The Atlantic House Final Research Paper & Slides for LGBTQ Historic Site
A Place, A Landmark, A Haven: Why the Country’s Oldest Gay Bar Should Be a National Landmark
The Atlantic House
“No attitude of pretense here. A bar where everyone is welcome, gay, lesbian, straight, CD, whatever. Stop by and enjoy the experience!”
This quote is displayed on The Atlantic House’s website, a gay bar that may be the oldest in the nation. It is a space within a town that has a rich and complex history, though one that is notorious for welcoming people of different sexual identities and social classes. The A-House, as it is called, is home to three distinct bars within the club for socializing, flirting, drinking, and dancing (The A-House, 2017). It has been frequented by playwrights like Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, artists like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, and jazz musicians like Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. All of these individuals are now considered to be iconic and celebrated national figures. Beyond this, however, The Atlantic House is known for its long-standing purpose as a safe space and a means of visibility that has historically been very difficult to come by for members of the LGBTQ community. In fact, until 1973, to be gay meant to have a psychological disorder (Gieseking 2017). Gay men were policed, bars were raided, people were jailed, and, in some cases, the names of the “offenders” were listed publicly, thus destroying families, reputations, and careers.
In this paper, I argue that The Atlantic House should be memorialized as a historical monument for its many contributions to numerous marginalized groups in American society – many of whom are now sources are national pride. In addition to it being a haven to gay men who were ostracized, policed, mistrusted and maltreated in almost every other space in society, the A-House was a stomping ground for many of America’s most well-known artists. It is also the center and embodiment of a historically accepting town, one that is steeped in a nationalistic identity as the first landing spot of the Mayflower’s pilgrims who were fleeing relgious persecution.
This paper will therefore first be a discussion of the importance of gay bars, and how they allowed for gay men to make friends, lovers, and build a family of support, particularly when it was illegal for them to publicly and openly embrace their sexualities. From there, the idea of the “gay lifestyle” will be discussed. It is a term used to describe how emerging subsets of gay men were trending in terms of their vacation and leisure activities in the 1970s (Hilderbrand 2013, 377). I will then explore the unique geography of Provincetown, one of the largest gay-friendly tourist towns in the US, in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Finally this paper will highlight how the gay bar, The Atlantic House, is at the center of this established group of people and important geographical locale and should therefore be memorialized.
It can never go forgotten how much the gay community was – and still is – a marginalized and oppressed society in many forms. As previously stated, being gay was considered to be a psychological disorder until 1973 (Gieseking 2017). Anti-gay therapies – such as shock therapy – still exist today. Another form of this mental marginalization was the erasure – or lack of acknowledgement – of gay history. Devall Williams writes, “With the exception of some attempts to create a liberation movement for gay men in Germany before 1920, gay men were without a social history until the 1960s. They were treated as individual deviants, sinners, criminals or psychopaths.” (Williams, 1979, p. 180). In addition, he calls the gay community an “impoverished culture” without the resources, acceptance, and spaces afforded to others who maintained a more heteronormative lifestyle.
In Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s documentary adaptation of Vito Russo’s book, “The Celluloid Closet”, the topic of visibility in particularly as it was discussed on the big screen was particularly important. The adoption of the Hays Code in 1930 barred “sexual perversion” – as displays of homosexual behavior was called – in films, leaving gay men and women with few people to “mirror” or see themselves in. Films prior to the Code were not much better; although some films featured gay characters, they were often objects to be laughed at, feminine, and silly. Conversely, the abolishment of the Hays Code in 1968 did not improve the visibility situation. In films in the 1970s and 1980s, gay characters were first the villains – killing people or otherwise asking as deviants – or later, the victims of horrible crimes (Epstein & Friedman, 1995). Still, in the media and on the big screen, to be gay was to be an “other”.
As a result, throughout history, gay bars have been important locales in the gay community as establishments where gay men are free to be themselves, to be seen, and to not be alone. While they sometimes served “as starting places for meeting people or getting to know a city”, they were also places where gay men could discover their sexualities in an accepting environment – particularly when it was illegal to do so (Hilderbrand 2013, p. 386). As previously stated, being gay was considered to be a psychological disorder until 1973 (Gieseking 2017). Devall Williams cites Nancy Achilles when he writes, ““The gay bar, as Achilles (1967) illustrated, was a central institution of gay social worlds,” (180).
