The two remaining courts of the Herring Cove Tennis Club. [2016, Dunlap]
Herring Cove Tennis Club | Formerly Hawthorne Bissell’s Tennis Courts | Also known as the New Beach Tennis Courts and Cast Anchor Tennis Courts. For more than 60 years, tennis enthusiasts in Provincetown had a choice not only of neighborhood — East End or West End — but of playing surface, too: green clay at the Provincetown Tennis Club, 288 Bradford Street, or red clay here at the Herring Cove Tennis Club, which was open to the public from 1948 until 2011. Two of the five courts remain, but they are now for the use only of Herring Cove Village property owners.
The clubhouse. [2008, Dunlap]
The extent of the five courts was best appreciated from the air. [2010, Dunlap]
Opened in 1948, the club was the product and passion of Hawthorne Bissell (1908-1996), a nephew of Charles Webster Hawthorne through his mother, the sculptor Valetta (Hawthorne) Bissell (1874-1946). Hawthorne Bissell was born at 621 Commercial Street. He attended the Starkey Seminary prep school in Lakemont, N.Y., then majored in music at Syracuse University, from which he was graduated in 1931, having studied under Jacob Kwalwasser, head of the public school music department. Shortly after graduating, he married a classmate, Dorothy Hogan. She had no taste for Provincetown, and their union was short-lived.1
Like tennis, music was a passion of Bissell’s. In the Great Depression, when school music programs were pared or eliminated, Bissell gave private piano and voice lessons. He also worked as an instructor at the Provincetown Tennis Club, which was then known as the East End Club. At last, around 1937, he secured a post as music supervisor for public schools in south Broward County, Fla., including Hollywood.
Hawthorne Bissell. [“Kelly’s Corner / Bissell’s Tennis Club: Every Court Has a Story,” by Jan Kelly, Provincetown Magazine, Provincetown History Preservation Project Page 6452]
The new road to the tennis courts, pictured in September 1948, was a wide gouge in a good-sized sand dune. In the center distance, you can see Dr. Carl Murchison’s Castle Dune residence, 2 Commercial Street, which burned down in 1956. [Scrapbooks of Althea Boxell 2:77 / Provincetown History Preservation Project Page 28]
In 1937, Hawthorne wed Betty Raden (1909-1975) in Manhattan. The marriage was to last until her death, almost four decades later. During World War II, Bissell was a radar instructor at Boca Raton Army Air Field in Florida. For the rest of their lives, the Bissells divided their time between Florida and the Cape.
Construction work on Bissell’s tennis club, near the Moors, began in earnest in the fall of 1947, when the E. W. Hinckley Construction Company began clearing underbrush and leveling whole sand dunes. At least, that’s how the Advocate told it. Bissell family lore, as recounted in a column by Jan Kelly for Provincetown Magazine, said this about Hawthorne: “He hand-cleared the entire area of five courts and club house with an old sickle (which is still on display at the club).”2 I like that version better. The clubhouse and out-buildings were constructed by the carpenter Isaac John Pavao (1905-1970) of 5 Anthony Street, his son Ronald said in 2021.3 The clubhouse had women’s and men’s locker rooms and showers, office space, and storage.
The five 78-by-36-foot courts were built on a foundation of large rocks covered with smaller rocks, covered with pea gravel, covered with sand, then covered with clay from pits in Truro owned by Donald “Ducky” Noons (1938-2005). The reddening layer was crushed red slate — one ton per court, applied by hand — from Wilson & Lawrence Inc. in Grafton, Vt. That was topped in turn by a layer of calcium chloride to lock in moisture. Bissell angled the courts to minimize direct sunlight in players’ eyes.4
Left: Ad in the Provincetown Advocate, 1 July 1948. Right: Ad in the Provincetown Art Association, First 1950 Exhibition catalog [Municipal Collection / Provincetown History Preservation Project Page 5359]
Ad in the Provincetown Advocate, 3 September 1959.
Advertisement, c1966. [Posted by Salvador R. Vasques III on Facebook / My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection]
Ad in Provincetown Magazine, 14 August 2008. [Author’s collection]
There was a brief period of co-existence. [2011, Dunlap]
Paul George Lambert, the managing editor and publisher of the Advocate, thought the courts couldn’t be built quickly enough. “Emphasis in Provincetown has been too little on wholesome recreation and too much on other forms of activity that have given it a far from healthy reputation,” he wrote on the front page.5
The club opened in the summer of 1948 as the New Beach Tennis Courts. Bissell, ever the instructor, immediately won over the town that fall by offering free use of the courts, free use of tennis rackets and balls, and free instruction to 84 youngsters, from seventh graders to high school seniors. “Provincetown boys and girls are getting a break that may well be unique,” the Advocate said in an editorial thanking Bissell.6 He renamed the club the Cast Anchor Tennis Courts for the 1949 season.
