Four years ago, New York-based writer Joshua Prager was looking to buy a small cottage in the Provincetown area. During his search, he came upon an ad with a barn for sale in Provincetown, so he decided to have a look.
“I came upon this remarkable barn that was dilapidated but beautiful,” Prager said.
The hilltop structure is on the National Register of Historic Places, and it was built by impressionist painter Charles Hawthorne. He started an art school there in 1907. After Hawthorne’s death, painter Hans Hoffman took over the school. But eventually, the barn fell into disrepair. Prager looked beyond the run-down condition, and decided to buy the barn in 2009 for $550,000. His goal was to renovate the structure and restore its heritage as an arts center. But the permitting process took much longer than expected, and by 2011 he couldn’t afford to keep it.
“What was depressing was I knew what would happen if I sold it,” Prager said. “It would be immediately turned into some luxury condominium like everything else out there.”
The couple who owned the house next door liked Prager’s ideas, and they purchased the Barn from him. After fully renovating it, they agreed to rent it to Prager’s non-profit group, Twenty Summers, from mid-May to mid-June each year. The group plans to present a variety of artistic classes and programs at the barn during that time.
“The idea was to just get the barn back in the hands of the public,” Prager explained, “because this is the single most important structure in Provincetown from an arts point of view, and Provincetown was originally an arts colony, so it’s an important thing. And now, after four years, we’re finally poised to see all of our hard work come to fruition.”
Many top people have already signed on to support the project, including novelist Michael Cunningham and fashion designer Isaac Misrahi. Twenty Summers has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $150,000 by the end of the year. They admit it’s a lofty goal, but say they need that amount to properly produce the ambitious programming they have in mind - which includes painting classes, play readings and storytelling workshops, as well as live music performances, literary events, art exhibits, and fashion photo shoots. The group needs to raise the entire $150,000 by December 31st, or all bets are off.
“I’m trying to remain optimistic, but if we don’t reach our goal, I’m not optimistic that this is going to come to be,” said Prager.
Ricky Opaterny, another Twenty Summers partner, also is trying to stay upbeat. He lives in San Francisco, and said when he first saw the barn, he was especially struck by the quality of the light.
“The large window on the barn faces north, and so no matter what time of day it is, the light is always very soft,” Opaterny said. “It’s like, whatever happens within that space takes on an extra quality because of the light.”
Novelist Julia Glass also is part of the effort. She said Norman Rockwell, Jackson Pollack, Norman Mailer, Tennessee Williams all have spent time at the Barn.
“It was not built for livestock or as a hayloft. So it has this very austere, raw interior, but it was meant as a place for artists to create,” said Glass. “And it became a place where writers and theatrical people - everybody from Norman Mailer to Tennessee Williams and Hans Hoffman. Robert DiNiro, the actor - his parents met in the Barn.”
She feels the Barn’s legacy is too important not to try and revive.
“Preserving a historic place involves more than just making the roof tight to the rain. It means keeping its spirit and purpose alive, and that’s trickier,” according to Glass.
Joshua Prager is hopeful that, come May of next year, he’ll be able to share his vision with the Cape arts community.
“It will be glorious and thrilling for me, as a person who loves the arts,” said Prager. “As a person who loves Cape Cod, I will be overjoyed, and I think people will too.”