Though Joan Nestle was speaking about lesbian bars in her piece “Restriction and Reclamation: Lesbian Bars and Beaches of the 1950s”, the sentiments were the same. “Silenced and policed, we congregated in allotted spaces…what could not be controlled was what enforced the creation of these spaces in the first place – our need to confront a personal destiny, to see our reflections in each other’s faces and to break societal ostracism with our bodies. What could not be controlled was our desire,” (Nestle 1997, 61). At this time, it was illegal for people of the same-sex to even dance with each other, but these “allotted spaces” offered temporary safe havens to people who were otherwise horribly ostracized.
Gay bars cannot be discussed without talking about other spaces of hookup culture – or cruising – in the gay community. One prominent place was in public bathhouses. “In the Western world, the gay bathhouse plays a significant role in the lives of men who engage in ‘anonymous’ sex with other men. Bathhouse culture and sex are characterized by relative anonymity, non-verbal discourse, and de-personalized social rituals,” (Haubrich, Myers, Calzavara, Ryder, & Medved, 2004, p. 19). While in some ways these spaces provided a specifically gay space – men came there to cruise and were usually successful – it was not the same type of social, warm community as a bar. Bathhouses were less of a space for making friends as they were for getting off. Additionally, they could be quite dangerous. One reason for this was that casual, anonymous, and oftentimes unprotected sex lead to STDs, particularly HIV/AIDS. The disease resulted in the tragic deaths for thousands of gay men – among other people – due to lack of government support, research, medical care, and knowledge about prevention. Another was that these spaces were commonly used for drug and alcohol use in large quantities, in addition to always being on the lookout for police interference. In a paper which interviews former bathhouse managers, he explained that “his staff was trained on how to handle customers who passed out because of alcohol or drug overdose: revive him and get him out of the door and onto the street rather than calling police or paramedics,” (Hudson, Ashley, & Okhuysen, 2009, p. 136).
George Chauncey also writes extensively about this topic, particularly discussing the harassment and policing gay men experienced and continue to experience particularly in public spaces. In the 1920s and 1930s, there were “formal anti-gay regulations” (Chauncey, 1996, p. 226). In this time – as in others – gay men had to be particularly careful about where they “came out”. One of the safest ways to do so was in public spaces because there was a greater sense of anonymity there. If they all congregated in one space, it would be quickly marked as a “gay place”. If they spread out, however, police and harassers would be less likely to find them. In New York City, “the city’s streets and parks served as vital meeting grounds for men who lived with their families or in cramped quarters with few amenities, and the vitality and diversity of the gay street scene attracted many other men as well. Streets and parks were where many men – ‘queer’ and ‘normal’ alike – went to find sexual partners, where many gay men went to socialize, and where many men went for sex and ended up being socialised into the gay world,” (Chauncey, 1996, p. 227). Just like the bathhouses, however, this anonymity did not solve everything. Just as anti-gay proponents wanted to look for gay men in particular places to hurt them, gay men needed spaces to feel safe that were also places that were permanent and community-oriented. At a certain point, for some people, it is not enough just to search and wander. At some point, people need a home and visibility.
Fortunately, by the 1970s, gay tourism had reached a point where a small subset (primarily wealthy, white men) could travel together. Numerous publications took note of this trend, portraying these travels as “sex vacation[s]” (Hilderbrand, 2013, p. 377). They also offered columns on “sex advice, health, hygiene and grooming, food, fashion, travel, and fiction,” (Hilderbrand, 2013, p. 373). The magazine – starting with one called Queen’s Quarterly (QQ) and resulting in at least two more spin-offs – was surprisingly lacking in political and current event news. This was unlike most gay publications at the time. However, it could be argued that this was a means of “normalizing” the gay lifestyle by expanding topics of readership. In a world otherwise filled with activism, danger, sadness, fear, and political tension and oppression, perhaps reading about topics like “sex vacations” and “grooming” was a means of escapism. It also perhaps assumes the purpose of highlighting another aspect of the gay life beyond the horrors of oppression and harassment, and bringing “normal” or routines of everyday life for some gay men to public awareness.
