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What to Do With the "Dune Shacks" At Cape Cod National Seashore?


Cape Cod National Seashore officials are beginning a planning process to decide how best to manage historic dune shacks. Fowler Dune Shack photo by Provincetown Community Compact.

They are simple structures, and "shacks" is no doubt a good way to describe them. Built more than a century ago to house members of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, these board structures hidden amid the dunes of Cape Cod National Seashore have taken on a second, or third, life as artists' roosts. But what should the national seashore do with them?

Cape Cod National Seashore Superintendent George Price plans to host a public meeting on October 19 to begin the planning process for the Dune Shacks of the Peaked Hill Bars Historic District. The meeting will be held from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. at the Center for Coastal Studies, 5 Holway Avenue, Provincetown. Massachusetts. The public is invited to attend and make comments to inform the development of a preservation and use plan/environmental assessment that will provide clear direction and consistency for National Park Service managers, dune shack dwellers, users, and advocates about how the historic district will be used and preserved in the future. The meeting will be co-hosted by the Cape Cod National Seashore Advisory Commission and the Consensus Building Institute, which has been hired to facilitate public discussion and development of plan alternatives.

“The dune shack historic district is noted for its storied past, its traditions that continue to this day, and for its inspiring natural landscape,” said Superintendent Price. “Many people feel passionate about this unique place, and we look forward to an invigorating discussion about how to best preserve and use it in the future.”

According to the folks at Discover America, the official travel and tourism site of the United States:

... out along the seashore, along a 3 mile stretch of sand extending from about Race Point to High Head (in Truro), you can see a more unusual remnant of the town's artistic past — the dune shacks.

These small, austere structures were built by the Life Saving Service in the 19th century to house seamen. Sometime around the 1920s, long after the dune shacks ceased housing life-saving personnel, many of the community's creative or eccentric spirits began using them as retreats and hideaways. Probably the most famous of these was playwright Eugene O'Neill, who purchased one and spent many summers there with his wife, Agnes Boulton. O'Neill penned Anna Christie (1920) and The Hairy Ape (1921) while living in his shack, and in doing so gave the whole collection of dune shacks something of an arty cachet.

Other Provincetown artists soon followed O'Neill, including the self-proclaimed "poet of the dunes," Harry Kemp, who wrote many a verse about the seashore's stark, desolate splendor. Author Hazel Hawthorne-Werner wrote The Salt House, a memoir tracing her time amid the dunes, in 1929. It's said that this book helped get the shacks, along with the entire dunes district, onto the National Register of Historic Places, helping to preserve them for years to come. In later years, Jack Kerouac, e. e. cummings, Norman Mailer, and Jackson Pollack also lived in these primitive structures.

The dune shacks haven't been modernized much — none has electricity, running water, or toilets. You stay in them for a chance to be with nature and perhaps commune with the spirits of artists who have gone before you. The dune shacks are now all set along the part of the Cape Cod National Seashore that is known as the Province Lands. The park owns most of the Provincetown dune shacks, though a few are managed by nonprofit groups aimed at preserving them and their legacy. Some of these organizations, such as the Peaked Hills Bars Trust and the Provincetown Community Compact, allow visitors to stay in the dune shacks through a variety of arrangements. Both groups run an artist-in-residence program — artists can apply for short stays in some of the shacks during the summer season. Only a handful of applicants are admitted each year.

According to an April 2007 entry by Alan Petrulis on the blog of the Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City,

It was difficult to spot a sinking ship during a storm and many went down without notice. The stations tall towers allowed them to look far out to sea but they were limited in their views down the Capes curved beaches. Surfmen would go out to patrol at night and in bad weather in search of floundering ships or survivors of an unnoticed sinking. Halfway houses were constructed, often from debris washed ashore, so the men on patrol could extend their reach. They were built halfway between two stations where the patrols would meet guarantying the entire beach would be covered. The Humane society had begun building small shacks as far back as 1794. They were stocked with supplies for anyone washed ashore in a condition to use them. Henry David Thoreau made use of them on his long walks down the Cape. These shacks also provided informal rendezvous points for the Surfmen and their girlfriends. As artists and writers came to Provincetown many were drawn to the isolation of the dunes and rented these small dune shacks or paid the Surfmen to construct new shacks for them. A romantic image of life in the dunes emerged from their work as books and paintings spread out across the country, a vision shared by all but the locals who lived here. In Provincetown this Devil’s dominion was largely viewed as a place people went to engage in activities they could not be caught at in town. For some this reputation has not changed to this day.

