The painter John Dowd inhabits a sweetly picturesque, ca. 1820 cottage in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the old seacoast town at the outermost tip of sandy Cape Cod. Behind its trim picket fence, the white clapboard house has an agreeable irregularity, lending it a unique charm that had made it a favorite of vintage postcard publishers, who photographed it to appeal to the tourist trade.
Provincetown, once a whaling port and then a Portuguese fishing village, has long attracted an array of summering bohemians, many of them artists and writers from New York’s Greenwich Village and beyond. After the demise of its salt, ice, and whale-oil industries, the town consciously began a tourism program emphasizing its Yankee past and quaint architecture. The town hoped to attract enthusiasts of the Colonial era, as well as artists who would come to paint its scenic shores.
In like manner, John Dowd came to town. Newly graduated from Notre Dame’s School of Architecture in 1983, John arrived for a summer beach vacation and worked as a houseboy at a guesthouse in exchange for rent. Having painted in oils since childhood, John began doing landscapes and street scenes of the town’s historic buildings. Six months later he was still here, selling his works at a local gallery instead of beginning a career as an architect.
Ten years later, he bought the rundown cottage, which had been “on the market forever,” in the West End. Although the house at first was not attractive to him in any way, he saw that it was large enough to contain an art studio—and that character lurked behind some extremely unsightly renovations that had taken place in the 1950s and earlier.
“The cottage was unwanted, unloved, and covered in ugly aluminum siding, which, much to my relief, peeled off in one afternoon, like foil on a baked potato,” he says. “My idea was not a total makeover. Instead, I set out to put the house back the way it used to be . . . on a budget of just about zero.”
Slowly he refashioned the cottage, putting to use whatever salvaged materials came his way. He intended to bring its appearance back a century or two, imbuing it with what he calls an “Old Massachusetts ambiance,” somewhat in keeping with Wallace Nutting’s imaginative re-creations of an idealized New England past.
Wanting it to feel like a multi-generational, old New England family home, John began haunting local salvage yards, junk shops, and estate sales, in search of inexpensive (or free) local materials. Old shutters, screen doors, and panes of wavy glass began to turn up. He treated the house as sculptural assemblage.
John came upon an elegant, period fireplace mantel and a china cabinet stripped from a similar old house; both happened to fit exactly into his living room where those elements had gone missing. Discovering a discarded transom, along with some twin-sized bedspreads to be used as portières, he was able to fashion a cozy little “book nook” off the parlor.
The spacious kitchen that had been built as an addition, last modernized in the 1950s, was completely restyled to resemble the one in his grandparents’ antiques-filled Victorian. John wanted to make the room seem “much older and not too fancy, but not too rustic either.” He found a 1910 woodstove in working condition, along with a walnut table with captain’s chairs like the ones he remembered from childhood. He rescued shiplap boards at a yard sale and with them covered a section of wall, against which hang cast-iron pans and his grandparents’ shelf clock. A heavy, enameled farmhouse sink along with a butcher-block counter turned up at another salvage yard. At the end of a day scouring the Brimfield flea market, John snapped up a big white kitchen cupboard that no one wanted, for $40. He strapped it to the roof of his Volvo and drove it home.
What John Dowd likes best about his salvaged items are the many imperfections that make them interesting. “The house is my greatest art piece, my most creative work,” he says. “I’ve used my architectural skills, my love of art, my childhood memories . . . all in a construction that is always changing.”
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