This increased visibility around the “gay lifestyle” was also effective because there was an emerging population of people that were shaping to be a new consumer group (Hilderbrand, 2013, p. 370). One such form of this was the advertising of gay tours. However, though it was a vast societal change to have gay men be recognized as a consumer group for which to gear these experiences towards, what was even more notable was the visibility. As Devall writes, “the acceptance of these tours by the travel industry and the diversity of tours offered illustrates the general process of proliferation of specialized touring and the movement of a stigmatized, deviant group of men into an acceptance in some social circles as an ‘alternative lifestyle’.” (Devall, 1970, p. 191)
This lifestyle, however, was “not simply a world of sex or eroticism” (Devall, 1979, p. 181). There were other forms of leisure and ways to form close connects and friendships within the community. The lifestyle included sports leagues, gay tourism, nude beaches, drag shows, and – the pinnacle of early gay public culture – gay bars. All of these activities and experiences – through different – culminated in one common goal: the ability for “some men to ‘come out’ in a gay self and social identity, to develop acquaintance with other gay men and learn the rules of the games, ”(Devall, 1979, p. 188). In interacting with other gay men in a accepted space, men could learn that they were not alone in their sexual identity. They could see the styles and mannerisms of other gay men, learn how to flirt and socialize, and to figure out their own personal and sexual identity within this community.
This idea of community is particularly established in the Cape Cod, Massachusetts town of Provincetown. The town has a multifaceted history both as a nationalist conservative symbol, and, in contrast, continues to be a site of social development as it fosters both a gay and bohemian community. Provincetown was, in fact, where the Mayflower carrying the pilgrims who were fleeing religious persecution in England in November of 1620.. They signed their governing document, the Mayflower Compact, in Provincetown’s harbor. In around 1680, the land was officially settled as a permanent site by white colonizers, less than thirty years after the native Wampanoag peoples had been pushed out. The town grew from there and established itself particularly as a fishing and whaling port. In 1798, an establishment called Pease’s Tavern was built. It would later be renamed to be called the Union House, and then The Atlantic House, as it is known today (I Am Provincetown, 2015).
There are numerous travel logs written about Provincetown due to the town’s beauty and social scene. It is the last town at the end of Cape Cod, and features sand dune walks, oceanfront views, miles of beaches on the Cape Cod National Seashore, and all forms of boating activities. Due to its remote location, it geographically functions as an excellent space for privacy, particularly gay men looking to escape their heteronormative lives or the busyness of nearby Boston.
Provincetown has “60 galleries, 170 restaurants and cafes and dozens of inns, bed and breakfasts, and hotels are within walking distance” (Austin 2011). Many families visit the town during the summers, though the tourist economy is primarily supported by gay and lesbian tourists (Gross, 1999). A large part of the attraction to the town is the art and galleries it features, because Provincetown has a long history of artist’s colonies. They are described as “permissive places where artists can let down their hair, paint or write with less worry about critics, and socialize with like-minded people” (Austin 2011).
This community included contemporary artist John Dowd, abstract expressionist painter Hans Hofmann, painter Robert Motherwell, playwright Tennessee Williams, painter/teacher Charles Hawthorne, modernist painter Jackson Pollock, painter/teacher Selina Trieff, playwright Eugene O’Neill, painter Franz Kline, author Norman Mailer, modernist painter Mark Rothko, and writer Jack Kerouac. One particular reason for this vast collection of creatives was that World War I made it dangerous for American artists seeking training to visit Europe. As a result, beginning in 1915, many flocked to Provincetown. In addition to its beauty and isolation, the town featured the Cape Cod School of Art which was opened in 1899 by Charles Hawthorne, which drew in people from the northeast. In addition to the inspiration afforded to them by the oceanfront and dune scenery, “They were drawn to the tip of Cape Cod by Provincetown’s pure northern light, the raven-haired exoticism of its Portuguese fishing population and, perhaps most importantly, cheap rent,” (Gross, 1999).
The inclusivity that the colonies promoted also fostered a community that was less heteronormative that most other places at the time. The privacy that the far-off beach town provided geographically coupled with the lack of societal judgment resulted in the beginning of a flourishing LGBT community. Anthony Bourdain, famous chef and best-selling author describes the town as “a wonderland of tolerance” on his Emmy-winning show Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (White & Hegarty, 2014) . In an episode where he visits Provincetown, he reminisces about the first time he visited the town, saying, “1972, washed in a town with a headful of orange sunshine and a few friends. Provincetown, a wonderland of tolerance, long time tradition of accepting artists, writers, the badly behaved, the gay, the different. It was paradise,” (Bourdain, 2014).