For a look inside one of these shacks, check out this video:

The upcoming meeting at the seashore will include a brief presentation about the project, the planning process, and how to stay involved and informed as the plan develops over the next 1-1/2 years. The majority of the meeting will be devoted to public comment, and there will also be the opportunity for audience members to submit written comments at the meeting, by mail to Superintendent Price, Cape Cod National Seashore, 99 Marconi Station Site Road, Wellfleet MA 02667, or electronically at: , through November 12, 2009. For more information, contact Superintendent Price at (508) 957-0739.


Playwright Larry Myers wrote an expert drama called
"Jack Kerouac in a Provincetown Dune Shack"
his Jack Kerouac Society has events in NewYork

the author of this article needs to correct his facts before writing a column of this importance.

1) Kurt Repanshek says the shacks were 'Built more than a century ago to house members of the U.S. Life-Saving Service'.

Wrong Mr Repanshek. None of the existing shacks are 100 years old. And of the 18 remaining dune shacks there are perhaps 2 that can be linked to housing members of the Life-Saving Service. And even that is unlikely.

2) Kurt Repanshek says 'these board structures hidden amid the dunes of Cape Cod National Seashore have taken on a second, or third, life as artists' roosts.'

This again is not the truth. There are only 3 dune shacks which have current connections to non-profits who offer 'their' shacks to artists. And even these three shacks are not exclusively used by artists. The traditional use of these shacks was not in any way limited to artists. Yes there are many artists who were and are inspired by time in the dunes. However there were - and currently are - many electricians, plumbers, insurance agents, carpenters, teachers, fisherman, families, and scientists who love and need the 'way of life' the Seashore was intended to protect in its 1961 creation.

3) Kurt Repanshek asks, 'what should the National Seashore do with them?'

We are now the Peaked Hill Bars Historic District. The Seashore and the NPS fought against that designation for years. They were determined to bulldoze all but one of the shacks and in fact did destroy at least four and as many as ten. Those were among the most historic of the dune shacks. I want to point out that one of the the remaining dune shacks is not the property of the Seashore. It is that shack that should be the model for how the Seashore deals with future use of these properties.
If the past 50 years is any indication of how the Seashore treats these structures there is little reason to be optimistic about the future. Owners protected and maintained these dune shacks. Most of the shacks are still standing because owners spent thousands of dollars in legal fees to keep the Seashore from destroying these traditional dwellings which are now considered national treasures. Our current CCNS Superintendent has even said that he is not interested in the history of the dune shacks. That isn't a promising indication of how the Seashore will treat these shacks in the future.

i just had the great fortune of discovering these shacks...have been reading about them for the past 20 years,and on 2 previous trips to the cape,couldn't find out where they were......happenstance to see the eugene oneill path,and followed you have any information on how to apply for a week of painting there? they are just lovely...thanks...susan


Check out this page. You'll find a place to apply.

Well, there is obviously still a lot of emotion and obscurity on 'both' sides of the dune shack issue at Cape Cod.

There are several broad policy jumbles tied up in this Cape Cod thing as well. For example, in the early days of environmental and historic preservation review, for NEPA and for section 106 of the Historic Preservation Act, many in the NPS did not seem themselves as targets of those laws. To some extent, they assumed they were targeted at people they saw as polluters or destroyers of national landmarks. Removing non-conforming structures from a scenic or natural area, or a beach perceived as being set aside for recreation and scenic enjoyment was often Job-1 when new parks are established. The beach shacks at Cape Cod were not seen as much different, inside the NPS. The assumption (usually) had been that the point of setting aside a national park for all the people was to eliminate the privatization that undercuts public use. But state historic officers and the National Advisory Council of Historic Preservation, several of whose staff were disgruntled former NPS employees, were riled by the NPS' sense of exceptionalism, and wanted to take it down several notches.

So park managers were not ready to handle the environmental review and compliance required to properly analyze the shacks as historic structures and their removal as major federal actions. Therefore, Cape Cod was an easy target, because the apparently typical complaints of the private users was amplified when attack dogs in the state and national historic staffs described the shacks as historic objects, not beach junk.

