42

By 1959, Townsend had settled in the West End and was already causing problems. A building he owned “near the Moors” was damaged in a fire caused by faulty wiring. All of the Town’s firehouses responded, but the dwelling was vacant and there were no injuries. Deputy Chief Herman J. Rivard told the Advocate that wiring was faulty throughout the house. Officials quickly disconnected the building from its power supply.43

Question: Did Townsend originally construct the main Gangway building deep in the woods at 288A Bradford and then move it to the West End around 1955 when his East End site was condemned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts?

Question: Where exactly was the Gangway situated? Most accounts describe it as having been near or behind the Moors restaurant. But that’s a 475-foot-long perimeter — quite a stretch. There were only two property owners on whose land the Gangway might have stood: Maline Costa or Hawthorne Bissell. They were abutters. There were no intermediate lots that Townsend could have controlled. Presumably, he either rented from Costa or Bissell, or he squatted. It’s hard to imagine either Costa (with his restaurant) or Bissell (with his tennis courts), leasing to or suffering unauthorized occupation by a nonstop, derelict crash pad for nonconformists, runaways, beatniks, hippies, twinks, and addicts.


An undated ad, of unknown provenance, illustrates Townsend’s “Panel Arched House.” The use of a postal code rather than a Zip code would indicate that it was printed before 1963. [Reproduced in “Who in the ‘H*ck’ is Prescott Townsend,” by Mark Krone, Boston Spirit, 15 September 2013]


A detail of the drawing, compared with a detail of the first photograph in this article, shows a remarkable resemblance between the facades.


Nancy Paine “Mink” Stole, a stalwart member of Waters’s Dreamlanders repertory company, stayed at the Gangway in 1966 and offered an important clue in a 1997 interview with Gerald Peary for Provincetown Arts, when she described the aftermath of the fire: “The Moors restaurant leveled the hill and put in a parking lot.”44 So, maybe it was on the Costas’ land.

Townsend gave his address as 1 Bradford Street, dropping “Extension,” in a fascinating advertisement that was reproduced in Boston Spirit. Unfortunately, no source or date was given, although it may be deduced that it preceded 1963, when Zip codes were introduced. The ad says simply: “Prescott Townsend — 15 Lindall Place, Charles Station, Boston 14, Mass. — Panel Arched House / Studios Overlooking Moors — 1 Bradford Street, Provincetown, Mass.” Accompanying the text is a legible if inexpert line drawing of a panel-walled house with a semi-arched roof.45

What the ad illustrates is a building almost identical to one shown in a 1966 photograph that appeared in the short-lived Inside Provincetown magazine.46 The exterior photo ran in the same spread as three interiors. Though none were captioned or credited, they would all seem to show Townsend’s Gangway. Indeed, whenever Salvador R. Vasques III posts the photos on his Facebook page, My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection, commenters vouch for the fact. That would make them an extraordinarily rare glimpse of 1960s communal life.


The Gangway, 1966, published in Inside Provincetown magazine. [Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum Collection, Provincetown History Preservation Project Page 5321]


The Gangway, 1966, published in Inside Provincetown magazine. [Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum Collection, Provincetown History Preservation Project Page 5321]


The Gangway, 1966, published in Inside Provincetown magazine. [Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum Collection, Provincetown History Preservation Project Page 5321]


Rare, but not unique. The photographer Al Kaplan (1942-2009) was introduced to Townsend through his New Bedford high-school friend Rene Ricard. Seven photos of the Gangway appeared in There Was Always a Place to Crash: Al Kaplan’s Provincetown 1961-1966.

“Kaplan’s photos take us inside the treehouse and among its tenants in various states of consciousness,” Brett Sokol wrote in his introduction to the book. “It was an aerie,” Kaplan later wrote, “always full of people, straight and gay, young and old, and of every race. There were artists and writers and musicians. There was always a place to crash and always something to eat.”47

“There was always a place to crash and always something to eat.”

Those who knew the Gangway best were hard-pressed to describe it adequately, though Stole noted helpfully that it consisted of “four or five units” that were separate but “got together by gangplanks.”48

Provincetownsend “did have a real gangway at the entry,” Shand-Tucci wrote. “Adjoining the main house was a barnlike wing, the top floor of which, reached by a forecastle’s spiral stair, was called the dormitory. Here was where Townsend sheltered the young street people who came to him, directed by word-of-mouth mostly in Ptown’s gay bars, one imagines. Perhaps most important was the flat roof, with what [Adrian] Cathcart called its ‘maze of piping’; Townsend’s house was a very early attempt at a solar-heated house.” (Another noble, but failed, example of early solar tube heating stands at 5 Cudworth Street.) “Trees grew up through a kind of trellis in an interior courtyard.”49

John Waters was clearly delighted when he saw Al Kaplan’s photographs. On the book’s cover, he was quoted as saying: “Here’s the book that proves what I only remembered; yes, I lived in a tree fort in Provincetown in 1966 and inside is an actual photo of it.”

