PROVINCETOWN — The temperature was just above freezing last week, so Joshua Prager threw on a fourth blanket. He was glad to be here, sleeping in the creaky barn built on a sand dune a century ago by painter Charles Hawthorne. This spot on Miller Hill Road, a short walk to Commercial Street, is where many say this storied peninsula got its start as an art colony.
Norman Rockwell studied there. Norman Mailer, renting a house next door, attended parties in the space. Tennessee Williams danced and Jackson Pollock got drunk in the barn.
On Friday, Prager is expected to realize his dream of saving the historic property from development and reviving it as an artistic hub. Twenty Summers , the non-profit organization he has helped found, will launch a month of events that will draw on the bold-faced names of the Cape’s summer artistic community, including musical performances, and readings and talks by best-selling novelist Andre Dubus III and “Wicked” author Gregory Maguire. The launch is being hailed by locals, long-frustrated by bulldozers rolling over sites of historic significance.
Prager, an author and accomplished former staff writer at The Wall Street Journal, has been making regular trips from his home in New York City to get ready for opening night.
“Just to be able to go up there and paint, to be in that space with so much history and great light, it’s phenomenal,” said Bill Evaul, a painter and chairman of the Beachcombers Club, an art collective in town that’s going to take over the Barn for a week in June.
In recent years, Evaul watched as the onetime studio of the late artist Blanche Lazzell was knocked down by developers. The barn that Henry Hensche, a Hawthorne disciple who ran his school for a half century, was turned into condos about 10 years ago. The reason that the Miller Road barn didn’t follow their fate is largely Prager.
The writer, 43, specialized in investigative projects during more than a decade as a staff writer at The Wall Street Journal, sometimes writing just one piece a year. But every summer, starting when he was a boy growing up in New Jersey, Prager summered in North Truro. A few years ago, he dreamed of finding a small home in the area to serve as a writing studio and summer escape. His search led him to the barn, which was for sale. The property was in disrepair – it needed a new roof, wiring, and more than a dozen other improvements – but Prager felt an instant connection after learning its history.
“The fact that Norman Rockwell and Tennessee Williams and Jackson Pollock and Norman Mailer were here,” he says, “I thought it was wild and made it more special to me.”
In 2009, Prager cashed out his 401K, took a loan from a bank and his mother, and put down $200,000 of the $550,000 purchase price. He had a vague plan.
“I thought that, okay, somehow I can figure out a way to resurrect this place, spend some time myself and share it with some people in this town,” he says.
Within two years, Prager realized he simply couldn’t afford his dream, which was to renovate the Barn and run an organization that would oversee it. He had lunch with Daniel Kaizer, a former bookstore owner who had purchased a home next door with his partner, New York Magazine editor Adam Moss. Prager explained his issue. He didn’t want to profit off the Barn and sell it off to the highest bidder. He just wanted to get his investment back. The couple agreed to buy the property for what Prager had spent, with two hitches. Prager would be allowed to stay there during Passover every year. And Twenty Summers, his organization, would get the Barn for a month every spring.
“It’s truly gorgeous and a wonderful, magical space,” said Kaizer in an e-mail. “We think it’s a happy solution for everyone.”
For Prager, the mission makes perfect sense. He said his work has always centered around secrets and revelations, whether at the Journal, where he revealed the name of the only anonymous winner of the Pulitzer Prize (The answer: Iranian photographer Jahangir Razmi in 1980) or examined whether the famous home run, the “Shot Heard Around the World” in 1951, may have been aided by the sign-stealing of the New York Giants.
His most recent book, “Half-Life,” detailed his terrible accident at the age of 19, when a truck slammed into a bus he was riding in. Prager spent four years in a wheelchair, but can now walk, with the help of a cane. His mobility still limited, he also types out his books on the middle finger of his right hand.
Prager said he hasn’t been overwhelmed by setbacks with getting the program off the ground at the Barn, whether his own financial crunch or the failure to raise the Twenty Summers budget late last year through the crowd-sourcing website, Kickstarter.com. When that campaign failed, Prager and his volunteer colleagues - Ricky Opaterny, a writer and general manager at a startup in San Francisco, and writer Julia Glass, whose “Three Junes” won the 2002 National Book Award in fiction - had to be resourceful. They were able to patch together donations to fund the programs, some from anonymous sources, others from Skype and the Hans Hofmann Trust. Prager’s passion in the project has also inspired support from writers like Amy Hempel, who will be part of a seven-hour “Day of Words” program on May 24, said that Prager is a natural ringleader.
“I would do anything for Josh,” says Hempel.
Earlier this month, with the chill in the air, Prager showed off the Barn, starting with the view of the Provincetown harbor from its weathered, wooden porch. Kaizer and Moss have done the repair work he couldn’t, including adding a new roof and installing a proper electrical box. But the space still creaks with history.
The original wooden platform used for models remains in the space, as do the wooden beams and floorboards. Upstairs in a loft, Hensche’s splattered handprint remains on a wall. The Barn’s wall-sized windows, 24 glass panels facing north, usher in the light so central to the painting experience. This was particularly important to Hawthorne, whose Cape program was the first outdoor summer school for figure painting.
Hawthorne, a painter whose works are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and the Worcester Art Museum, established the Cape Cod School of Art in 1899. He was also a founding member of the Provincetown Art Association.
From May 26 to 30, the Cape School of Art will offer classes in the Barn, with instructors teaching portraiture, still life and landscape.
“We’re only having class in there for a week, but it’s important because it’s our home,” said painter Hilda Neily, who helps run the Cape School of Art. “It was Hawthorne who originally built that for his students. And we are those students.”
The events will be cozy and reasonably priced, he says, with no more than 75 people at most performances and tickets around $25 a seat. The idea is to get the word out and create memorable experiences. To that end, Comcast will film events at the Barn for a local on-demand service and WCAI, the National Public Radio affiliate in Woods Hole, will broadcast a May 31 concert featuring classical music and excerpts written about the sea.
Prager is already plotting out next spring. He’s chatted with TV host, chef and writer Anthony Bourdain, who spends time in Provincetown, as well as one of fashion designer Marc Jacobs’s assistants.
He doesn’t know who will sign on and where the money to support next summer’s program will come from. But Prager is not worried.
“I can tell you this,” he says, as the afternoon sunlight bathes the naturally-worn wood, “this whole thing has been about surmounting obstacles.”