Never have so many world-famous artists and writers lived in such a collection of crappy huts as did the Provincetown dune shack dwellers. The tiny shacks on the outer edge of Cape Cod’s hook have sheltered Jazz Age novelists, Beat writers, abstract expressionists and eccentrics who defy characterization.
The shacks, now numbering 19, offered isolation for concentrated work and simpatico neighbors for love affairs, drinking binges and nude bathing parties. They spawned a small society of creative people who did what they wanted outside the gaze of prying eyes.
This is the story of how the Provincetown dune shacks grew up along a lifesaving station, evolved into an artist colony and then survived the National Park Service’s attempt to tear them down.
The Provincetown Dune Shacks
The shacks clustered loosely around the Peaked Hill Bars lifesaving station, built in 1872. Back then, ships often wrecked in the dangerous waters off the Outer Cape. The Peaked (pronounced peak-ed) Hill Bars, sunken rips far out under the sea, claimed many ships and their crews.
Keepers and surfmen spent six days a week from August through June at the lifesaving station. It could get lonely in the midst of three miles of bare shoreline.
With plenty of spare time, the lifesavers built a boat house and a chicken coop. They also built some dune shacks for their families to stay in when they visited. Hunters and fishermen used the shacks, too, and some built their own.
The dunes, always shifting, rose to as high as 80 feet. Cranberry and blueberry grew in the valleys, dune grass anchored the slopes along with patches of pitch pine and scrub oak.
By the time Mabel Dodge moved into the old Peaked Hill Bars Lifesaving station, Provincetown already had a burgeoning Little Bohemia.
The town’s main industry, fishing, had been devastated by the Portland Storm in 1898, and living there was cheap. In 1899, Charles Hawthorne had started the Cape Cod School of Art in Provinceetown, a magnet for painters and would-be painters.
Then in 1906, Mary Heaton Vorse moved to Provincetown. A wealthy but unconventional writer who covered the struggles of women and the working class, she urged her Greenwich Village friends to join her in the summer.
Then in 1914, the Coast Guard decommissioned the lifesaving station. A New York art dealer bought it on behalf of Mabel Dodge, a wealthy patron of the arts. Dodge had several years earlier set up a Greenwich Village salon, where she surrounded herself with avant-garde writers like Neith Boyce and Jack Reed and labor organizers like Emma Goldman and Big Bill Haywood.
World War I
World War I broke out in Europe in July 1914, and hundreds of artists who’d been living in Europe had to leave. Some of the expatriate bohemians – Mabel Dodge’s kind of people — headed to Provincetown. Among those early summer visitors were Charles Demuth and William and Marguerite Zorach.
Dodge had had an affair with Reed, and she hoped to rekindle it that summer. She moved into the old Coast Guard station, which she filled with furnishings from her Italian villa. Dodge painted the walls white and the floors blue to give the interior a maritime feel. She also put up a silken tent next to it in hopes of luring Reed from his new lover, Louise Bryant. It didn’t happen, but she did find another husband, the painter Maurice Sterne.
That set the stage for the legendary summer of 1916, when a volatile young playwright named Eugene O’Neill staged his play, Bound East for Cardiff, on a shack on a wharf owned by Vorse.
The Greenwich Village refugees focused on the theater that summer, acting, directing, lighting, building sets. George Cram Cook, Hutchins Hapgood, Neigh Boyce, Susan Glaspell, set designer Robert Jones all pitched in.
So did Marsden Hartley, who, like Charles Demuth, was gay. He felt comfortable in Provincetown’s risqué ambience, with drinking, skinny dipping and drag balls. Hartley called 1916 that “remarkable and never repeated summer.” He described living in the dunes then.
“What a summer – in among those amazing dunes – shifting with the wind before one’s eyes – burying young pine trees to their tops – moving incessantly, statistics said at the rate of several inches a year,” he wrote. “Whoever will forget those dunes – once having seen them – and the great rumbling, dramatic “outside” as it was called – the ocean itself, the long stretch of lonely sands, and nothing else but the life saving station. “
That summer launched the Provincetown Players and changed American theater forever. O’Neill would work on his plays in Provincetown in the summer for the next six years. In 1920, he won the Pulitzer Prize for playwriting.
His father, the noted actor James O’Neill, bought him the lifesaving station in 1919. His friends and drinking buddies followed him to the station and the shacks among the dunes – Demuth, John Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, e.e. cummings and Harry Kemp.
Kemp used to walk the dunes wearing a cape and a staff. He signed his poems with a seagull feather. Kemp called himself the Poet of the Dunes. He was renowned for his poor hygiene and his prodigious appetite for booze
Not everyone was a fan.
“Harry was a bore,” said Hazel Hawthorne Werner, a dune denizen. “He used to put down some bit of doggerel, and he would pound on people’s doors at midnight, shouting his lines and crying out, ‘Hear this?’ I’ve just written the greatest sonnet since Shakespeare.’ We would have to calm him down and send him home.”
The year after Kemp died, 1962, a young newspaper reporter named Robert Finch stumbled across Kemp’s abandoned shack while hiking the dunes. He decided to go inside and eat the lunch he brought. He ended up staying the night. Finch later described the contents of the shack.
