PROVINCETOWN — The 165-year-old Gifford House has hosted four US presidents, housed an experimental theater company where a young Al Pacino launched his ascent to stardom, and, in more recent decades, been a staple of Provincetown’s raucous LGBTQ+ nightlife scene.
But by the summer of 2022, the grand 33-room inn appeared to be on life support.
Guest rooms had yet to enter the 21st century. Chunky cathode-ray tube televisions sat on outdated furniture. The water-stained drop ceiling tiles, along with old mattresses that had endured decades of summer trysts, were evidence that the Gifford was nearing the end of an era. In addition to its guest rooms, the Gifford House’s three bars, long an essential part of Provincetown’s social ecosystem, had collapsed into a decaying and moribund state.
The inn’s 73-year-old owner, Jim Foss, who still recorded reservations with pen and paper, was holding out for the right buyer, and for Foss, the right buyer was not a corporation or hotel chain.
Several of Provincetown’s beloved, independently owned inns, such as the Beaconlight Guest House (now the Mercury) and the Brass Key have recently been sold by locals to hospitality and real estate companies. A few of these time-worn properties, such as the Carpe Diem Guest House & Spa (now the Ellery), have been transformed from humble hotels into chic, family-friendly, boutique hostelries. Regardless of Foss’s resolve to stay independent, the Gifford seemed headed toward the same fate.
“I think a corporate sensibility is coming into town, and with that, I think you lose a sense of community,” said John Dowd, chair of the Provincetown Historic District Commission. “When the owners are on-site, they’re part of the town’s fabric, then it’s only logical that they become involved and care about the community as opposed to some faceless entity from elsewhere that’s just looking at a bottom line.”
As the Gifford sat in a sad state, facing an uncertain future, a knight in shining armor — or, more accurately, a townie in a tank top and short shorts — stepped in, eager to restore the Gifford’s élan vital.
That townie, Steve Azar, a 42-year-old New Bedford native and former Somerville city planner, has lived in Provincetown for more than a decade. On a whim, he decided to talk to Foss about selling the Gifford. It was a long shot. Azar said people had been trying to get Foss to sell for years. Azar had recently sold his inn, the Stowaway, to a nonprofit that helps LGBTQ+ teenagers and had been looking for a new venture in Provincetown with little success.
“It’s almost like it was kismet,” Azar recalled on a recent afternoon while sitting on the Gifford’s expansive porch. “I don’t know how else to describe it. The Gifford was exactly the kind of place I was looking for. People asked me, ‘What do you want to do in town now that you’ve sold the Stowaway?’ I said, ‘I’d like a space to be able to host all kinds of events.’ That’s really what I wanted to do. Everyone was asking [Foss] to sell. He wouldn’t. Finally, he looked at me and said, ‘I’ll sell it to you.’”
The transaction wasn’t all clovers and rainbows. It took some finagling and convincing, plus $6 million, for Azar to purchase the place. When word got out that Foss was considering selling, others jumped into the fray. But, as Foss told the Provincetown Independent, he wanted to “keep the gay and lesbian and etcetera folk here.” On April 1, Azar became the new steward of the inn, maintaining a century-and-a-half tradition of independent ownership.
Azar faced two significant challenges: renovating the tired guest rooms in time to open for the summer season, plus getting the Gifford’s nightlife mojo back by bringing the Lobby Bar and the Porch Bar back to life and reopening Club Purgatory, perhaps the oldest leather bar in the country.
It sounds impossible, but Azar had ripped out and renovated 18 bathrooms by Memorial Day. He plans to renovate the rest during the off-season. He removed the drop ceilings from all the rooms, painted the walls and ceilings, quickly disposed of the unsightly mattresses, and started replacing furniture. On top of the cosmetics, there were old systems that needed updating.
“I took ownership on April 1. By April 15, I had the Porch Bar ripped out,” he said, declining to detail how much the renovations cost. “All the walls behind the bar were rotted. We installed all new refrigeration, plumbing, the whole works.”
He’s restoring the inn at a rapid clip, but for Provincetown’s residents, Azar’s efforts to turn the Gifford into a diverse, community-gathering spot seem most appreciated. Across the country, LGBTQ+ bars are in decline. A recent study found that there were 45 percent fewer gay bars in 2022 than in 2002.
“Queer spaces are threatened or have been closing,” he said. “There’s this perception that they’re not as important anymore now that people are meeting on the apps. But they are important. These are mixing grounds where we can get to know each other.”
To that end, it’s difficult to imagine that the Gifford’s bars would have survived under corporate ownership, particularly the salty Club Purgatory. The leather bar is well known for its Saturday underwear parties. Purgatory also hosts a weekly dance night called Fag Bash, a come-as-you-are gathering open to all who want to express themselves as unconventionally as they please.
So far, his efforts are working. On a recent Saturday night, the Porch Bar was buzzing like a hive of hornets, and there was a line down the block of patrons waiting to get into the underwear party.
In addition to the bars, Azar reopened the inn’s long-forgotten theater space, which was being used for storage. The black box theater has already found an audience, particularly every Monday night when it hosts “Cody Plays (Well, with Others).” Local performer Cody Sullivan and a group of equally free-spirited locals gather every Monday to write a play, make costumes, and perform their joyfully slap-dash production in less than 24 hours. Locals call it Cody’s play in a day. The results are outrageous and boisterous and harken back to Provincetown’s devil-may-care days.
“There is a palpable sense among some in the community that we need to do everything we can to keep Provincetown queer and retain its heart and soul,” said Provincetown Selectman Erik Borg. “I think that’s what Steve is trying to do.”
Trevor Pittinger, associate director of the Provincetown Business Guild, said there was a sigh of relief in town when Azar bought the Gifford.
“The business guild is marketing to the LGBTQ+ community, and from our view, the ownership of the Gifford staying local was a welcome sign for that community. We encourage every color of the rainbow to come here, and that’s why having someone like Steve, who really gets that, is essential.”
Azar sees running the Gifford more as a lifestyle than a job. As he’s making improvements, he’s also thinking of ways to reach more people — he defines queer as a state of mind that can apply to both the LGBTQ+ community and its allies. He’s constantly thinking of activities and entertainment that appeal to both the community and day-trippers.
He knows that running the Gifford is more than programming events and renovating. Of Provincetown’s four grand 19th-century inns, the Gifford House is the only one still standing in its original form.
“I genuinely look at this building that was here 150 years before me,” he said. “It hopefully will be here 150 years or more after me. It’s up to me to make sure that happens. I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.”