The Calming Quiet of Outer Cape Cod


WELLFLEET, Mass. — In flight from the bottles-and-models excesses of the Hamptons, the drag-queen hucksters of Provincetown and the hedge-funder mosh pit that Nantucket Island has become, a flock of creative types has steadily traced a route to an alternative getaway.

Refugees from the hectic pace of places where summer is less a season than a verb, they head instead to Wellfleet and Truro, two somnolent former whaling towns on the scrubby reaches of Outer Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

Here, in a region settled first by the Wampanoags, later by the Pilgrims and, perhaps most famously, by Mary McCarthy and Edmund Wilson (and what were once described in these pages as “the entire faculties of Columbia and Harvard, the staffs of the Partisan Review and The New Yorker, and half the psychoanalysts on the Upper West Side”), the August arrivals are powering up Route 6 in a steady late-summer stream.

Turning down obscure rutted sand roads, they fetch up at weathered cottages, rustic cabins and delicate Modernist structures secreted in the woods of pitch pine and black oak, many sheltered within the confines of the immense Cape Cod National Seashore.

“It is truly the anti-Hamptons, where everything is sanitized and controlled and manicured to the last inch,” said Francesca Amfitheatrof, the creative director of Tiffany & Co.

Having sampled the pleasures of Long Island’s East End well before coming to the United States from London to take the Tiffany job in 2013, Ms. Amfitheatrof and her young family quickly decamped to the Cape.

There they spend summers at a house near a pond in the woods where her young children, Nikolai and Stella May, swim and hunt for tadpoles and fall asleep to a nightly chorus of coyotes.

Ms. Amfitheatrof is not alone in seeking serenity away from the whine of private jets and the rotor thwack of helicopter taxis. Tucked into the thickets here are other notable escapees from the mobs of a Hamptons summer, people like Philippe Vergne, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the art dealer David Zwirner; the best-selling writer Sebastian Junger; the publisher Martin Peretz; the photographer Kenneth Hanson; the painter Sarah Lutz; the historian and author Emily Bingham; the New Yorker writer Alec Wilkinson; and the British civil liberties lawyer Helena Kennedy, who is best known for her work defending Julian Assange.

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Signs listing the families in residence.

Credit
Rachel Hulin for The New York Times

There’s a “sense of secrecy” about the Outer Cape, Ms. Bingham said one recent afternoon.

She was seated at a picnic table outside her summer house, set deep in the woods and overlooking the pristine glacial kettle ponds that are scattered through the landscape like gems.

From a ladder behind her, Ms. Bingham’s 6-year-old son, Jim, played Tarzan on a rope swing.

“There’s almost an aggressive sense of we won’t ever be fussy,” among Outer Cape residents, added the writer, a scion of the Louisville publishing dynasty. “Here I never wear jewelry. I pack makeup and never use it. No one has to wear shoes except for restaurants.”

Locals here tend to draw sharp contrasts between laid-back Cape summers, with their emphasis on family and simple traditional pleasures, and the cocktailing mobs of the Hamptons, shuttling between competing drinks parties, crammed against velvet ropes in Montauk, N.Y., their stiletto heels sinking into the sand.

“I wouldn’t go to the Hamptons at gunpoint,” Mr. Wilkinson said.

For all that a region Mary McCarthy once called “the Seacoast of Bohemia” quietly preens itself on a prevailing Yankee plainness, Wellfleet and Truro can hardly be considered retreats of hoi polloi.

Yes, a thrift shop occupies choice real estate on Wellfleet’s main drag, and the most popular cinema is a drive-in off Route 6. True, the Wellfleet Marketplace store stocks “The Freud Reader” aisles away from a counter displaying $10 homemade berry pies.

Yet of the houses listed for sale in Wellfleet by Thomas D. Brown Real Estate Associates, 40 percent are priced at over $1 million. The costliest of his listings, said Nick Brown, the agency president, is a contemporary oceanfront house ($2.695 million). The least expensive is a Sears kit house listed at $329,000, a figure barely higher than the initiation fee to join certain private Hamptons clubs.

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The Wellfleet drive-in.

Credit
Rachel Hulin for The New York Times

“We are getting a lot of refugees from the Hamptons, not to mention Nantucket,” Mr. Brown said, citing a recent defector who traded in a $5 million waterfront property on the island there for a $3.1 million house in Truro, largely to escape the hassle of obtaining ferry reservations, which many now book as much as a year in advance.

The Outer Cape, he said, “is the antithesis of the Hamptons, where the one-upmanship of my outrageousness is more outrageous than your outrageousness,” which has led people to construct residential behemoths with the square footage of department stores simply because they can.

Of course, there is plenty about the Hamptons — the open fields of Sagaponack, the quiet beaches of Wainscott, the kayakers at Louse Point, the surf rats at Ditch Plains — to counter the clichés that they are populated exclusively by grubby billionaires and drunken modelizers. Canned complaints about Route 27 becoming a parking lot on Friday nights, or the hourlong wait for a table booked a week ago, or a never ending stream of invitations to parties that turn out to be solicitations for someone’s political campaign can seem rehearsed.

Still, say those like Mr. Wilkinson, Outer Cape vacationers reliably can find the remove Thoreau meant when he wrote that standing on shores there, you could put all of America behind you. That you are able to do so is owed largely to the creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore, a Kennedy-era act intended to preserve the place and its elemental wildness.