“There was no running water, but it was an incredibly beautiful place.”

“It was like living with a lunatic Swiss Family Robinson,” Waters wrote in his 1981 memoir, Shock Value. “Part of the apartment was made out of a submarine, and trees grew right up through the living room. There was no running water, but it was an incredibly beautiful place. The only real problem was that when it rained, it was like being outside. The only appliance that came with the apartment was a MightyMo heater. It was huge and you poured gas into it and flames shot out. It could dry out a drenched mattress in 20 minutes. There was no rent. You just had to be liked by the incredibly eccentric landlord, Prescott Townsend, a notorious 72-year-old gay liberationist who drove around on a motor scooter and ate nothing but hot dogs.”50

And proposed to Mink Stole! “Prescott and I got engaged,” she told Gerald Peary. “He was homosexual and 78 years old [72], and he bought me a diamond ring. There was speculation he might want children. The next summer, we broke our engagement, an amicable separation.”51 Stole’s sister Mary “Sique” Stole, also known as “Sick,” lived at the Gangway that summer, and Channing Wilroy, another member of the Dreamlanders repertory company, was also coming and going. It was Sique, Waters said, who later helped him cultivate his pencil mustache by advising him to enhance it with a little black eyebrow pencil.52

Joseph McGrath, who was to become Townsend’s secretary in his later years, remembered his first visit to Provincetown, when he was 15. Somehow separated from his friends, he ended the day sitting on the Meat Rack in front of Town Hall without enough money to get home. Another young man approached. “He asked me why I looked so sad and I told him my story. He said, ‘I know where you can stay for 35 cents a night.’ He took me to Prescott’s place.”53

“I know where you can stay for 35 cents a night.”

And what awaited him? “[T]he huge living room, roaring fire in the hanging central fireplace; a young dancer all but in a state of nature leaping about the fireplace to loud boogie beat; Townsend, clothed as he usually was in a three-piece suit, reading The Times; ceiling fans all the while twirling. Lowering his paper to stare quizzically at the newcomer, Townsend said, ‘What have we here?'”54

“I crashed there in 1965 and ’66 many times,” John T. Harris said on the Facebook page, My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection. “[Townsend] was pretty old. It was a place I will never forget. Very memorable people and lots of skinny young men like myself.”54+ On another post, he added about the Gangway: “It was pretty run down then, but much of [the] construction was treehouse, like from all kinds of scrap wood. I was too young to know what I was experiencing, sadly.”55 In the same thread, Steve Jerome said, “It’s one of many places, from Castle Dune to Blanche Lazzell’s studio, that inhabit my Ptown dreamscape of vanished and vanishing cultural heritage.”56

But we’ll leave the final eulogy to John Waters:

“I can remember it as some of the happiest moments of my life, of complete freedom for the first time. I was away from everything I rebelled against.”57


1 Bradford Street Extension on the Town Map, showing property lines. (Assuming the Gangway was on the Moors lot.)


Also at this address

The Moors

Village at the Moors Condominium (Building 1)

Village at the Moors Condominium (Building 3)

Village at the Moors Condominium (Building 2)


In memoriam

• Catharine Sargent Huntington (1887-1987)

Find a Grave Memorial No. 129290777.

• Prescott Townsend (1894-1973)

Find a Grave Memorial No. 173596096.



