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: http://parkplanning.nps.gov/CACO , through November 12, 2009. For more information, contact Superintendent Price at (508) 957-0739.