And while there are those who point to recent incursions on the parklands, noting stealth construction undertaken by grandfathered owners of houses built before Congress enabled legislation to create the park in 1961, swaths of its 43,607 acres remain pristine. “You can’t even move a tree that falls in the woods,” Ms. Amfitheatrof said.

For Julie Carlson, editor of the popular Remodelista blog and a Wellfleet native, the Outer Cape retains a magnetic attraction years after she quit the place for life on the West Coast. “It’s such a wild, funny place,” she said. “It gets under your skin.”

When she was growing up here (her mother ran an eccentric boardinghouse with rooms rented seasonally to artists, musicians and poets), the town still possessed, in Mary McCarthy’s words, not one but two village idiots. There are some who say the number is now at three.

“The Lower Cape is so fancy,” Ms. Carlson said, referring to tony resorts like Chatham and Hyannis. “And the approach to the Outer Cape is so not.”

Tourist spirits must sink in disappointment, Ms. Carlson added, on approach to the region. “It’s all ugly, tacky shops and scrub pines when you drive north along Route 6.”

What newcomers don’t know, she said, is the location of the “secret places where the real magic is,” albeit most are on public lands.

Most enchanting of these are the 15,000-year-old kettle ponds that for decades were almost exclusively the province of certain local clans, like the descendants of the bohemian patrician John C. Phillips, who was known as Jack and whose ancestors founded Phillips Academy Andover and Phillips Exeter Academy and who, having inherited 800 acres on the Outer Cape when he was in his early 20s, settled in Wellfleet and promptly built the first modern house and studio in the area.

“Jack Phillips, the handsomest man in Wellfleet, inherited this huge swath of land and then gave it all away to friends,” Ms. Carlson said.

The Turkey Houses, a pondside compound he built, is still inhabited by his five children (among them the writer Hayden Herrera, the photographer Blair Resika and the painter Susannah Phillips) and their progeny.

Phillips also sold land to friends, among them the British architect Serge Chermayeff, the Hungarian born architect and futurist designer Marcel Breuer, the artists Gyorgy and Juliet Kepes and the structural engineer Paul Weidlinger.

Each in turn designed and erected one of the scores of Modernist structures now scattered through the woods on both ocean and bay shores, houses often radically innovative and improbably fragile given their settings in an often harsh environment.

Constructed of lumberyard stock, prefab elements, Homasote and even driftwood, these houses eventually became an obsession for the local architect and preservationist Peter McMahon. And it was Mr. McMahon’s decade-long effort to identify, document and preserve imperiled avant-garde structures that led him to create the Cape Cod Modern House Trust and to write “Cape Cod Modern: Midcentury Architecture and Community on the Outer Cape,” published last year.

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Peter McMahon at the Hatch Cottage, a rectilinear structure designed in 1962 by Jack Hall.

Credit
Rachel Hulin for The New York Times

A compendious architectural history of these little known buildings, the book is also a document of a singular artistic and intellectual society in formation. “It’s a love letter to bohemian modernism,” Mr. McMahon said.

Five Modernist houses are now held by the trust, three rented by the week to cognoscenti like the distinguished architectural historian Kenneth Frampton or, for that matter, to anyone at all. Most poetic is the storied Hatch Cottage, a rectilinear structure designed in 1962 by Jack Hall.

Set on a hillside whose vegetation is sculptured by prevailing winds into bonsai forms, the Hatch Cottage is as much drawing as dwelling, its fir siding and decks afloat on pilings, and sketched lightly onto the landscape.

Until her death at 93 in 2007, Ruth Hatch inhabited the cottage; she and her husband, Robert Hatch, an editor of The Nation, were its original owners.

Wry and indomitable, it is Mrs. Hatch who provided the narrative voice for the filmmaker Malachi Connolly’s 2013 documentary “Built on Narrow Land,” a record of what he refers to as “Bauhaus summers” on Cape Cod.

“These original bohemian guys were creating a kind of naïve or folk modernism,” Mr. McMahon, the architect and historian, said recently on a visit to Hatch Cottage. “The Outer Cape they arrived at was still a depopulated place, as it had been since the collapse of the whaling industry,” he added. “It was very remote and very poor.”

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Ruth Hatch at her house, where a person must go outdoors to move between rooms.

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Peter Zander/Metropolis Books

Neither factor proved deterrent to the “writers, artists, architects and lefties” that flocked there in the 40s and afterward, drawn by the prospect of affordable land, spectacular wild landscapes and the pleasures of an uninhibited society constituted largely as a kinship of iconoclasts.

“You got respect for what you did creatively, not for anything else,” Mr. McMahon said.

For those people and their spiritual descendants, summers on the Cape were intended as escapes from the fetters of what Ruth Hatch called “middle-class materialistic values.”

Even now, the humanist precepts espoused by the early Modernists tend to inform daily life in a place where until not long ago bathers seldom bothered with clothes.

“My stepfather was saying the other day, ‘It just depresses me to see the bathing suits,’ ” Miranda Cowley Heller, a writer, said referring to the painter Paul Resika.

Throughout a childhood spent at a house constructed by her grandfather, Jack Phillips, Ms. Heller and her siblings ran wild through the Wellfleet woods.

“The beaches were naked and everybody swam naked,” Ms. Heller said. “I think I didn’t buy a bathing suit until I was 12.”



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