Are Cape Cod National Seashore Dune Shacks Historical, Or Trash?

Cape Cod National Seashore officials believe these shacks on the North Beach Island should be demolished and removed, rather than swept into the ocean. Massachusetts officials, however, believe they are historically significant, even if they were built in 1992. Stock image from Bigstock Photo.

Can a 19-year-old shack be historically significant? That's a question pitting the National Park Service against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts over the fate of six "cottages" Cape Cod National Seashore officials want to demolish.

The "North Beach Island Cottages" were built in 1992 after the so-called "No Name Storm" a year earlier destroyed six cottages. Now the Atlantic Ocean is poised to demolish the cottages, and seashore officials, rather than watching the debris washed out to sea, want to take them down and remove them.

In early September, officials from the seashore sought concurrence on the plan from the Massachusetts State Historic Preservation Office. Somewhat to their surprise, Massachusetts officials took the position that there was historical substance to the shacks.

"The North Chatham Beach Island Cottages, like the Dune Shacks, are resources moved, raised, repaired with replacement materials, and rebuilt in response to their harsh environment. Like some of the Dune Shacks, the present North Chatham Beach Island Cottages were built less than 50 years ago, rebuilt of consistent materials and scale to their predecessors," Brona Simon, the state's historic preservation officer, told Cape Cod National Seashore Superintendent George Price in a letter sent October 7.

Furthermore, she noted, while the cottages in question might date only to 1992, the historical significance of their presence goes back much farther. The cottages, wrote Ms. Simon, "are resources constructed on the sites of previous similar structures. In the case of the North Chatham cottages, this represents continuity of use in the same location for at least sixty years."

The shacks are somewhat similar to the better known Dune Shacks of the Peaked Hill Bars Historic District near Provincetown. In October 2009, during a public discussion over the fate of those shacks, Superintendent Price noted that, "(T)he dune shack historic district is noted for its storied past, its traditions that continue to this day, and for its inspiring natural landscape."

To settle the matter, Mike Caldwell, the Northeast regional director for the Park Service, has written the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places for a ruling on the significance of the structures. In that letter, Mr. Caldwell took the position that "the North Beach Island structures do not represent a rare property type; there are many rustic camps, both regionally and nationally. The notable local example is the camps on Sandy Neck Beach" in nearby Barnstable, Massachusetts.

He also noted that "there is no evidence that the North Beach Island structures are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; nor are they associated with the lives of persons significant in our past."

No word on how soon the Keeper might render a ruling.

Comments

I think Mr. Caldwell's take is appropriate. A historic property is one that is outstanding in architecture, history, etc. Special for the area. Obviously, these are rebuilt--albeit--on a similar scale and style, they don't really have any historicity that supports preservation.

The above photo is not of the camps in question. Those camps were located on a different part of the beach and no longer exist. A structure built less than 50 years ago does not get excluded from historic eligibility simply because of its age. We need not look further than Chatham's own Mitchell River Bridge for an example. The North Beach Island residents are applying for a determination of eligibility for listing on the Historic Register as an historic district encompassing all eleven of the camps on the island, not just the 5 owned by the National Seashore. It is our position that the camps are eligible based on Criteria for Evaluation A and C and the district under Criteria Considerations B and G (see criteria here: www.achp.gov/nrcriteria.html). It should also be noted that Town of Chatham officials and the North Beach Island residents do not believe the camps should be allowed to just be swept into the sea. It is our postition that the camps are not in danger of that happening for quite some time and that the Seashore's decision to remove them is premature. Our goal is to preserve the camps for as long as possible and to not allow a government agency to remove what we believe to be structures with historical and cultural significance to our community simply because they no longer wish to manage them; especially structures that generate $40,000 of revenue each year for the Seashore at no expense to the National Park Service aside from some minimal administration costs. I will be happy to discuss this topic further. Please feel free to contact me by email (capernl@hotmail.com) for more information.
Bob Long
Chairman, Chatham North Beach Advisory Committee
North Beach Island Resident

The National Register of Historic Places recognizes our nation's most significant cultural resources. The North Beach camps are not associated with any notable figures; they do not represent a rare property type (there are many "rustic" camps regionally and nationally); they do not possess architectural significance; and as they are situated on a transient barrier island, they do not have the potential to yield information about the historic or prehistoric periods. In addition, they were built in 1992 and no longer serve the function for which the first camps in the area were constructed--fishing and fowling. These are seasonal cottages used for recreation. They are not like the Mitchell River Bridge (perhaps the last remaining wooden drawbridge in MA), and they are not like the Provincetown-Truro dune shacks, which are associated with the historic development of art and literature in America and are associated with the poet Harry Kemp. I don't doubt that the North Beach camps are special to the people who have annual permits to occupy them, but they are not the cream of the crop that the National Register is intended to recognize.

While they may not be the original camps, these camps and their people and the way of life out the camps are *original* and we need to save what tradition is left on Cape Cod.