Cape Cod National Seashore: How Do You Define Historic?

The Kugel-Gips House is an historic Modern house owned by Cape Cod National Seashore. The park is actively working with a new, local, non-profit group, the Cape Cod Modern House Trust, to develop a lease agreement for long-term preservation and use of the house. The agreement would enable scholars-in-residence and others interested in Modern architecture in Wellfleet to enjoy first-hand the experience of living and working in a Modern house. NPS photo.

Editor's note: What's historic, and what's architectural trash? What's worth salvaging for future generations to enjoy and appreciate, and what should be razed? Those questions frequently come up not just in communities across the country, but in the National Park System. At Cape Cod National Seashore, Park Historian William Burke answers that question in an essay that runs in the seashore's summer newspaper. The article is reprinted here with permission.

By William Burke

“Well-meaning people may think that the old Cape Cod character should be kept frozen, believing that new buildings should be shrouded in an historical shell from the past. The Cape Cod shore is not a museum; it lives, it grows, it changes . . . Architecture must move on, or die.” -- Walter Gropius, On the Desirable Character of Design for the Cape Cod National Seashore, submitted to the Cape Cod National Seashore Advisory Commission in 1963

Walter Gropius, founder of the influential German Bauhaus school of design, implored the managers of the brand new Cape Cod National Seashore to design facilities, such as visitor centers and bathhouses, with an innovative approach.

Rustic cabin design found in Western national parks wouldn’t work here, but Modern design featuring modest scale and a light footprint on the land would. The seashore, after all, was a new type of park never tried before, created within the confines of six towns, and needing an architectural identity.

In a sense, Gropius was simply promoting a continuation of a movement that had taken firm hold here earlier. Since World War II, Modern architects like Breuer, Chermayeff, and Hammarstrom had been quietly inserting into the scented pine forests of Wellfleet architectural gems to be enjoyed by their clients or themselves. Free from the turmoil of their native Europe, these architects had found a paradise to work and vacation in, and other local architects and designers took inspiration from them.

Today, there are over 50 significant Modern houses from this lineage on the Outer Cape, and the seashore and local preservation groups are spearheading an effort to preserve some of them for future generations to appreciate, understand, and enjoy. Of those Modern-era houses owned by the seashore, five homes and one visitor center have been deemed historic thus far.

Every day, in every village, town, and city throughout the world, people sort out things from their community’s past that are worth saving. Usually, it’s the village’s oldest dwelling, a town’s first church, a city’s oldest library, or an ancient battlefield in an abandoned field. We tend to connect significance with the age, relative scarcity, or one-of-a-kind nature of a building. This thinking may cause us to skip over the “past of the living,” a past we ourselves experienced that holds little comfort afforded by time and distance. Unfortunately, this mentality makes recent things more vulnerable to demolition. Objects and places of our parent’s or grandparent’s generation may grow in importance in our minds, but it’s usually the stuff created further back in time that tends to get revered and ultimately saved.

So, how can Modern houses from the 1950s and 1960s, or for that matter, our own Salt Pond Visitor Center, be historic? The official list of what’s historic in our nation, known as the National Register of Historic Places, has a 50-year rule that is meant to allow a few generations to pass so people can develop historical perspective on what is really important to a community’s memory. After all, we don’t want things preserved that are, in the National Register’s words, of “passing contemporary interest.”

Like most rules, however, there are exceptions. Things less than 50 years old can be listed on the register if they pass a more stringent set of criteria that includes extensive scholarly documentation that finds the thing in question to be “exceptionally important.”

For example, most could agree that structures, objects and places associated with the U.S. Space Program, Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War, assassination of President Kennedy, and Elvis Presley’s Grace-land could be “historic.”

In addition, things on the register don’t have to be considered nationally significant; they could be significant at the local or state level. The Modern houses of Wellfleet are significant at the local level because they are associated with the larger Modern architectural phenomenon transforming post-war America, and they represent unaltered survivors of this vintage and style on the Outer Cape.

So where does one draw the line between past and present? There is no clear line of demarcation, but we now know that excluding much of the 20th century from the past was a mistake. A strong continuum between the past and the present makes the past seem more relevant to our own lives. What we preserve for future generations is as much about what’s saved as it is about how we value the built environment in our own backyards.

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“A man builds a house for himself and his family on Cape Cod in the woods by a lake near the sea, and everything in his house seems to be made of natural fiber, of wood, skin, hemp, fur; and the wind carries clean air and every sound is muted. No war seems to have been – only airplanes with their trails of sound and vapor remind you of the bustling trivia outside this sanctuary.”
-- From Memorial to Gyorgy Kepes, January 4, 2002. Hungarian-born designer Kepes was a summer resident of Wellfleet and close associate of many Modern architects. He was the founder of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.