“A warm and friendly atmosphere between literate, musical, and congenial people”
Eventually, Hawthorne and Betty renamed the club one more time to call it what everyone else in town was probably calling it: Hawthorne Bissell’s Tennis Courts. In the mid-1960s, they shared their credo in an advertisement welcoming “people of all ages” to the courts. “We feel it is an investment in health, poise, muscular coordination, courtesy, self-control, confidence and sociability. We specialize in arranging games, introducing partners, sympathetic and philosophic instruction, and creating a warm and friendly atmosphere between literate, musical, and congenial people who come to enjoy their leisure moments.”7
There it is again: “musical.” Music was so central to Bissell’s life that he was elected in 1954 to serve as the supervisor of music for the Provincetown, Truro, and Wellfleet schools. And for at least one season, in 1959, he allowed John Kelly, formerly of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, to conduct classes in Russian ballet at the tennis courts on weekdays.
The Bissells were serious about enforcing players’ decorum while offering a sympathetic approach to instruction.
Hawthorne would not tolerate drinking, swearing, smoking, bad manners, or aggressive playing tactics. Confronted with any of these, he might ask the offender, “If you don’t have a standard, what do you live by?” Or he might just ask the offender to leave the premises. There may not have been an unbreakable dress code, but Bissell made his preference clear: “Dress the part. Wear whites. Look like a tennis player, and it will help put you in the zone.”
“Dress the part. Wear whites. Look like a tennis player, and it will help put you in the zone.”
But though Bissell was unusually strict in matters of courtesy and etiquette, he couldn’t have been more relaxed or forgiving as an instructor. He called his method “Zen Tennis.” Specializing in students over 50 years old, Bissell tried to tamp down their competitive instincts. “It’s not a do-or-die matter,” he told Gloria Negri of The Boston Globe in 1968. “If you’re not well coordinated, it’s not the end of the world. You can enjoy yourself without having to win every time.” To further calm players’ anxieties, Bissell would play a guitar or courtside piano: sea songs, Scottish ballads, Bach and Beethoven (“Moonlight Sonata” and “Für Elise”). “Taking a tennis lesson from Hawthorne Bissell is almost as soothing as a session on a psychiatrist’s couch,” Negri wrote.8
Bud Collins, the famed NBC sports broadcaster and tennis columnist, caught up with Bissell in 1971 at his winter courts in Islamorada, Fla. “Hawthorne Bissell sits beside the tennis court fondling his guitar to produce music for swinging old hackers,” Collins wrote. “He says this selection is Bach and I will take his word for it. Whatever, it is nearly as soothing as the breeze from the ocean a few yards away. … Bissell realizes that a tennis court is a very competitive cauldron for most addicts, but insists it is and can be a beautiful, restful refuge as well. That is what he has created as a tennis pro.”9
“A tennis court … is and can be a beautiful, restful refuge.”
Ted Williams, the legendary hitter for the Boston Red Sox, took instruction from Bissell three times a week at Islamorada before the start of the 1959 baseball season. (Given Bissell’s approach, it may not be entirely surprising that Williams went on that year to record the only sub-.300 batting average of his otherwise stellar Major League career.) The soprano Mimi Benzell, the photographer Yousuf Karsh, the writer Norman Mailer, and the television journalist Mike Wallace all reportedly took lessons from Bissell.
“I chase off expert players,” Bissell told Collins. “They discourage the usual clientele, and make me look bad. Can’t look bad in front of my pupils, can I?”
Betty Bissell died in 1975. Later that year, Peggy P. (Adams) Van Rider, who held a master’s degree from Southern Illinois University, was playing tennis in Florida, to which she’d moved a dozen years earlier with her young family. At courtside, “Bissell was strumming the guitar and singing ‘Jesu, Joy of Man,'” Avellar wrote in her obit. “He told her he was playing for her serve, something for which she herself had never considered prayer. She said it was then she decided she’d like to know him better.”10
Esther and Jon C. Van Rider. [“Kelly’s Corner / Bissell’s Tennis Club: Every Court Has a Story,” by Jan Kelly, Provincetown Magazine, Provincetown History Preservation Project Page 6452]
The remaining courts. [2016, Dunlap]
The clubhouse. [2008, Dunlap]
Obscured under the phone number by red paint was the URL “www.BissellsTennis.com.” [2011, Dunlap]
Top: The extent of the five tennis courts in 2008. [Microsoft Virtual Earth] Bottom: The current “footprint” of the two remaining courts. [Google Maps]
They were wed in 1976, and she joined him in the yearly Florida-Provincetown-Florida migration. Her son Jon C. Van Rider, a police officer who lived in Florida City, began working under Bissell that year. Van Rider acquired the business in 1980 and the West End property in 1993 — for $1.00.11 Under Van Rider and his wife, Esther, the club specialized in finding singles or doubles partners for those seeking a match. The name of the Provincetown courts was changed to Herring Cove Tennis Club in the later 2000s. Delwyn Trent was the property manager.
