Cape Cod Feature
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Provincetown's Dune Shacks
Provincetown's rich artistic legacy continues to manifest itself in the dozens of galleries along Commercial Street and through countless resident writers and painters. But out along the seashore, along a 3-mi 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.
From Seamen to Artists
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 lifesaving 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 in 1988, 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.
Visiting the Shacks
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.
If you're not an artist, you can enter a lottery for the opportunity to lease one of the shacks for a week in spring or fall.
If you're interested in applying to spend time in a dune shack or you'd like to join one of the nonprofit organizations that sponsors them, contact Dune Shacks. Box 1705, Provincetown, MA, 02657. 508/487-3635.
If you're simply interested in exploring the terrain and seeing the shacks, you can either book a tour with Art's Dune Tours or park behind the Cape Inn, on Snail Road just off U.S. 6, where a 3-mi trail winds through the dunes and past many of the dune shacks. Provincetown, MA. 508/487-1950 or 800/894-1951. www.artsdunetours.com.
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