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Dune Shacks: taste of Cape Cods’ floating, well-aged homes

They are 19 worn-down and well-aged shacks that sit at the edge of the continent. They’re surrounded by sand- Thoreau described the area as barren and desolate-, but the dune shacks that spot Cape Cod’s Peaked Hill Historic District have inspired artists for nearly a century.

Eugene O’Neill was one of the earlier settlers back in 1916. Jack Kerouac created part of On The Road here in 1950. The artists and writers inspired by these unimposing shelters include Tennessee Williams, Norman Mailer, e.e. cummings, Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko and John Dos Passos.

Sitting at the edge of the continent, the shacks are only a few miles from where the Pilgrims first landed in 1620 and its continued to be an area for self-reliant types. The area has never been populated by more than a few fisherman, artists and for several decades after 1882, by members of the US Lifesaving Service (the dwellers of the original shacks).

The ground is in constant movement here. Dune dwellers call it “liquid earth” and they have built and rebuilt their homes on the sand in expectation that change is the only certainty.

“The hardy people who built dwellings out here almost surfed on the dunes,” explains current dune dweller and artist Romolo Del Deo.

“The idea of building a solid house in this shifting sand is not really possible and the best way to deal with the environment is to make an adaptive structure that is able to float on the sand so if the dunes move away from you one winter, your building remains standing.”

Del Deo’s shack was built on the remains of Eugene O’Neill’s structure by Jeanne “Frenchie” Chanel, who came to the area with fellow Broadway showgirl Bette Davis.

“They came here on vacation one year and Frenchie fell in love with the place,” explains Del Deo, “Bette loved it too, but she went back to Broadway and eventually ended up in Hollywood, Frenchie stayed here.” After inheriting the shack from Frenchie, Romolo and his father were forced to rebuild in the 1970s when shifting sands buried the original structure.

Del Deo is a sculptor and like so many other artists, finds inspiration in this refuge.

“A lot of artistic processes are about trying to take in as much as you can and eliminating what is not absolutely necessary so the artists’ experience becomes a filter for life… the whole idea of shelter in this context is not protection but the ability to expose yourself to this environment and have as much of this environment make contact with you as possible.”