In Cape Cod’s Dunes, Something’s Growing Besides Scrub Pine
By TRACIE ROZHON
SEEN from the top of a sand-strewn bluff, the Atlantic, flecked with whitecaps, stretches out for miles along a deserted beach. Shrubs with tiny leaves, turning red in autumn, rustle in the wind.
On a dune not far away, two freshly built, very large houses interrupt this near-primeval landscape in the midst of the Cape Cod National Seashore, a federally protected area established in 1961 to limit exactly that kind of development.
Nearby, a Modernist beach house built around the time of the park’s founding is almost hidden in the dunes. Small and brown, it sits lightly over the land, on stilts. But while new houses, some still covered in Tyvek insulation, sprout on privately owned land in the midst of the national seashore, this one, like dozens of others from the same era, has been taken over by the National Park Service, which administers the seashore, and it is now rapidly decaying.
Local environmental and preservation groups, as well as some town officials and residents, worry about the scale of the new houses, additions and outbuildings that are being built — or may one day be built — on 600 private plots in the fragile 27,000-acre seashore, as wealthy owners push the limits of Park Service guidelines, or ignore them altogether. Although just a handful of mansions have gone up so far, preservationists are concerned that market forces, combined with the increasing recognition by landowners that the guidelines are not legally binding, will lead to the kind of overbuilding they moved to the Cape to avoid.
“The danger is that the Outer Cape, which the people here love and want to protect, will disappear as people come in and build their trophy homes,” said Curtis Hartman, a selectman in Truro, a town largely inside the park. “If you remember what Nantucket used to be like, well, we haven’t gotten the Gulfstreams at our airport yet, but we’re afraid they could be coming.”
Meanwhile most of the small and unobtrusive Modernist houses that have been taken over by the Park Service — some of them architecturally significant — are rotting away, to the chagrin of preservationists. Many were designed (and in some cases personally built) by architects and talented architects manqués who formed an unofficial artists’ colony in the Provincetown area in the early 60s.
“There’s this really important collection of houses that people will be lining up to come see in 50 years,” said Gina Coyle, who founded the Wellfleet Modern Architecture Trust in 2002 in hopes of protecting the houses. “And these architectural treasures are deteriorating.”
How the regulations governing the seashore have led to a situation at odds with the reasons for its founding is complicated. A bill calling for the creation of a national seashore taking in large chunks of Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet and Eastham, and smaller pieces of Orleans and Chatham, was introduced in Congress in September 1959 and signed into law two years later.
In those two years, rumors circulated about the terms of the legislation, particularly whether new construction would be allowed on undeveloped land, and whether there would be a cutoff date for such construction. Many owners of undeveloped plots, especially in Truro and Wellfleet, began feverishly building, and about 40 houses went up. But Congress eventually made the date of the bill’s introduction the cutoff for construction on lots smaller than three acres, making those houses illegal.
A few years later, the federal government began negotiating with owners of the new, but now illegal, houses, with the implicit threat that they could be seized through eminent domain. Most people either sold out to the government in the 1970s, or negotiated a sale that guaranteed them life use of the property or 25-year leases (all of which have now expired, except a few that were extended for hardship). Some of the houses were donated or bequeathed to the park.
Ruth Hatch, 93, who got a hardship extension, is one of the few original owners still living in one of the Modernist houses. Hers is an elegant and innovative work designed by Jack Hall, a writer and artist.
“They offered us various things,” she said of the negotiations long ago. “But they said if you don’t do anything, we’ll take it. We took 25 years. So we had to sell it for the price they said. I think it was $30,000.”
For a long time the luckier landowners — those who owned 600 “inholdings” that had been built on before the bill was introduced, and were exempted from the Congressional building ban — assumed that they were subject to certain controls. The Park Service issued guidelines advising them, among other things, not to build new houses more than 50 percent bigger than the old one.
But what some owners of the 600 properties are just realizing now is that the actual authority for the zoning of the inholdings rests not with the Park Service but with the individual towns, and each town has different standards. One thing, though, is clear: Truro and Wellfleet allow houses that are generally bigger than those suggested by the Park Service guidelines.
At some point, said Peter McMahon, a local architect, “somebody hired a smart lawyer, and the lawyer said: ‘Don’t be a chump. They’re only guidelines.’ ” Given that the value of the 600 inholdings, like the value of all pristine seashore property, has increased enormously, the people who can afford to buy them may not be satisfied with anything close to the modest dimensions of the pre-1961 houses in the seashore.
The seashore’s planning director, Lauren McKean, said in early November that although the number of town permits to build on the inholdings seems to have remained relatively stable for a decade, the size of the reconstructions and additions has clearly grown since around 2003.
Rick Grossman, a longtime summer resident of Truro who owns a house on an inholding within the seashore, said he knows people who have flouted the guidelines in building extensions and entirely new houses.
“Their attitude is, ‘I love it here and I have lots of money and I’m not going to live in a shack — so sue me,’ ” he said.
Mr. Grossman, a partner in furniture businesses in New York and Boston, said he is hoping to build his own 400-square-foot addition, which he said would be “sensitive to the environment.”
