PROVINCETOWN — The Gifford House Inn, a 33-room hotel in Provincetown’s historic district that includes three bars, a restaurant, and a commercial kitchen, has been sold by one local owner to another. Jim Foss, who had owned the property since 1994, has sold it to Steven Azar, the former owner of the Stowaway guest house on Bradford Street, in a $6-million transaction that closed on March 30.
The fact that the new owner is a Provincetown businessperson is significant, because a national trend in corporate ownership of hotels and restaurants has reached the Outer Cape’s shores. Three multistate hotel groups — Linchris Hotel Corp., Lexvest Group, and Sawyer Realty — have bought properties in Provincetown in the last two years.
Both Foss and Azar and gay, and Azar said he intends to continue the gay entertainment tradition the Gifford House is known for — facts that are meaningful because many gay and lesbian bars in other parts of the country have closed in recent years and have largely not been replaced by other kinds of meeting spaces.
Foss did not want to sell to a big company, he said, and he wanted to find a buyer who would “keep the gay and lesbian and et-cetera folk here.” He also said it was important to him to find a buyer who would respect the historical integrity of the building, parts of which date back to 1858.
The Gifford House was the last stop on Cape Cod’s stagecoach line, according to its website, which also claims that President Ulysses S. Grant stayed overnight there on July 22, 1871. (According to journalist David W. Dunlap’s book and internet project Building Provincetown, Grant actually visited on August 28, 1874 and did not stay the night, but James Gifford did read the town’s official greeting to the president.)
In the era of railroad passengers and sailing ships, the Gifford House advertised itself to visitors on the town’s many piers with an enormous blue flag flown from its roof, said Foss’s husband, Harvey Wilson.
“People came in on the boat or the train and then followed the blue flag to get here,” said Wilson.
“Wow,” Azar said. “We’ve got to put that back!”
The Gifford House feels more like something he is responsible for than something he owns, Azar said.
“Everyone has a story here,” he said. “Literally everyone I talk to has worked here, and it’s a real honor to be a steward of that.”
Azar approached Foss last December, he said, without a specific plan.
He was on his way to Sedona, Ariz. just a few days after the nonprofit Summer of Sass closed on its purchase of the Stowaway. Summer of Sass, which brings LGBTQ people ages 18 to 21 to Provincetown from difficult small-town environments, bought the Stowaway from Azar last year for $3.7 million.
Azar said he had tried to buy a couple of other properties in town, but each time the deals had fallen apart at the last minute. He was about to start looking outside Provincetown, he said, but wanted to talk to Foss first.
When Foss told him, “I don’t know — come back in a couple days,” Azar said, he canceled his trip. Over the next two weeks, a series of meetings with Foss and Seamen’s Bank sealed the deal.
Word got out quickly, Wilson said, and calls from other interested buyers started coming in.
“I could tell that the sharks were in the water,” Azar said.
Foss did not take their calls. “He would let it ring and ring,” said Wilson. “Eventually I would pick it up, say, ‘It’s sold!’ and hang up.”
Back in Business
Club Purgatory, the basement nightclub that hosts several gay parties per week in the summer and formerly hosted experimental theater in the 1960s, should be open by the end of May, Azar said. It has been closed since 2020.
“The current owners did not want to play with Covid, and they didn’t need to,” Azar said, “but the town has been very supportive and is working with me to get it going. They’re strict — they’re always strict — but everything’s in order.”
The Porch Bar will reopen in April, Azar said, and the hotel and its lobby bar will open in May. Although the entire property will still be called the Gifford House, Azar said, he is renaming the hotel and the lobby bar as the Whalesong Inn and Lounge.
“We’re going to move the check-in desk, because the guys at the Crown & Anchor are actually giving me their baby grand piano,” Azar said. “Scream Along With Billy,” the show featuring rocker and storyteller Billy Hough, will be back in the lobby, too. “It’s like bringing back a tradition,” he said.
Azar still hasn’t decided how to use the restaurant space.
“We’re calling it the playhouse, or the drag closet, but I would like it to be something flexible,” Azar said. “Events with food, or maybe it’s yoga in the morning, other events in the afternoon — I don’t think it really needs to be tables all the time.” The commercial kitchen could support a catering business, he said.
The Gifford House’s hotel reservations, including those for this summer, had been made by telephone and kept on pencil and paper, Azar said. He will start fresh with reservations for the season ahead using a new online reservation system.
The rates are going to have to be higher than they were, he said. “The numbers are kind of scary, and every space in here has to be open and doing well” for the business to succeed.
“I know the Bear Week community is upset with me,” Azar said, because he hasn’t maintained their reservations at the old rates. On the other hand, he said, “We’ve renovated 18 bathrooms, and we are in the process of adding air conditioning, and when we open, it’s going to be like a new hotel.”