Kemp’s Dune Shack
“This was no ordinary dwelling, even among a community of eccentric structures,” wrote Finch. “Against one wall were two bunk beds each covered with real bearskin blankets. On another wall a series of rough bookshelves supported and extensive and remarkably eclectic library. There were esoteric works by Swedenborg and Kierkegaard, a volume of Beethoven piano sonatas, a large poetry collection (including first editions of Sandberg and Frost), a novel done completely in woodcuts, and cheap nineteenth-century editions of Hawthorne and Dickens. But there were also dozens of paperback science-fiction novels and Westerns…On the floor were scattered piles of oversize 78 rpm records, mostly classical and operatic selections on old and obscure labels.”
For a few summers, O’Neill rented the old Coast Guard station to Edmund Wilson, an influential writer and literary critic, and to Hazel Hawthorne Werner.
Wilson was not very handy. He had to shave himself with ginger ale for a few days because his handpump broke and he didn’t know how to fix it.
New shacks sprang up around the old station. Some dune dwellers grew gardens, some built playgrounds for their children. Over time, 250 people would form the core of dune shack society, linked by ties of family and friendship, according to Robert J. Wolfe, who conducted an ethnographic study of the dune shack people.
In 1931, the Peaked Hill Bars Lifesaving Station fell into the ocean. O’Neill had by then left Cape Cod.
Queen of the Dune Shacks
Hazel Hawthorne Werner arrived in the 1920s and ushered in a second generation of Bohemians. She reigned as the Queen of the Dunes until her death in 1999, socializing with Wilson, Willem deKooning, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline – to name a few. Everyone knew her.
A cousin of Charles Hawthorne and descendant of Nathaniel, she herself wrote two novels and contributed to The New Yorker. She Bought a shack she called Thalassa in 1936 for $50 from Louis Silva, a local coast guardsman who’d built it. Later she bought a second shack she called Euphoria.
She stayed in them herself but also rented them out to the creative and intellectual people (mostly men) she liked. Jack Kerouac spent time at the Euphoria shack in 1950, and there is said to have composed part of On the Road. Around the same time Tennessee Williams also wrote part of his play A Streetcar Named Desire while living in the dunes.
Hazel also socialized with Howard Mitcham, a deaf poet who shouted his verses into the wind. He sometimes wrote for the Provincetown Advocate, painted and worked as a chef.
William Oscar Johnson visited with Hazel in 1975 for a story in Smithsonian. Johnson came to see her in Euphoria, and Mitcham came by. Johnson described him as “a flamboyant, shaggy fellow with a barrel torso…His ruddy puffed cheeks and his tangled halo of gray curls make him look a little like a children’s book illustration of Old Mother West Wind.”
Mitcham pointed to the floor of the Euphoria shack.
“Nohman Mailah wrote some of this best stuff right on those boahds,” he said. “This whole National Seashoah should be forbidden to everyone ‘ceptin ahtists and writahs and poets!
Not everyone who inhabited the dune shacks was an artist or a writer. Charles Schmid came to grieve over his dead wife. Josephine DelDeo, a shack denizen, described “Dune Charlie” to Wolfe, the National Park Service ethnographic researcher:
He was so devastated by her death that, just short of dying himself, he wanted to reject the world, DelDeo said.
Schmid built a shack on top of another shack. “He lived there as a complete character until he died, wanting to be alone and left alone to be sad and suffer and whatever else he did,” she said. “And he drank a great deal, of course. …He did this marvelous study of the swallows. He was so original with it, and so persevering, they asked him to come to Switzerland to a major ornithology conference.”
But the heyday of the dune shacks had ended by then. It ended when Congress established the Cape Cod National Seashore in 1961, just after Harry Kemp died. The National Park Service then took aim at the shacks. The goal was to demolish them.
The park service gave the dune dwellers notice: They could take a 25-year lease or leave. The dune dwellers fought back. They protested enough that the National Park Service relented, making the shacks part of the Peaked Hill Bars Historic District. The rationale: They had “national significance in the history of American literature, theater and art.”
Now, earnest-nonprofits run some of the dune shacks, offering one-month residencies to writers and painters.
Real Dune Shacks
Back in 1962, when Robert Finch spent the night in Harry Kemp’s shack, he nearly burned it down. The next morning he found himself stranded in the shack after a sudden winter snowstorm. The only food he could find was six cans of sardines. A year later, the shack fell into the sea.
Finch later encountered one of the old dune denizens, Caryl Zachery, who lived year-round in one of the shacks in 1977. She told Finch she’d met a young artist who felt daring because he’d leased one of the artist-in-residence shacks, renamed Seascape.
“Hah!” said Caryl. “’Seascape’! Real shack names are never ‘quaint.’ They’re either plain and designatory – Peg’s, Boris’s, Zara’s, Frency’s, Charlie’s, the Wellses’ – or extravagant and mythic: Euphoria, Thalassa. But never ‘quaint.’ ‘Seascape’ – hah!”
Images: Dune along Snail By Mslanka – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35371474; Dune shack with chair by the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism via flickr, CC By-ND 2.0. This story was updated in 2023.