Provincetown, Mass., has long captivated imaginations and lured souls to the tip of Cape Cod — from the Wampanoag people to the Mayflower Pilgrims who docked there before heading to Plymouth, to Henry David Thoreau, playwright Tennessee Williams, and poet Mary Oliver.
Surrounded by expansive natural wetlands and beaches, P-town, as it’s commonly known, was a busy commercial fishing port through the 19th century. It became better known as a Bohemian summer enclave and theater/arts colony through the 1940s, before its rebirth in the 1970s as an idyllic LGBTQ summer mecca that today attracts visitors from around the world.
Preston Scott Cohen, Gerald M. McCue Professor in Architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design, readily admits he’s been smitten by P-town since the late 1980s, when he first started visiting regularly. Despite its remote location, the town has a rich architectural tradition and an appreciation for its history, with examples of diverse building styles, from tiny fisherman’s shacks to a Walter Gropius home, that date back to the 1700s.
Like many, Cohen has grown sentimental and protective of the town over the years. So when Hurricane Sandy flooded cities and towns along the East Coast in 2012, causing more than $70 billion in damage, he said the prospect of the ocean washing away his beloved oasis became too real.
“I was really upset to imagine that these buildings that are quite aged and have so much character would someday be replaced by buildings I would not be happy about or by some kind of rebuilding,” he said. “I didn’t want to imagine this loss of these buildings.”