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WELLFLEET, Mass. — Sunday is turnaround day for the Cape Cod Modern House Trust, when the four houses it maintains are readied for the next group of tenants — the artists, writers and architecture buffs who jockey for a chance to spend a week in these modest bohemian monuments.
Peter McMahon, an architect and the founding director of the trust, is the chief steward of this winsome collection of architecture. He and others rescued the houses from extreme decay over the past decade in an unusual arrangement with the National Park Service, which owns the structures, along with the more than 44,000 acres of beach, marsh and woodlands that make up the Cape Cod National Seashore. Signed into law in summer 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, the National Seashore Act was an extraordinary confluence of politics and civic will that preserved the 40 miles of shoreline and uplands that stretch from Chatham to Provincetown, Massachusetts, and encompass more than half of Wellfleet.
This is the ecosystem famously lampooned by writer Mary McCarthy as “the seacoast of Bohemia.” McCarthy was marooned here in the 1930s because of her doomed and stormy marriage to Edmund Wilson, a prolific cultural critic and author who was an early Outer Cape pioneer. (He was chasing Edna St. Vincent Millay when he first arrived in the 1920s.)
Years later, McCarthy enjoyed sending up the mores of the place’s self-regarding intellectuals and back-to-the-land types in “A Charmed Life,” her 1955 novel that casts Wellfleet as an artists’ colony in which everything is exaggerated and multiplied: The book notes three village idiots, eight young bohemians with beards, 21 town drunkards and numerous ex-spouses.
But Wellfleet is more than just its literary ghosts, although they loom large. You can bone up on its dizzying cast of characters in “The Shores of Bohemia: A Cape Cod Story, 1910-1960,” an exhaustive cultural history by John Taylor Williams, a literary agent and intellectual property lawyer. The lefties, artists, writers and those who supported them, like Mabel Dodge, a wealthy arts patron and social justice activist (she was especially devoted to John Reed and his gang), and Dwight Macdonald, an acerbic social critic renowned for his nude cocktail parties, all get their due in the book, which was published in May.
Williams’ father-in-law, Jack Hall, was one of the area’s founding fathers, a blue-blooded homesteader who was movie star handsome and much married; Williams at one point thought of organizing his book by profiling Hall’s four wives before his editor talked him out of it. Hall was a self-taught architect who began buying land in the 1930s, at first renovating a farmhouse he bought from writer John Dos Passos (who had fled to Wellfleet because Provincetown, as his wife put it, “had collapsed intellectually” and gone honky-tonk) before making his own structures.
The most poetic of these is the Hatch House, now part of the trust’s small collection. (Booking for the houses opens in October; rates are upon request.) It was built in 1962 for Robert Hatch, a critic and an editor of The Nation, and Ruth Hatch, a painter. When Ruth Hatch died in 2012, and the trust restored the house, her family lent its contents, including all the books, a time capsule of the reading tastes of the intelligentsia at midcentury — look, there’s journalist Irving Brant’s analysis of the Bill of Rights, out in 1965, and “The Olympia Reader,” a digest of erotic stories from the French publisher of “Lolita.”
Set high on a glacial ridge overlooking the bay, the house is a series of Douglas fir cubes — for living, sleeping and bathing — connected by a wooden walkway, like bathhouses at an old beach club, with shutters that close the place up to the elements. All of the cubes add up to just 600 square feet. When McMahon first came upon it, he thought it was storage for lobster pots. He likened it to a piece of driftwood, “blending slowly into its environment.”
The legacy of the idiosyncratic settlers is this idiosyncratic architecture: eccentric, often handmade structures, along with those built by the European emigres who found a home here at the dawn of World War II, notably modernist architects Marcel Breuer and Serge Chermayeff, who designed houses for themselves and friends.
The first wave of the area’s freethinkers — the artists and writers who came in the 1920s and ’30s — were drawn by the wild landscape and the light, and the cheap real estate. And although many of these settlers were born with a silver spoon in their mouths, like Hall, they had turned their backs on their wealth (or it had been wiped out). McMahon calls this group the Brahmin Bohemians, latter-day Thoreaus who were homesteading, carving out a new life, often in structures they built and designed themselves. Others took to the modest, mid-19th-century houses in the town’s center, adding their own artistic flourishes to the postcard New England backdrop.
Gilded Age Newport, 100 miles southwest, was a resort built on the spoils of rapacious capitalism, and proudly expressed its enormous wealth in equally enormous marble and granite “cottages.” Yet the architecture of the Outer Cape was so modest as to be almost invisible — the politics of its 20th-century settlers were decidedly pink — and its interiors were as eclectic as its citizens.
The Turkey Houses, a clutch of tiny, stealthily sited structures along Horseleech Pond, are a prize at the end of a series of narrow, sandy roads that wind mysteriously through the back woods. There, I met Hayden Herrera, in residence in July in her family’s compound, a collection of turkey coops rehabbed for humans by her father, John C. Phillips, known as Jack, who was one of the area’s early homesteaders.
Herrera, 81, is a noted biographer of artists Frida Kahlo, Arshile Gorky and Isamu Noguchi. Her memoir, “Upper Bohemia,” published last year, is the harrowing tale of her chaotic upbringing (not unusual for the children of bohemia) by her careless, pleasure-seeking parents, a gothic childhood that was punctuated by periods of relative safety among the Turkey Houses.