These state and federal agents had the power to provoke a real confrontation and stop the demolition.

Park staff are directed to interpret federal law to protect a certain scene of what they understand to be the primary park values: in the case of Cape Cod, these were the scenic, recreation, and natural resources of beach and dune systems.

In the case of the state and federal historic preservation officers, they do not distinguish between one period of history and another, and were trying to demonstrate their power to make federal agencies reconsider the value of the resources they managed. Cape Cod was a poster child of this political goal.

In the meantime, the National Park Service laws were changing in ways that would snag the simpler, more direct approach to park management of the past. The general authorities act that passed in the 1970's, combined with other laws, was intended to make the law protect all parks equally. Resources on recreation areas or historic areas had to be treated just like the natural areas designated National Parks. This was an attempt to stop the overdevelopment and neglect going on in some areas. It would enable the NPS to close sport hunting on all recreation areas not specifically open to hunting by law, for example: all parks were managed the same, unless a specific exception was granted in the law. This had the unintended affect, along with the new aggressive enforcement of historic preservation reviews, of suddenly elevating all historic resources to the same level, even in natural areas, even if the law enacting that park never mentioned historic resources.

The old Hartzog-era Handbooks, one for Recreation Areas, one for Historic Areas, one for Natural Areas, were undermined. The clarity of the purpose of a specific park was undermined. Park managers had to learn to anticipate challenges like the dune shacks on Cape Cod as one more grenade over the wall of trying to preserve a park as Congress intended.

Finally, I think PRC is wrong to lump the dune shacks in with Congress' intent to protect the Cape Cod "way of life." Congress included clauses in the Cape Cod legislation that in effect offered a deal to local governments and local landowners who were already in the boundary when the National Seashore was established. The idea was that the NPS would not take the private land and the local governments would pass laws preventing new development within the park boundary. Protecting these pre-existing inholders was a benefit for people owning land in the boundary, not people squatting in shacks owned by the federal government. Congress said nothing in the Cape Cod law of providing some exception for a few privileged individuals to in effect take control over lands set aside for all the people. But, guess what? The local governments did NOT restrain the new development, so the Cape Cod of old was destroyed by the greed for new development, wholly out of character or impact with what the situation was in Cape Cod in the early 1960's. At a time of the Sagebrush Rebellion, of the National Parks Inholders Association, of the "war on the west" and right-wing reaction everywhere, the NPS lacked the power or the guts to get the money to buy up the developments. Cape Cod, not just inside the Seashore boundaries, became so overdeveloped because of this greed, that soapsuds started bubbling up from underground water sources.

It is true that Cape Cod had with one short-lived exception, several recent and past superintendent's with very little political skill to anticipate and stand up to these challenges.

If the NPS had acknowledged the historic value of the shacks and prepared environmental reviews and plans, it would have been in a better position to propose what shacks should go, what shacks should stay, and prepare a pro-active plan for management of the remaining shacks. But with superintendents equipped only with skills of interpreters or natural resource environmentalists, the kind of smart political savvy was not there to take on the actually pretty commonplace situation of a few individuals trying to convert a national resource to their own private benefit. Or, take on state and national historic interests who are less concerned with the success of the innovative Cape Cod legislation, than they were for increasing the political power of their agency. In fact, a recent superintendent had to opportunity to purchase a large block of undeveloped private land within the boundaries, land about to be developed, and did not even put in a request for funding. These are not the kind of skilled heroes you saw on the Ken Burns film, who worked to save the original national parks.

Political power won over the original intent of the Seashore law and poorly equipped park managers. This is not the "traditional" place Congress intended. This is private interest wrapped in the flag of historic preservation and heritage.

great to see someone was reading my comments...

regarding the dune shacks. lepanto says 'Protecting these pre-existing inholders was a benefit for people owning land in the boundary, not people squatting in shacks owned by the federal government.' guess what? the dune shacks were not owned by the federal government at the time of the 1961 legislation. they were taken from owners by the federal government. an eminent domain taking. a condemnation taking with the intent of destroying the cottages and thus returning the landscape to wilderness. that was never the promise or the stated intent of the supporters of the seashore. hundreds of private homes are inside the boundaries of the cape cod national seashore. it sounds like lepanto has a problem with that fact.