The end came in view in 2006 when James E. Watkins and David Krohn of Boston — doing business as WK Red Clay L.L.C. — purchased the property from Van Rider for $1.75 million.12 They unveiled their plans in the spring of 2007. They sought to remove one of the five tennis courts, demolish two front cottages on the property, and construct 16 new condominium units known as Herring Cove Village.13
After the first 11 units were constructed in the front end of the property, Watkins and Krohn returned to the regulators in 2010 with an amended plan. Rather than build the six units of Phase II as a two-building condominium at the back of the property — where the tennis courts were — they proposed to build six single-family homes, pushing three structures into a buffer area intended to protect adjacent wetlands.
Months of negotiation followed the rejection of that plan by the Conservation Commission. By year’s end, an agreement had been reached and approved by the Conservation Commission and the Zoning Board of Appeals under which two homes were to be constructed on the “footprint” of the three westernmost courts rather than in the wetlands buffer zone, while four others would rise were the clubhouse stood.
Watkins and Krohn told Town officials that “the public tennis courts were no longer profitable, and they were closing the tennis center,” Pru Sowers reported in the Banner. The two remaining courts would be reserved for the use of tenants. “Some members of the tennis club attended a Z.B.A. public hearing to express disappointment that the 63-year-old organization was closing to make way for a housing development.”14
During the 2011 season, the tennis club and condo “village” were in a state of brief co-existence. But by 2014, the three tennis courts and the clubhouse were gone.
Units 16 and 17 under construction on the tennis court “footprint.” [2011, Dunlap]
David Mayo wrote on 26 April 2015: Hawthorne Bissell was a true Renaissance man and Provincetown Bohemian. He lived in the house Anne Packard lives in now. [621 Commercial Street] I took piano lessons from him there during the winter months. On stormy afternoons, one could hear the water sloshing around as I plodded through my lessons. For a while, Hawthorne taught instrumental music in the Provincetown public schools. He was a bit of a “wild man.” I also took tennis lessons from him on his courts in the West End. At the end of the hour, I would be in a total sweat dealing with his amazing volleys — Hawthorne would calmly leave the courts. He and wife Betty (who always ate burnt toast as some sort of weird diet she was on) ran square dances at the clubhouse during the summers. I remember attending every week — my two favorite partners being Janet Whelan (now Dr. Whelan) and Lucy Davidson, whose father ran an art school in the summers. Hawthorne was also an accomplished flamenco guitar player. Their son, Daniel, had a hard time competing with his very unique parents. Hawthorne always was exciting to be around!
21 Bradford Street Extension on the Town Map, showing property lines.
Also at this address
• Hawthorne Bissell
Find a Grave Memorial No. 187667436.
1 General biography: “Hawthorne Bissell, 87,” by Mary-Jo Avellar, Provincetown Advocate, 5 September 1996; “Hawthorne Bissell, 87,” Provincetown Banner, 5 September 1996. Music education: “Cape Ender Chosen Music Supervisor,” Provincetown Advocate, 7 October 1954. First marriage: “Drops Kidnap Attempt Charge / Bissell Fined $25 for Breach of Peace,” The Boston Globe, 20 January 1933.
2 “Kelly’s Corner / Bissell’s Tennis Club: Every Court Has a Story,” by Jan Kelly, Provincetown Magazine, Provincetown History Preservation Project Page 6452.
3 Ronald Pavao comment on Facebook / Provincetown Diaspora.
4 “Kelly’s Corner / Bissell’s Tennis Club: Every Court Has a Story,” by Jan Kelly, Provincetown Magazine, Provincetown History Preservation Project Page 6452.
5 “To Fellows and Friends Afar and Abroad,” by Paul George Lambert, Provincetown Advocate, 1 July 1948.
6 “A Word of Thanks,” Provincetown Advocate, 7 October 1948.
7 Posted by Salvador R. Vasques III / My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection.
8 “Tennis Coach Bissell Insists Losers Can Enjoy Themselves,” by Gloria Negri, The Boston Globe, 7 August 1968.
9 “Bach-Hand Music,” by Bud Collins, The Boston Globe, 7 April 1971.
10 “Hawthorne Bissell, 87,” by Mary-Jo Avellar, Provincetown Advocate, 5 September 1996.
11 Deed, Hawthorne Bissell and Peggy P. Bissell (grantors) to Jon C. Van Rider (grantee), Barnstable County Registry of Deeds, recorded 5 March 1993, Land Court Document No. 576801-1.
12 Deed, Jon C. Van Rider (grantor) to WK Red Clay L.L.C. (grantee), Barnstable County Registry of Deeds, recorded 1 March 2006, Land Court Document No. 1027408-1.
13 “16-Condo Proposal for Bissell Property,” by Pru Sowers, Provincetown Banner, 5 April 2007.
14 “Red Clay Homes Get Go-Ahead in Provincetown,” by Pru Sowers, Provincetown Banner, 13 December 2010.
¶ Last updated on 4 April 2022.