Guest column by Nick DeLuca: ‘The Greatest Beach’ a Smithsonian favorite


Published: 1/2/2020 8:32:21 AM
Modified: 1/2/2020 8:31:59 AM

Ethan Carr prefers to visit Cape Cod in the winter. The off-season, argues the professor of Landscape Architecture at UMass Amherst, is an opportunity to bask in the cultural and natural character of the Cape. But defining what exactly that character is has long been subject to debate.

On Nov. 21, Carr delivered the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning’s (LARP) distinguished Zube lecture, titled “The Greatest Beach: Cape Cod and Land Conservation in the 1960s.” The lecture was based on Carr’s new book “The Greatest Beach: A History of the Cape Cod National Seashore,” a take on the political, architectural, cultural and natural history of the seashore. On Nov. 27, Smithsonian scholars included Carr’s book among their favorites from 2019.

The Cape Cod National Seashore was innovative. It was the first park for which the federal government provided funding; the first park for which people were intentionally left in place within the park’s bounds; and the first park with a mandate for preserving the character and the way of life of the land.

“It’s an intensely local story, with national implications,” Carr said.

The “Cape Cod model” of placemaking would inform the development of national parks and seashores elsewhere. But before such a model existed, the question had to be asked: what makes the Cape the Cape?

Until the 1840s, Cape Cod was a remote home to villagers and fishermen. The population concentrated on the bayside, where sailors could drop anchor in the protected harbor and capitalize on the abundant sea life.

The advent of railroads in 1847 initiated a new process of appreciating the landscape’s character and history. Henry David Thoreau rode the rails to the Cape, and his writing reframed the essence of the Cape.

Thoreau was the first to report on the Cape as a tourist, especially the oft-overlooked oceanside belittled as the “backside of the Cape.” He waxes romantic about the desolation and sublimity of the dunes; the weather-beaten nature of the fishermen, oystermen, watermen, mooncussers and beachcombers; and the perfect time and place for a trip: “A storm in the fall or winter is the time to visit it; a light-house or a fisherman’s hut the true hotel,” wrote Thoreau. “A man may stand there and put all America behind him.”

“I agree with him, by the way,” said Carr, eliciting laughs from attendees.

While Thoreau’s words helped establish a sense of Cape Cod character, infrastructure became the agent of change. Rail extensions and the rise of automobiles sparked investments in bridges, roads and stations. The local economy shifted from commercial fishing to tourism.

In the 1930s artists descended on the Cape to capture the vanishing lifestyle of the rustic fishermen. They boarded in traditional cottages, one- to four-room homes built around a central fireplace. These cottages were relics of the 18th century; creatives, then, began to restore them to make them more comfortable for living.

The post-war 1950s saw an outdoor recreation boom. Development along the Cape elicited worry about which aspects of Cape Cod character should be preserved and how. National Park Service attempts to acquire land and evict residents had been met with tremendous opposition from locals, cultural icons and powerful politicians.

Then-senator John F. Kennedy was a decadeslong visitor of Hyannisport. He and Sen. Leverett Staltonstall worked with the six Outer Cape towns (Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet, Eastham, Orleans, and Chatham) to enact zoning policies adherent to Department of Interior guidelines. Zoning reform didn’t occur all at once; Truro only adopted these measures in 2016.

Kennedy was elected president in 1960. He signed the law creating the national seashore and the Cape Cod National Seashore Advisory Commission, a consultant agency on park development. Thus the “Cape Cod model” — one of bipartisanship, community engagement and a deeply rooted heritage — was born.

Since the 1970s, the national seashore has welcomed approximately 4-5 million visitors annually. To account for the influx of tourists, stakeholders considered the effects of outdoor recreation, public facilities and erosion.

Ecologists, policymakers and architects designed visitor’s centers and bathhouses using traditional Cape materials and massing. Environmental regulations preserved the dunes and wildlife at the expanse of traditional activities like hunting, surfing, off-roading and even public nudity. Cranberry bogs, symbols of New England’s agrarian roots, were sold and left for overgrowth by red maple swamps.

Weather proved a challenge. The ocean shaped and reshaped the coast but nor’easters like the Blizzard of ’78 carved away at the bluffs and sent buildings tumbling into the sea. Every single lighthouse on the Cape has been moved at least once due to erosion.

The combined efforts by experts from varying disciplines are arguably the greatest legacy of the Cape Cod National Seashore. The park is about more than sandy beaches and summertime fun. It reflects multimodal approach to placemaking, but also the range of ways the public interprets and celebrates local character.

“It became a model of landscape conservation in places that weren’t Cape Cod,” said Carr. “What would the Outer Cape be today if they hadn’t created (the national seashore)? That’s not complicated. Anyone who’s been to Cape Cod knows it would be a very, very different place.”

Nick DeLuca is a writer based in Northampton and communications manager for the UMass Amherst College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

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