In this episode, Bourdain also visits the esteemed Atlantic House. “Provincetown was always gay-friendly, in my time and way, way before my time,” he says. “And this place, the Atlantic House, known always and forever by locals and visitors alike as the A-House, is America’s oldest operating gay bar. Everybody has come through these doors, so to speak. Most notably, naked and frolicking Tennessee Williams,” (Bourdain, 2014). This statement is backed by some of The Atlantic House’s wall decor. Prominently displayed in the bar – and on their website – is a picture of the playwright in the nude on one of Provincetown’s nude beaches, also considered to be a gay cruising spot (The A-House, 2017).
The A-House, originally opened in 1798, is arguably the United States’ oldest gay bar (The A-House, 2017). Though other gay bars exist around the country – even in other famous beach locales like Fire Island – The Atlantic House has many diverse features that make it unique. Called the “ground zero of Provincetown night life”, its clientele primarily includes gay men, though all are welcome (Gross, 1999). As a club, it welcomes many groups of people with its three bars. This is a feature that is unique to the A-House, as few gay bars – existing or not – have so many different spaces within them. The “Dance Club” is open every day, year-round for all people to come to dance to music provided by a longstanding DJ. David LaSalle is a resident of Provincetown who is a Billboard reporter and has DJed at the A-House for 29 seasons. Another bar, the “Little Bar” is more meant for drinking and conversing. It is clear that here is where support networks are formed because the website says that it is “a local hangout, so don’t be surprised if the whole room breaks into song at any moment” (The A-House, 2017). The last bar – the “Macho Bar” – is a leather bar that is meant for cruising, a historically important part of gay bar culture. Additionally, the A-House is famous for its theme parties every Friday night, in addition to its daily opening. This is a rare occurrence, as most bars – gay or straight – only have one or two special nights a week. There are even cash prizes for people wearing the best costume (The A-House, 2017). This multifunctionality of the many different bars and events allows for a greater mix of patrons; there is something for everyone. This is perhaps why The Atlantic House has been successful – and continues to be – for so long, while so many other gay bars across the country have been forced to close. The history of the gay man is oftentimes a very sad, difficult one, fraught with marginalization, oppression, loneliness, and disease. It is therefore so imperative that places like The Atlantic House for something that is vital for all of humankind – fun.
From a physical location standpoint, it is landmark for whom it served and welcomed. For one, the barstools in the establishment are well known because Pulitzer Prize-winner Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill both fell off of them (Austin, 2011). Secondly, O’Neill’s Provincetown house collapsed due to beach erosion so it cannot be visited or commemorated. However, it is definitively known that he was a frequent patron at the Atlantic House. The place where he sat is even famous. In this way, the Atlantic House is a monument to O’Neill in a way that no other place in Provincetown can ever be (Gross, 1999). The A-House therefore stands as more than just a long-standing bar; rather, it is a historical locale. The gay bar – and the gay tourism that its patrons buy into – also existed as a means of saving the town. As Karen Christel Krahulik writes in her book, Provincetown: From Pilgrim Landing to Gay Resort, the once-thriving fishing town is declining. However, tourism is now what keeps Provincetown afloat. By attracting tourists to its bars, restaurants, hotels, and beaches, the acceptance of the gay community is actually what now preserves this historical town. Without gay culture, the site could potentially deteriorated and been forgotten (Maynard, 2006).
Another key value of The Atlantic House that makes it unique is its ownership and artwork. The club’s former owner, Reginald Cabral, was a descendent of Portuguese immigrants, as are many Provincetown residents since these people comprised much of the town’s former large fishing community. Cabral was a family man who loved harboring artists, writers, and gay men in his establishment. In his obituary, it says that, in addition to educating people about Provincetown’s whaling and arts histories, “ he was just as passionate about preserving Provincetown’s reputation for openness. As the proprietor of a lively bar that drew many writers, painters and gay customers, Mr. Cabral had a vested interest in Provincetown’s vaunted tolerance of offbeat lifestyles…” (Thomas, 1996). Figures like this are what made The Atlantic House such a long-operating establishment. There was care and consideration for the customer, as well as pride in its location.