Is he planning to have it reviewed by the seashore’s planners, as inholding owners are encouraged to do?
He hesitated. “No,” he replied. “My architect and several zoning board members here in Truro told me I didn’t have to.”
Another Truro inholding — a three-acre tract with a surfman’s cottage, a simple early-20th-century shack with one door and two windows on the front — is for sale for $1.5 million. Steven Williams, a former Truro building inspector, said the town’s regulations would allow the new owner to build a 13-bedroom house on the property, an option confirmed by Ms. McKean.
Mr. Hartman, the Truro selectman, said he thinks the town should do something to moderate its recent growth spurt, especially for the biggest houses within the seashore.
“We know about it,” he said, “but we can’t seem to fix it. About a year ago an ordinance to limit house size was introduced, but it was withdrawn because it was clearly headed for an embarrassing failure. This is an area where property rights are king: ‘It’s his land. He can do what he wants with it.’ ”
If there is one house generally pointed to by town officials and real estate agents as the first of the new-style houses, it is the sprawling shingled Truro residence of Martin Peretz, the financier and editor in chief of The New Republic, and his wife, Anne.
From a dune top the Peretz house, built on an inholding more than a decade ago, does look grand, but it also looks contextual: it blends, with its brownish cast, into its surroundings. According to files at the National Seashore headquarters, a building permit issued in 1989 gave the planned size of the house as 2,760 square feet (smaller than many suburban mansions, but considerably larger than most of many of the area’s older cottages). “It looks larger because of the roof that covers a wide porch,” said Allan Greenberg, the house’s architect.
Mr. Peretz said he resents much of the publicity the house has gotten. “Yes, of course, there’s been a nasty press,” he said in a telephone interview. “Someone wrote that we had gold faucets. This is not a Gilded Age home. It’s two stories only in the back and one in the front, to blend into the landscape.”
He said his wife, who supervised the construction of the house, is an environmentalist, and that the house, despite the controversy, was built according to seashore guidelines. “We’d been renting on the Cape for 33 years,” he said. “We went scrupulously by all the guidelines.”
John B. Rice, one of the Outer Cape’s biggest builders, did 20 to 25 projects in 2005 in the area, including two or three on inholdings within the seashore. He said his customers these days “don’t ask about price, they just ask about my availability. Everyone here wants big rooms for living, for dining, a kitchen,” he continued, “and then three or four bedrooms.”
He knows of a couple of even bigger houses in the seashore. “They put them on top of the highest hill,” he said, “so everybody has to look at them.” But while he has doubts about the bigger houses going up — “They get in the way of the spirit” — he said the construction “supports a lot of families — mine is one of them.”
Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said the trust was involved nationally in the fights against “mansionization” and for the preservation of distinctive Modernist dwellings.
Of the threatened houses built on Cape Cod from 1959 to 1961, he said: “The preservation of these houses should definitely be on the Park Service’s agenda before they get to the point where they deteriorate further. The most significant of these houses should get primary attention, and leasing them long term, either to private individuals or not-for-profit groups, would restore them.”
That is exactly what certain groups, recently formed, are trying to do, but their leaders say they are frustrated.
“I’ve been at this five years and yet the National Park Service can’t make an agreement,” said Ms. Coyle, of the Wellfleet Modern Architecture Trust. She said her group has a collection of photographs of many of the Modernist houses by the architectural photographer Norman McGrath and has been storing the interior furnishings for several of the houses in a rented warehouse.
Ms. Coyle said she is waiting for George Price, the Seashore’s superintendent, to give the group a long-term lease or some other mechanism allowing the group to invest money in restoring the houses without the risk of having them demolished shortly after.
Mr. McMahon, who recently served as a curator of an exhibition at the Provincetown Art Museum on Cape Cod’s Modernist houses, has set up another group, the Friends of Modernist Houses on Cape Cod. He imagines turning the houses into a kind of “Modernist house archive,” with a scholar in residence.
In response, Mr. Price said that until recently, leasing to individuals or private groups was not allowed by the federal government. Now, he said, he wants to explore the concept, but there is no money to study which of the Modernist houses owned by the seashore are architecturally or culturally valuable.
David Barna, the chief spokesman for the National Park Service, agreed. With the budget shortage, he asked, “do we fix the gutters on Independence Hall, so it won’t be destroyed, or do we put millions into restoring these beach houses, which weren’t even their architects’ most important works?” Leasing, he said, is beginning to sound promising.
“Those houses were built in a kind of limbo,” said William Burke, a park ranger who is the seashore’s historian, “where people knew they might be doing something risky, but they hoped Congress would set a cutoff date sometime in the future.”
Mr. Burke stood on the splintering deck of one of the abandoned houses, white with blue trim around its missing windowpanes, as this reporter peered into a large living room where several old wing chairs were still drawn up around the fireplace.
“When it was built this house probably had a view of the ocean,” Mr. Burke said, surveying the scrubby pines that are growing fast around the small house nestled in the dunes.
“Imagine this family driving up to the house shortly after it was built,” he said. “They must have loved it — the smell of the pines, the smell of the ocean, standing on the deck.” He paused.
“They gambled,” he said, “and
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company