Modern Cape Cod
strategy may preserve Wellfleet artists' cottage colony
She makes an impassioned plea for the unobtrusive. For blending in. And, for the right of the cottage colony she has called home for 42 years to be preserved as a work of artistic genius.
Her plea will get an official hearing before the Cape Cod Commission at 3 p.m. Aug. 19.
The Wellfleet Historical Commission has nominated The Colony, as it's known, as a District of Critical Planning Concern. The commission did this with Stefani's permission. She owns 11 of the cottages in The Colony and rents them seasonally.
If The Colony makes it through the nominating process, it would be protected from future development, helping to keep its historic and architectural flavor free of trophy homes.
Nearly four acres and 13 cottages - including two homes that were part of the original colony but are now privately owned - are included in the proposed district's boundaries. Wellfleet selectmen recently voted unanimously to support the nomination.
The five parcels owned by Stefani, under the name Colony of Wellfleet Inc., are appraised at $1.79 million, according to the town assessor's Web site.
Stefani, however, doesn't want to talk money. She could sell her property, make a lot of money. Move elsewhere.
But this landscape, these cottages, have a place in her soul. That's true for many others.
"There are very few places in the world now that have a sense of place," said Wellfleet architect Alan Dodge, who argues that a standard subdivision, with homes placed on each lot with an eye to maximizing profit, kills any desire to harmonize the building with its surroundings.
Architectural purpose Besides The Colony, only the center of Wellfleet - with its large Greek Revival homes fronting Duck Creek, or overlooking the harbor from the hill, recalling the town's boom years as a major fishing port - has the same sense of architectural purpose.
The Colony came after the town center. Built in 1948 by noted architects Nathaniel Saltonstall and Oliver P. Morton as a private club for art patrons and artists, it was grouped around an art gallery. Stefani bought the cottages in 1963 and she now lives in the gallery building year round.
Saltonstall was a prodigious art collector and founded the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Frescoes, sculptures and paintings are everywhere in The Colony. Inside, each cottage is a little museum unto itself with furniture designed by leading modernists of the day.
Large panes of glass erase the boundary between the cottage interiors and the surrounding woods and sea. Original artwork adorns both interior and exterior walls. The furnishings are comfortable, but Spartan, with single beds sometimes doubling for sofas during the day.
The Colony as a whole is considered one of the best preserved and most extensive groupings of Bauhaus architecture in North America.
Bauhaus was a philosophy that sought to blend art and function. It originated in Germany, between the World Wars with many of its founding members, such as architects Walter Gropius, Eero Saarinen and Marcel Beuer fleeing to the United States when Adolf Hitler took power. Wellfleet has homes designed by all three of these seminal modernist architects.
Saltonstall and Morton were schooled in the Bauhaus philosophy and what was known as the International style of architecture. They wanted to build a cottage colony that would be a kind of utopia based on those architectural principles.
Dodge said the significance does not rest with the cottages alone, but in how they were fitted to the landscape instead of bulldozing the dunes and the small valley between to accommodate the buildings. Each cottage was also situated to take the best advantage of its surroundings and views, whether it was woods or sea.
New preservation tool Sitting on her terrace recently, a Henry Varnum Poor fresco of the dunes, marsh and harbor at her back, Stefani gazed across the small hollow at the flat-roofed cottages that line the crest of Mayo Hill. They seem to disappear into the landscape.
The paths leading down from each cottage end at a small loop of driveway before her home. The feeling is of a summer community, unpretentious, devoted to art.
That's what has lured writers Diana and Lionel Trilling, Bernard Malamud and William Shirer; actors Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Faye Dunaway; and publisher Alfred Knopf Jr. to The Colony. Numerous other intellectuals, surgeons, professors and artists also came to the sandy, pine studded hillside on Chequessett Neck.
Stefani said she believes this work of art is not hers to cut up, any more than a van Gogh or a Picasso can be sold in bits and pieces and still be considered a painting.
The planning district process has never been used to preserve an architectural resource, but preservationists saw few options after town officials invoked a local bylaw to delay the two privately owned cottages from being demolished. The owner of one cottage had sought a demolition permit from the town. But the bylaw only provides temporary protection.
owners of the two private cottages could not be reached for comment
on this story.
"I was surprised at the people who knew the place," said Dodge. "One was an architect who worked on (Frank Lloyd) Wright's Falling Water (home). He said there are people across the state who are watching what will happen to (The Colony)."
(Published: August 8, 2004)