The Seashore owns 18 little houses, known as the Provincetown Dune Shacks, in the Outer Cape sand hills and grasslands. They’ve become almost legend as artistic retreats and quiet summer getaways for generations of residents and visitors, writers and painters, including e.e. Cummings, Eugene O'Neill, and Jackson Pollack. As Dan Tritle reports, the future of the dune shacks has been under debate.

Dune Shacks

Dan Tritle
August 11, 2011


PROVINCETOWN, Mass — The Provincetown dune shacks have become almost legend as artistic retreats and quiet summer getaways for generations of residents and visitors, writers and painters, including e.e. Cummings, Eugene O'Neill, and Jackson Pollack. The Cape Cod National Seashore owns 18 of these little buildings located in a three-mile stretch of Provincetown's sand hills and grasslands.

Among the current dune shack dwellers is Laurie Schecter. She’s had one of the little houses since 1994, when she and her late husband obtained a 20-year lease from the Park Service. At 160 square feet, hers is one of the smaller dune shacks; the largest is over a-thousand. There’s no electricity out here, but you can use your cell phone. Most of the properties have outhouses, and many – like Schecter’s – also have a well, which she and her husband drilled by hand. She says each dune shack has its own character. Some people, said Schecter “see it as a place, as shelter. And don’t really pay as much attention to the visuals or the feeling of it. And then there are people who want something a little more modern, and some people want things a little less rustic. Everybody’s different, each building is different.”

Merrily Cassidy and Mary Ann Bragg of the Cape Cod Times visit Laurie Schecter in her dune shack.
(Photo: Dan Tritle/WCAI)

The original dune shacks were shelters for 19th century sailors and fishermen who might have been shipwrecked or lost in the dunes. Official Seashore documents indicate that most of the present buildings were built in the 1930s and 40s, when a growing community of artists and writers moved in. Schecter said the solitude that people find in the shacks inspires creativity. “You find a lot of authors and artists who cherish their moments and their time in these buildings. There’s clarity and time to just sort of relax and not have not all of things that are normally impinging on your brain.”

The National Park Service acquired the dune shacks when the park was established, entering into long-time leases with some of the owners. That’s according Julie Schecter – Laurie's sister – and a long-time Provincetown resident. Julie Schecter co-founded the Peaked Hill Trust, one of two groups in town that manage some of the shacks for public use. “Fast forward a number of years," said Julie Schecter. "Some of these leases are coming to an end, either because people who signed the lease died or because the lease has timed out. Of course, the people who’ve spent a number of generations feel that this is something personal and private, and their property is being taken away from them. Even though it’s been a lease for many years. So the question comes -- how do you handle this very sticky situation?"

The answer was an advisory committee made up of a broad range of interested people. In charge of the panel was Richard Delaney, president of the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, and chairman of the Cape Cod National Seashore Advisory Commission. Delaney said that nearly a dozen public hearings – some contentious – were held over an 18-month period. In the end it was decided that 40 percent of the shacks would be used as private residences; 40 percent would be used by non-profits with opportunities for public overnight stays; and the remaining 20 percent going to either category.

The plan is now under review by top officials at the National Park Service. A final decision is expected in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, Laurie Schecter is concerned about how the new plan will affect a renewal of her dune shack lease, which expires in three years. While she's in favor of greater public access to the dune shacks -- she sees herself as a caretaker -- she's put a lot of emotion, time and hard work into her little house. Schecter hopes the park service will take that into account when officials review her application.


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