lepanto has largely ignored the major reality of this matter. the cape cod national seashore was created as a seashore. the word park was removed from the legislation because cape cod residents were promised they could keep their homes inside the proposed boundaries. the 10 or so remaining dune shack owners were assured by the first superintendent that they would be able to keep their cottages. most of the remaining dune shacks were on privately owned land. these cottages were not inside the historic provincelands. they are on land that had been purchased from previous owners. and as to squatters that term may sound rather sketchy but even those shacks which had that term linked to their history were very much owned by the people who claimed them.

and finally... lepanto suggests the way of life congress intended to protect was not related to the historic dune shacks in provincetown or truro. lepanto is wrong on that issue. the dune shacks have everything to do with the way of life that existed on cape cod in the early part of the century. the way of life that we treasure on cape cod is expressed best in the book henry beston wrote. the outermost house is what the way of life was all about. i suggest lepanto read it. cape cod national seashore would not exist without a small simple dune shack as its model for what our way of life is about. prc

You make a great point, prc, about "The Outermost House," as a character-defining feature of Cape Cod.

And, I should have made the point better that Congress was clearly concerned about any new developments or subdivisions and new construction, but if proper local zoning would protect these areas from development, NPS could not take the land. This was what was broken, when proper local zoning did not achieve these purposes. I think the idea was that non-commercial, improved properties of around 3 acres would not be purchased if the local government protected the area from development.

And yes, I believe there were references throughout the bill, indicating that the present state of Cape Cod (early 1960's) would be preserved, and that the Secretary of the Interior could designate historic structures to remain.

This seems to say that the Secretary, through the NPS, could determine which structures of merit would remain and which removed. But all of that is subject to providing for appropriate public use, as the Secretary deems appropriate. The way I think this was meant to work is some, not all, of the structures could remain if the Secretary decided they were significant, but only if they did not undercut the highest and best opportunities for public use.

If I recall correctly the Cape Cod law provided that the NPS could acquire freeholds, but that the owner of the freehold would then have the right to remain in the property. Also, owners of both land and structures whose interests were acquired by the NPS would also be able to elect to remain. All these retained occupancy rights were for non-commercial use only. In some cases, the occupancy right would run for 25 years, in some for the life of the previous owner or even to the next generation.

It seemed Congress wanted to provide for those people living at the time, mostly for their lifetime. They would only retain the use of the structures and so much land around them as necessary, generally at least 3 acres, but the areas for beach and public access would be excluded from the control of these tennant estates.

It would seem the NPS was expected to eliminate some of these structures it acquired, when public use required it, if:
- there was NO freehold owner,
- or if the freehold or fee owner took all the money instead of retaining a right to use the property for whatever term
- or at the end of the term of use or occupancy
- or if the occupant violated local zoning rules
- or if the owner used the property for commercial purposes.

But you are right, the NPS/Secretary had the right to determine to retain some structures, if the Secretary deemed it to be appropriate and if it did not compromise the most appropriate public use. But, at the same time the Secretary was to avoid compromising the use and enjoyment of the private holdings. So, I assumed the Congress expected the Secretary/NPS to plan a way to work around both, but by no means an absolute thing either way, but the Secretary/NPS would decide on appropriate places for public use in accordance with the law, after a review by the Advisory Commission.

Anyway, yes, the Secretary must allow law-abiding OWNERS of 1961 and their immediate family the right to occupy the structures for 25 years or their life. And yes, if the Secretary/NPS believes it appropriate, it could retain some of these structures, presumably including the beach shacks, if they do not compromise important public use opportunities.

I am not sure what the law said, if it said anything, about continued USE of the shacks after that.

My guess is, what the law intended was that if the NPS wanted to continue some use of designated-to-remain properties, the Secretary/NPS could use existing authorities, like leases or employee housing to do it.

Face it, it is extremely difficult to preserve some prior use and character, but stop what was then seen as the coming over-development of Cape Cod. It was never completely one thing or the other.

BUT: There were reasons the Seashore was created, real threats to its integrity, and Seashore was created to stop it. Enough people in Massachusetts and the Cape must have been very worried or the Seashore would never have got through Congress: the threat was real. Most existing occupants were grandfathered in, but restrained. Beyond those original, existing occupants, Congress seemed to want to leave it up to the NPS which and how many significant structures would remain, provided that the original "Character" of the Cape is retained.

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