1 Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste, by John Waters, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1981 and 1995, page 48.
2 Harvard College Class of 1918, Forty-Fifth Report quoted in The Crimson Letter: Harvard, Homosexuality, and the Shaping of American Culture, by Douglass Shand-Tucci, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003, page 239.
3 Quoted in “Prescott Townsend,” by Megan Linger, Boston National Historical Park – Boston African American National Historic Site, National Park Service.
4 “Warrant Issued for Owner After Beacon Hill Fire,” The Boston Globe, 7 January 1972.
5 “House Shut Down by Court Order,” Provincetown Advocate, 14 September 1967.
6 Townsend’s mother, Catherine W. (Sherman) Townsend (1854-1924), was the daughter of Edward S. Sherman (1818-1882), who was the son of Roger Sherman (1768-1856), who was the son and namesake of the founding father.
7 Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West — One Meal at a Time, by Stephen Fried, Bantam Books, 2002.
8Prescott Townsend.”
9 The Crimson Letter, page 231.
10 The Crimson Letter, page 232.
11 Libby Bouvier of The History Project to Randall Sell, 12 August 2014.
12 “Women in Overalls Building ‘Bohemia’ Near State House / Colony Turns Barn Into Theatre and Part of Joy St Into a ‘Village’ — Jane Poor in Charge,” The Boston Globe, 26 May 1923.
13Millions of Queers (Our Homo America),” by Allen Bernstein, 1940, page 51. Reproduced on outhistory.org.
14Allen Bernstein Biography (1913-2008),” by Randall L. Sell, with Jonathan Ned Katz, outhistory.org, 2019.
15 Quoted in The Crimson Letter, page 234.
16 “Personals,” Provincetown Advocate, 18 June 1931. In its entirety: “Prescott Townsend, of Boston, spent the weekend in town.”
17 Cheever, by Blake Bailey, Alfred A. Knopf, 2009, page 52.
18 John Cheever: A Biography, by Scott Donaldson, Random House, 1988.
19 “Explosion Laid to Firecracker / Police Baffled as They Study Joy-St Blast / Recall Similar Acts Before in Region About the Barn,” The Boston Globe, 16 January 1933.
20 “‘You Are Full,’ Court Declares / Artist Accuses Beacon Hill Man, Theft Denied,” The Boston Globe, 4 December 1933.
21 “Two Beacon Hill Men Questioned on Mythen / Not Linked With Case, One an Old Schoolmate, Other Had Talked With Boy’s Father,” The Boston Globe, 1 November 1935.
22 Bouvier to Sell, 30 September 2014.
23 The Crimson Letter, page 241.
24 Published in Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context, edited by Vern L. Bullough, Haworth Press, 2002, page 45.
25 A facsimile of the warrant accompanies “Who in the ‘H*ck’ Is Prescott Townsend,” by Mark Krone, Boston Spirit, 15 September 2013. The Fall River arrest site comes from Bouvier to Sell, 30 September 2014. The age comes from Improper Bostonians: Lesbian and Gay History From the Puritans to Playland, compiled by The History Project, Beacon Press, 1998, page 194.
26 Improper Bostonians, page 195.
27 Quoted in Behind the Mask of the Mattachine: The Hal Call Chronicles and the Early Movement for Homosexual Emancipation, by James T. Sears, Routledge, 2011, page 419.
28 “Hearing Held on Bid to Ban Hitchhiking,” The Boston Globe, 21 January 1958; “Legislators Buy Lottery Tickets, Committee Told,” The Boston Globe, 13 February 1963.
29 Quoted in Improper Bostonians, page 196.
30 Bill H.1758, An Act Relative to the Reform of Unconstitutional Archaic Laws, 192nd General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
31 “Demophil Society” (without an e at the end), Bouvier to Sell; Demophile Center, Improper Bostonians; Demophile Union, Charles Shively, Encyclopedia of Gay Histories and Cultures.
32 “Rene Ricard, Art Arbiter With Wildean Wit, Does at 67,” by Bruce Weber, The New York Times, 6 February 2014.
33 The Crimson Letter, page 226.
34 Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam, by David Kaufman, Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2002, pages 29-30.
35 “Fires Damage Silber Home and Beacon Hill House,” The Boston Globe, 7 January 1972.
36 “Warrant Issued for Owner After Beacon Hill Fire,” The Boston Globe, 7 January 1972.
37 The Crimson Letter, page 256.
38 “Landlord Charged,” The Boston Globe, 8 January 1972.
39 “Prescott Townsend (1894-1973): Bohemian Blueblood — A Different Kind of Pioneer,” by Charles Shively, in Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context, edited by Vern L. Bullough, Haworth Press, 2002, page 45.
40 The Crimson Letter, page 239.
41 Lease, Chester D. Pfeiffer (grantor) to Prescott Townsend (grantee), Barnstable County Registry of Deeds, recorded 9 September 1946, Book 654, Page 462.
42 Discharge, Prescott Townsend (grantor) to Commonwealth of Massachusetts (grantee), Barnstable County Registry of Deeds, recorded 15 June 1955, Book 911, Page 43.
43 “Fire Damages West End Building,” Provincetown Advocate, 8 October 1959.
44 “John Waters in Provincetown,” by Gerald Peary, Provincetown Arts, page 28.
45 Reproduced in Who in the ‘H*ck’ Is Prescott Townsend.”
46 “Inside Provincetown Magazine Vol. 1 No. 1, 1966,” Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum Collection, Provincetown History Preservation Project Page 5321.
47 There Was Always a Place to Crash: Al Kaplan’s Provincetown 1961-1966, introduction by Brett Sokol, Letter16 Press, 2015, page 5.
48 “John Waters in Provincetown,” by Gerald Peary, Provincetown Arts, page 28.
49 The Crimson Letter, pages 239-240.
50 Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste, by John Waters, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1981 and 1995, page 48. Three typographical errors in the book are corrected here with the author’s permission.
51 “John Waters in Provincetown,” by Gerald Peary, Provincetown Arts, page 28.
52 Role Models, by John Waters, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010 page 99.
53 Quoted in “Who in the ‘H*ck’ Is Prescott Townsend.”
54 The Crimson Letter, page 240.
54+ John T. Harris comment on Facebook / My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection.
55 John T. Harris comment on Facebook / My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection.
56 Steve Jerome comment on Facebook / My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection.
57 “John Waters in Provincetown,” by Gerald Peary, Provincetown Arts, 1997, page 24.


¶ Last updated on 28 March 2022.

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