Her mother, Elizabeth Cornell Blair, called their cohort Upper Bohemians. (Herrera recalled her mother calling Wilson “a big intellectual”; it was not a compliment.) The Upper Bohemians lived by a strict code that included a reverence for nature and beauty — Herrera described her mother as an “aesthetic fascist” — and an aversion to displays of wealth or luxury. They were also committed to sexual adventure — her parents each married five times (and had a habit of attending cocktail parties naked) — and to a hands-off approach to child rearing. Yet left to their own devices in the woods, Herrera and her sister Blair learned resilience; the place was ballast in their unsteady world.
Phillips had studied art at Harvard and in Paris; when, in the late 1920s, an uncle left him 800 acres of woodland and scrub here, the buildings he began to construct — starting with an art studio perched on a dune that tumbled into the sea in the early 1960s — were like art installations. He built a lovely modernist house with a flat roof and tubular railings from Homasote, a compressed fiberboard made from recycled paper, and called it the Paper Palace.
The house was one of many buildings he rented out, at first to Max Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim and Matta Echaurren, a surrealist Chilean painter. In her memoir, Herrera writes that the three of them taught her parents surrealist-inspired after-dinner games, which were so naughty that they shocked even her libertine father.
The Paper Palace has long since been sold (and reclad in bourgeois shingles). But when Miranda Cowley Heller, Herrera’s niece, wrote her first book, she called it “The Paper Palace.” The novel, which came out last summer, is cinematic and haunting, and its title is apt for the unstable family background of the main character, Elle, an academic with a tragic secret. Set in a fictional version of the family’s compound, the locale plays the same role it did in “Upper Bohemia” — as a place of relative calm amid the chaos, emotional and otherwise, that is inflicted on the children of bohemia. “The Paper Palace” made The New York Times bestseller list and has been optioned by HBO as a potential miniseries; it’s like “The Ice Storm,” but with mosquitoes.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. When World War II began, Phillips, with a young family, raised turkeys in lieu of active service. He built coops for them with his friend Hayden Walling, a like-minded artist and builder, and when the war ended, and Phillips tired of the turkeys, he moved five of the coops to the edge of Horseleech Pond and turned them into bedroom cabins. The sixth was a bathroom.
He built a living space in the rough outlines of a lean-to, a wedge-shaped structure of concrete blocks and wood with a screened-in porch, now bordered by a stand of tupelo trees. Inside, it’s like a still life by Giorgio Morandi, and virtually unchanged since Phillips’ day, save for the coffee maker. His tools still hang on a wall. Phillips was an improviser. He made furniture with salvaged materials; plywood doors and wooden cable spools became tables and sofas, and he fashioned ceiling lamps from washboards. When a sofa in one house got dirty, he painted it white. Duct tape was his preferred building material, and when he died in 2003, he was buried with a roll of it.
“My father used to complain that it isn’t nearly as fun here as the old days,” Herrera said. “The only sybaritic thing we do now is getting into the pond. It’s like someone’s arms. We behave ourselves. But we sort of mourn the time we didn’t behave.”
Julie Carlson’s family home is a stalwart-looking former banker’s house built in 1868. When Carlson, 61, a founder of Remodelista, a design resource, was growing up here in the 1970s, its white clapboard facade masked a series of decorating and other shenanigans. It housed a rotating cast of artists and writers, mainly poets, who were often moved to include the place in their work. (“The porch that needs painting peels its white skin in the sun,” Deborah Garrison wrote. Patricia Goedicke evoked its “white curtains like loaves of bread.”)
Carlson’s mother, Jocelyn Carlson Baltzell, was a saloniste and educator who ran the place like a literary boardinghouse, renting out rooms to make ends meet. Carlson’s father, Sten Carlson, was a rakish fisherman and treasure hunter not often in residence.
In 1970, his boat, the Jocelyn C., was seized by the Cuban government because it had strayed too close to shore (Sten Carlson was testing treasure hunting equipment), causing a much publicized international incident. While her husband was at sea, Baltzell, once a Fulbright scholar in Rome, embarked on domestic adventures, except for the period when she was at Harvard earning her master’s degree in education. (In accepted bohemian practice, she left her daughter, then 14, to fend for herself while she was in graduate school.)
Baltzell was swept up by whoever was staying in the house. When British pop artist Peter Gee, noted for his collaborations with Betsey Johnson in the 1960s, arrived one summer, Baltzell was moved to paint her ceilings orange and her walls bright blue. The furniture at that stage was acid green. “There was a whole pop palette,” Julie Carlson said.
At another point, Baltzell painted the dining chairs silver. One hot summer, potter Vera Vivante encouraged her to layer the lawn with white marble chips. Carlson and her husband, Josh Groves, who bought the house after Baltzell died, are still picking the remnants out of the grass.
“No one was suggesting that maybe we should focus our energy on fixing the pipes,” said Carlson, a sensitive child who worried about the house’s deferred maintenance and haphazard wiring. Renovation, her mother thought, was too bourgeois — “too Chatham,” as she put it, referring to the well-heeled town often referred to as the Greenwich of the Cape — and anyway there wasn’t enough money. Summers were crowded, what with all the poets and the artists and one year a group of cello students. The writers required enormous care, Carlson said. “The poets were completely inept. They just wafted around and hoped to be fed. My mother was a slave to literary greatness.”
These days the house, slowly resuscitated over the past decade by Carlson and Groves, is painted a soothing white, inside and out. The upholstery is white; her mother’s furniture now stained a sober black. The plumbing is intact, the fridge unmarred, the wiring safe. On a recent summer day, the lawn was lush and green.
“I was always just thinking about what needed to be done,” Carlson said, recalling life as a child of bohemia, “and wishing for a more serene atmosphere.
“I was obsessed with creating a calm environment,” she said. “I just wanted everything to be normal — and more bourgeois.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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