Cabral was also known for his art collections and charitable donations. In his obituary, it says, “Mr. Cabral, who donated so many evenings of Atlantic House proceeds to so many charities that he seemed lucky to have anything left over for himself, nevertheless always seemed to have enough to buy art or literary memorabilia,” (Thomas, 1996). Additionally, when the young, poor artists that frequented The A-House could not pay their bar tabs, Cabral would accept some of their artwork as payment. In this way, the establishment turned into as much a museum as it was a bar, with art decorating the walls.
However, these were no ordinary, unknown pieces of art. The people frequenting The Atlantic House were men like Mark Rothko, Tennessee Williams, and Robert Mapplethorpe. As it pertains to Mapplethorpe, Cabral was apparently “quite proud that he was buying Robert Mapplethorpe photographs long before anyone had heard of Mr. Mapplethorpe, or indeed before Mr. Mapplethorpe began taking the controversial photographs that made him notorious,” (Thomas, 1996). The establishment is therefore associated with a number of themes – multiple forms of socialization for the gay community, a historical monument, an art museum, and a philanthropic establishment.
Today, the town of Provincetown is a wealthier – and oftentimes whiter and cis-tourism generated space – so there may be less leniency in terms of how to pay bar tabs. However, it is still a family owned and operated business. Cabral’s daughter April now runs the A-House, keeping the establishment in her family for over 75 years. In her interview on Bourdain’s show, she says “My father during that time, he had Billy Holiday appeared, he had Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, all the big names of jazz,” (Bourdain, 2014). All of these people – O’Neill, Williams, Mapplethorpe, Simone, Fitzgerald, Holiday, and many more – are highly successful and celebrated American artists. They were also forms of outcasts for some time when they were first developing their identities, but now, they help to define our artist national identity, just as the pilgrims – also outcasts in their own regard – helped to define America in their own right. There seems to be no coincidence that Provincetown has attracted so many outcasts of varying definitions of the word – bohemians, those fleeing religious persecution, and those fleeing persecution as a result of their social and sexual identities.
This concept of inclusivity is not just one that was important in the past. It is just as imperative today. Early in the morning on Sunday, June 12, 2016, there was a shooting and hostage situation in the Orlando gay bar, Pulse, on their Latinx night. Marked as the deadliest mass shooting ever to occur in the U.S., the devastating incident resulted in the death of 50 people with 53 others marked as injured. Vigils for this tragedy were held around the world – in places like Australia, South Korea, London – as well as all around the United States. A survivor of the hate crime, Angel Colon, is quoted by CBS News as saying that it was “A life changing event…when you go to a place like Pulse it your safe zone as a gay person,” (CBS News, 2016). This is a sentiment utter by countless other people in the LGBTQ community. “For many non-heterosexual people, gay bars help us find our way. They are often the most accessible safe spaces available,” (Pacific Standard, 2016).
This is why a gay bar like The Atlantic House needs to be commemorated. For the gay men who have lived such painful, persecuted lives. For the gay men of the future who have the possibility to live more accepted lives. The spaces where gay men could be true to their identities, accepted, loved, and belonged need to be celebrated just as much as the places of activism and persecution need to be remembered.
The Atlantic House has provided that vitally important, fun space for at least fifty years. It is the perhaps the oldest gay bar in the United States in one of the United States’ oldest towns. It is a historical landmark for its heritage of accepting artists who are now sources of great American pride before they were famous. It opened its doors to marginalized peoples – not only gay men, but all members of the LGBTQ community – before it was socially acceptable to do so. It has been in the care of a family who genuinely loves their customers. It’s former owner, Reginald Cabral, was charitable and lenient. He understood his role to be both a preserver of a historical landmark for heteronormative American history in addition to homosexual American history.
If the United States acknowledges and honors this National Historic Landmark Nomination as a part of their National Parks Department, they could help to alleviate some of the historical erasure gay men have faced throughout history. The acknowledgement could be another form of permission – in addition to the legalization of gay marriage – for people to legally be true to their identities, without fear of government oppression. It would also be an acknowledgement that places of warmth and fun are just as important as places of oppression and difficulty, particularly for a marginalized community. What better place to acknowledge this than in a unique, successful establishment in one of the United States’ more important towns, where the original soon-to-be American outcasts first set foot?
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