They seem hardly the stuff of which historic treasures are made.
And yet that is exactly what the keeper of the National Register of Historic Places has declared, that the shacks are part of "a historic cultural landscape," worthy of protection and preservation.
The decision doubtless makes them among the oddest properties ever to be deemed eligible for such status, although the distinction is totally in keeping with the unusual 28-year battle to bring it about.
By its conclusion late this spring, the battle had pitted the National Park Service against the literary likes of Jack Kerouac, e.e. cummings and Norman Mailer, as well as locals, local officials, state folks and even members of Congress.
What the latter are hoping is that finally one of the most emotional issues to hit the cape in modern times may come to an end.
"To destroy them would be a travesty," said Provincetown Selectwoman Mary-Jo Avellar.
The fight to save the dune shacks began with the establishment of the Cape Cod National Seashore in 1961, but to tell the story properly means going back even further, to the hurricane of '31.
Even in those days, Provincetown boasted quite a bohemian arts colony, where it wasn't surprising to find such luminaries as playwright Eugene O'Neill or critic Edmund Wilson. For some 10 summers, O'Neill had retreated for solitude to the abandoned lifesaving station outside of town. After the hurricane destroyed it, he and others returned to build the stark, spartan shacks that would afford them isolation and inspiration among the dunes.
Over the next three decades, Kerouac, cummings and countless poets, artists and novelists followed. Mailer found the one-room shack named Euphoria so distractingly beautiful he had to leave. Or so those who love the dunes say today.
"You write a story. You write just like I tell you now," Provincetown artist Boris Margo directed recently, his memories of the dunes, some a half- century distant, rolling back as sure as the tide.
"I did my life there, a very beautiful life," he said. The rain would come down "toc, toc, toc" on the roof. At night, he and his wife, poet- writer Jan Gelb, would go to "full of the moon" parties with giant bonfires on the beach.
"It's an entirely different kind of world to live like that," explained Margo.
And it's a world little changed, said Julie Schecter, executive director of the nonprofit trust that manages Margo's shack, Euphoria and a third known as Thalassa. Named for the nearby Peaked Hill sandbar, which in another age wrecked many a ship off the cape, the trust rents the shacks in the summer for $175 a week, in the hope that continued use will help ensure their preservation.
"What people find in the dunes today is the same thing those artists and writers found," Schecter said. "If you stay there, you're part of history."
Ironically, the birth of the national seashore endangered that. Although the legislation creating the seashore mandated that the cape's culture and past be protected along with its wilderness, not everyone saw the dune shacks as worthy candidates. Officials at the Park Service announced they would remove them. They encountered vehement public protest.
The agency stayed its decision and gave long-term leases to the shacks' owners. Its ultimate plans never changed, however, and the dispute - a kind of galvanizing issue for all the ill will engendered by the government's takeover - continued to fester. By 1987, several vacated shacks had been torn down by seashore officials. What locals remember most is that the remains of one were left on the dunes for more than a year.
Last year, the story at last seemed close to resolution. An August hearing attracted hundreds of people passionate in their commitment to the shacks. Pushed by the Massachusetts Historical Commission, which voted unanimously to nominate the structures for historic status, the Park Service agreed to re- evaluate its position.
"The more we looked, the more there was," said Jim Bradley, the
commission's director of preservation planning. The shacks "clearly constituted an episode that reflects the growth of Provincetown and its connection to New York and the literary world."
In May, the keeper of the National Register finally agreed. There was celebrating and much jubilation on the cape, as well as immediate skepticism. Hadn't the Park Service already said that historic status would not necessarily mean the shacks' preservation?
From his office at the seashore - where out his window in all directions is an unbroken sea of cedar, oak and pine - Superintendent Herbert Olsen sighed. On a warm afternoon in late June, he is tired of the issue, perhaps even bruised by it.
"There was a legitimate professional difference of opinion," he said quietly, a mild man in the green and tan uniform of a park ranger. "We questioned whether they met the criteria. . . . Some of them have Andersen
windows and other modern appellations, which make them far from shacks."
Olsen does not want to resurrect the debate; he is ready to move on. "We are now committed to preserving them," he said, although he acknowledges there is no ready consensus on how it will be done.
Some people agree with the trust that renting the shacks out like regular summer cottages is the answer. Others bitterly differ, arguing that such ''dune developers" will bring crowds and ruin a precious, fragile beauty. Much depends on the long-range management plan the seashore is starting to formulate, its first since 1970. "It's time to relook and rethink," Olsen said.
Out on the dunes, the uncertainty seems a world away. The wind blows unceasingly, and knee-high dune grasses bend in a rippling dance. High atop one ridge, the weather-beaten shack called Tasha - built from flotsam, smaller than a tool shed - looks out over the Atlantic to where the sun shines like a beacon on the water.
Rose Tasha's family inherited the shack from Harry Kemp, the "poet of the dunes" and a vagabond sort, whose ashes were scattered 29 years ago over the sands that he loved. Tasha, nearly 80, doesn't get out here much anymore. But when she does, she finds peace.
"It's wonderful," she said, "to be there alone with your soul."