It’s hard for people my age to imagine a time when the Cape wasn’t the principal summer destination in New England; when traffic backups at the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges weren’t purgatorial and the Stop and Shops weren’t super-sized. In 1988, residents were so frustrated and dismayed with the modern scale and pace of development on Cape Cod that they approved a year-long moratorium on all new building. 1988 was a long way from 1849, when the Outer Cape was still wilderness enough to seduce Henry David Thoreau, who memorably observed in his Cape Cod travelogue that “A man may stand there and put all America behind him.” Even then, he saw the sandy writing on the wall and could envision a time when “this coast will be a place of resort for those New-Englanders who really wish to visit the seaside. At present it is wholly unknown to the fashionable world, and probably it will never be agreeable to them.” He was prescient on both counts. It’s harder, now, to indulge in Thoreauvian reveries on the Cape, but even in the modern era, development for summer visitors has a rough-hewn character that is distinct from other beachfront destinations in the east. No one would mistake Eastham for Virginia Beach, or the Outer Banks of North Carolina, let alone the fussy, spit-shined Hamptons.
Despite the construction of Route 6, Kingsbury Beach was still difficult to reach a century after Thoreau’s visits, requiring navigation along stretches of unpaved road to get down to the shoreline. Despite such modest inconveniences, the post-war Cape was becoming a destination for families as well as artists and scholars—Marcel Breuer and Serge Chermayeff both built houses on the Outer Cape in the 1940s and 50s, joining the authors, bohemians, and assorted skinny-dippers who had blazed a scrubby trail to Wellfleet, Truro, and Provincetown before the war. To meet this new demand, a few enterprising Yankees built little colonies of cottages along the bay. One of them was Richard Bishop, Crisse’s grandfather. He was charmed by this part of Eastham as a child, when there were just a few houses at the end of Kingsbury Beach Road. In 1952, he and his law partner, John Ahern, bought a parcel on the west side of the track that became Longstreet Lane and built 12 identical cottages. Like the contemporary cottage colony built by the Seaman family on the lot to the south and Budd’s Cottages, nearby, they were modest but fitted with enough modern amenities to suit a small family for a week or two at the beach. With running water, propane heat, flush toilets and “modern cabinet kitchens,” they were a big step up from the eremetic writers’ and fishermen’s shacks that still dot the dunes further north. But like their little cousins, they were exceedingly simple, with shingled roofs and exteriors, exposed stud walls on the interior, and plenty of places for sand to blow in during the off-season.
For 40 years, Crisse’s grandparents took care of their six cottages themselves, opening them up in the spring (starting, as today, by shoveling out all the sand), repairing broken furniture, replacing torn awnings, and repainting trim. They worked hard every summer to keep them tidy for a group of regular returning tenants—no small task on the bay front. A couple dozen coats of varnish on the floor of cottage 1 and 2 testify to the chronic nature of this struggle.
Today’s building codes, intended to make modern houses energy-efficient, safe, and comfortable year-round, don’t allow for such primitivism. The architect who wants an old-fashioned exposed frame inside needs to cheat, expensively, and hide 3” of foam insulation between the studs and the exterior cladding. Nonetheless, though our hand has been forced, we still feel a little apologetic about the comforts of the new cottage, kitted out as it will be with electric heating and air conditioning, modern insulation, and interior plywood walls that will hide all the wiring and plumbing. The new cottage 1 will seem positively palatial by comparison to #2.
Despite its relative refinement, our intention has been to retain something of the character of the old place by keeping it small, of course, and using common but durable materials: shingles, plywood, and a metal roof. And since Williamsburg isn’t as convenient to Eastham as Medford, we’re also hoping to make the new cottage easier to maintain. Time will tell how well we succeed on that score.
This week, if the snow isn’t too bad, Art will be putting up the frame of Cottage 1 and we will start to get our first clear view of how the house really sits on the site–no more obsessive staring at every possible angle in SketchUp for me. I got pretty excited at the hint provided by Art last week, a photo of his crew working on the floor. It’s pretty thrilling to see all those lovely 2x10s in place, at last.
Today’s Eastham weather: 21 degrees, overcast
What’s happening on site: framing walls and floors