Recently, the National Seashore acquired the 10-acre Biddle property in Wellfleet, a major milestone during the Seashore’s 50th year. Money for these acquisitions comes from The Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is funded by fees on offshore oil and gas leases. The Biddle property is known for its historic and cultural significance. Its preservation comes at a time when many of the Cape’s historic structures are disappearing. Brian Morris reports.
August 10, 2011
The Biddle property is a Cape Cod time capsule - simple, rustic, and unpretentious. The four-building compound sits on ten acres in the Wellfleet woods, looking much as it did when it was first built.
“All in all, it’s just a very nice little compound right here,” said George Price, Superintendent of the Cape Cod National Seashore. “Right now we’re standing near the buildings. Turns out all four are historic. The farmhouse probably goes back to the 1730’s.”
Next to that stands a building from the 1600’s. The two other structures were originally stables, and later converted to a study and guest living quarters. Judge Francis Biddle was a judge at the Nuremberg trials, and US Attorney General during the Eisenhower years. He also was an accomplished author. His wife Katherine was appointed Fellow of Letters for the Library of Congress, equivalent to today’s Poet Laureate. George Price said that at one time, the property was owned by the Baker family of Wellfleet. “Lorenzo Dow Baker we know as the fellow who actually created what became United Fruit, or Chiquita Banana.”
The National Seashore took control of property on June 15th of this year. They did it with help from the Trust for Public Land, or TPL, a non-profit conservation organization. With lawyers and marketer on staff, the TPL is set up to handle property transfers much faster than a homeowner trying to deal directly with the Park Service and its layers of bureaucracy.
TPL Project Manager Darci Schofield oversaw the Biddle project. “These landowners had been there for 50 years,” she said, “vacationing there, raising their families there. And they had relayed to me it had always been in their hearts to have this property conveyed to the National Park Service but wasn’t sure how to make that happen.”
Starting in October, 2010, Schofield worked with the Biddles to explore conservation options for their property. There was pressure to complete a deal quickly, because at the time the Treasury was planning to rescind any Federal land acquisition money that wasn’t spoken for.
“In order for us to secure those monies, we had to demonstrate through a series of paperwork that we had a contract to acquire that property. Once we had a signed contract, these monies were secure,” Schofield explained.
The whole process took just four months. Initially the property was conveyed to the Trust for Public Land, who then transferred ownership to the Seashore.
George Price walks down a curving path that leads from the main house to a bluff overlooking Cape Cod Bay. Looking at two nearby Adirondack chairs, their blue paint faded and flecked, he said, “You can just envision the Biddles and their guests coming out on a nice summer’s day or late in the evening and just enjoying the view.”
Here the Biddles found solace, away from the pressures of cities and high-profile lives. Price said that when you look at the Seashore’s enabling legislation, there’s a lot of talk about maintaining the so-called Cape Cod character. “So, what’s the Cape Cod character?” he asked. “Well, it’s kinda like you know it when you see it….and boy, it’s here, isn’t it?”
Back at the main house, opening the front door takes some doing, thanks to a sticky lock. The house is echo-ey and empty of furniture as it awaits its new role as part of National Seashore. “So in a classic early Cape Cod, it was very common to have two-by-two rooms in the front, the kitchen in the back, and in many cases originally just a loft upstairs,” “This is a classic setup, said Price, “and it doesn’t look to me like there’s been a lot of alteration for sure.”
Most of the house is in its original condition, including the unusual sliding shutters. “It comes out from the side. And the colloquial name is an ‘Indian shutter’,” said Price.
The main first-floor room was the Biddle family living room. Rows of empty bookshelves attest to the family’s literary background. “There was a writing desk over here, and there was a couch and some very comfortable armchairs, a lot of books and articles that were around,” Price explained. “And I had the opportunity to have a couple of conversations with Mrs. Biddle, who was just expressing to me her enthusiasm over this property now being protected by the Seashore.”
The next step is an architectural assessment to determine what kind of shape the structures are in. Seashore officials will then decide how to use the property going forward. Whatever its final function, the Biddle property will remain a rare surviving piece of Cape Cod’s vanishing historic past.
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