Dune Shacks of Cape Cod: No Power, No Water, but Eugene O’Neill Was Here


Here at the far edge of Cape Cod, where hills of white sand border a vast and empty shore, 19 rough-hewed shacks — tiny and unadorned, with no electricity or running water — sit within a windswept federal preserve.

The dune shacks of Truro and Provincetown have long stood apart from the Cape’s soaring real estate market as weather-beaten symbols of a bohemian past and a rich literary and artistic heritage. Once a creative refuge for some of the nation’s greatest artists and writers, the shacks lie just two miles from downtown Provincetown, yet are so isolated from its crowds, they might as well be on the moon.

Treasured by a tight-knit community of artists, locals and preservationists, the peaceful shacks are now at risk, say some who love them. The National Park Service — which oversees the protected seashore where they rest — plans to lease as many as 10 of the structures to selected bidders beginning this fall, a process decried by critics as a reckless money grab.

The Park Service says its approach follows a long-established plan for the shacks’ preservation, and will “help to assure the long-term integrity of the historic district,” according to a letter from Brian T. Carlstrom, the national seashore’s superintendent, to the Provincetown Select Board in June. It will also bring their use more in line with laws that dictate how such properties may be used, a park service spokeswoman said.

The rustic dwellings once drew a who’s who of 20th-century artists and writers, who found their way there for a weekend, or for months at a time, through formal residencies and informal invitations from friends. Among those inspired by the solitude and natural wonder they found there were the playwrights Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, painters Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, novelists Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer and poets E.E. Cummings and Mary Oliver. “A grand place to be alone and undisturbed,” O’Neill once said of his hideaway there.

In the dunes, where swallows dart over sandhills laced with pink beach roses and glossy orange beach plums and the only sounds are the waves and the wind, those who have tended to the shacks for generations say they fear the end of something irreplaceable.

“To treat this intoxicating place like real estate — I can’t stand the idea,” said Salvatore Del Deo, 94, a painter and the longest-serving dune shack caretaker, who began using the shack known as “Frenchie’s” when he was teenager. “I’m ashamed that the Park Service would try to capitalize on it, without realizing the point of the shacks was to get away from civilization, from capitalism.”

The Park Service set no limit on financial offers from bidders. The structures’ use must be private and residential, not commercial; modern upgrades are not allowed, and lease holders will bear the full costs of their upkeep. The agency declined to say how many bids were submitted by the July deadline, or when it will notify the winners.

Dispute about the future of the structures is not new. Originally built to house visitors to a 19th-century Coast Guard life-saving station, where volunteers kept watch for shipwrecked mariners, and later used as shelter by immigrant fishermen, the shacks’ presence has been contentious since the national seashore was created in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy.

Dune dwellers led a three-year fight for local approval of the federal preserve 60 years ago, ultimately protecting thousands of acres of pristine coastal wilderness from development. But they soon found their own seasonal retreats at risk, as the government took ownership of the ramshackle structures they had tended for years, and made clear its long-term goal was to remove the structures from the landscape.

Shack inhabitants fought back, organizing the Peaked Hill Trust in 1986 to protect and maintain the dune community and ensure that artists and writers continued to have access. Seven dune shacks are managed by nonprofits, the Park Service said; short-term stays can be won by application or lottery. Caretakers of other shacks — who use the properties through a variety of arrangements with the government, including leases and special permits — said they, too, had found ways to share the dune experience with others.

The shacks were found eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. But the National Park Service determined in 2007 that they did not meet the criteria to be designated a Traditional Cultural Property, a status that would have granted them additional protection.

Robert Wolfe, a cultural anthropologist who wrote a 250-page study of the dune shacks in 2005 at the government’s behest, and concluded that they should receive the special designation, expressed concern last week about the current plan to lease shacks through a bid process.

“This is a living piece of American history, a living traditional culture that finds expression in those shacks, and that’s lost when you just put random people out there,” he said.

Dune dwellers worry that new lease holders may lack the know-how needed to preserve them.

Laurie Schecter, who has used one of the shacks for 30 years, described digging it out every spring from drifts of storm-driven sands, replacing its rotting walls with salvaged driftwood and enlisting dozens of friends to help lift it out of the encroaching dunes by hand, inches at a time.

Ms. Schecter submitted a bid to continue leasing the shack but said she didn’t know how much her expertise will be valued. The Park Service has said that ability to pay and ability to maintain the dwellings are both among the criteria to be considered, but locals fear that artists and other longtime stewards will be priced out by higher bidders.

“This environment is destructive, and nature has its own ideas,” said Romolo Del Deo, a sculptor and Salvatore’s son, who grew up spending summers in the dune shack his family cared for. “They’re built not to resist nature, but to give with it.”

His parents — who honeymooned in the shack in 1953 — became part of the dune community after befriending the Provincetown artist Jeanne “Frenchie” Schnell, who built her hut out of driftwood and flotsam she found on the beach and furnished it with bird cages for the injured gulls she nursed back to health. After her death in 1983, the Del Deos rebuilt the structure and paid taxes on it for decades, painting and writing there every summer and digging it out every spring.

In March, the Del Deos and another family were ordered by the Park Service to vacate the shacks they had long used, which the government has said it plans to put out for bid. The Del Deos maintain that their right to use the shack was passed down from the Schnell family; the Park Service differs. In June, after friends of the Del Deos staged a sit-in at the dune shack in support of their claim, park rangers boarded up the weathered 300-square-foot structure and locked the family out.

“I imagine that is what it feels like when they nail your tomb shut,” said Salvatore Del Deo, who turns 95 this month. He recalled a time before four-wheel drive, when he would hike across the dunes to the shack “carrying my painting gear in a knapsack, and a second bag of provisions, to paint for a week.”

“You would look out at nothing else, just water, and it made you more abstract in your thinking,” he recalled.

Mr. Del Deo’s wife Josephine, a writer who died in 2016, was a leader in the fight to create the national seashore, going door to door to convince skeptical Provincetown voters that federal protection would be beneficial.

Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts rallied to Mr. Del Deo’s defense in June. The agency then offered to grant him access to the shack for two more years. The family declined, citing the lack of relief for other dune dwellers and the need for the community to stick together.

Sitting outside the shuttered shack last month, watching seals frolic in the surf below, Romolo Del Deo recalled the artists before him who had gazed out at the same horizon.

“Once this is gone, it’s gone — how could you recreate it?” he said. “It’s been here a century, and it could be gone in a month.”


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