PROVINCETOWN — Salvatore Del Deo had hoped to celebrate his 95th birthday this August in the dune shack he has helped maintain for 77 years. The shack — one of 19 that persist along the windswept edge of Provincetown’s northwest shore — was bequeathed to the painter by the original owner, a close family friend. And while once it seemed only ocean waves could take the shack away from him, it is the National Park Service that has come calling.
In March, the agency sent Del Deo a letter ordering him to vacate the cottage. An heir of the original owner had died, ending an agreement that allowed occupancy of the shack on National Seashore land, including by the Del Deos, who do not, according to the Park Service, maintain a legal claim to the structure.
Salvatore’s son, Romolo, appealed the notice on his father’s behalf and was granted a 90-day extension, but the extra time is coming to an end. The family was told it has until June 27 to remove personal belongings and surrender the keys. Though the family says the shack was willed to Salvatore, the agency won’t recognize the inheritance.
“I thought that I would spend my last days there,” said Salvatore Del Deo, a celebrated painter whose name also adorns two of Provincetown’s storied Italian restaurants from his early days as a restaurateur, including the famed Ciro & Sal’s.
Despite the Del Deos’ pleas and community protests, the Park Service appears poised to enter the cottage into a bidding contest like the one it announced in early May, when it sought public bids for long-term leases for eight of the historic, weathered buildings on the Cape Cod National Seashore in Truro and Provincetown. Del Deo said that while “Frenchie’s Shack,” as it is known, was not among the initial structures listed in the request for proposals, he was told by Park Service officials that it might be put out to bid in the future. He would be welcome, they said, to vie for a chance to return.
Dune shack advocates say the Park Service’s process lacks transparency and regard for cultural legacy, and jeopardizes a vital remaining piece of Provincetown history.
The Park Service did not return multiple requests to comment for this article. The family was ordered to turn the keys over to William Burke, a cultural resources program manager for the Cape Cod National Seashore, by next Tuesday, but a voice-mail recording for Burke’s office stated that he is out of the office until June 30, and he did not return messages.
Romolo Del Deo, himself an internationally recognized sculptor, said officials have ignored and dismissed his rebuttals. Also difficult to swallow is the fact that his mother, Josephine, who died in 2016, was a sand dunes protection activist instrumental in the creation of the Province Lands that became part of the National Seashore reservation, on which the shacks sit, as well as in getting them designated as Historic Places.
The Del Deos’ stewardship represents the longest-known caretaking relationship of a dune shack. How the couple came to occupy the dune shack is a story in itself: Del Deo, who was born in Providence and studied art at RISD, landed in Provincetown in 1946, where he planned to study painting. He befriended Jeanne “Frenchie” Schnell, who had arrived in Provincetown via New York and Paris, with a friend and fellow chorus girl, Bette Davis. Davis departed for Broadway, but Schnell stuck around to comb the beaches, rescue seabirds, and, in the 1930s, build a remote dune shack, which Del Deo helped her maintain. In May of 1953, Del Deo met Josephine at a party and the couple married that November. Schnell, a close friend of the couple, offered her dune shack as their honeymoon suite, and when she died in 1983, with her family’s support, she bequeathed the shack to the care of the Del Deos, who have been paying property taxes and the maintenance costs ever since.
It was a circumstance that for many years seemed straightforward, but which the March 28 letter from Miriam Mazel, acting real estate officer for the National Park Service, upended. When the Park Service took the land by eminent domain in the 1960s, it did not compensate the owners, but offered them lifetime leases. In the letter, Mazel offered condolences for the 2016 death of Adrienne Schnell, Frenchie Schnell’s daughter and heir, but said it meant the Del Deos had to go.
“We’re not even allowed to bid [on the shack] right now,” said Romolo Del Deo. “We don’t know when that might be possible, or under what conditions.” He added that the legal standard for resisting a federal order such as the one they’ve been given is so complex and costly that the family has no choice but to comply.
“We’re not their enemy,” Romolo Del Deo said. “But we are being treated like their enemy. And we wish that they wouldn’t treat us that way … like, you know, something that needs to be eradicated and replaced.”
He said that the Park Service has ignored that Schnell’s other living heir, a daughter in Tennessee, wants the Del Deo family to remain on as steward, and that the agency approved the family’s previous work to restore and rebuild the shack.
It is not the first time the Park Service and the dune dwellers have disagreed about the land use and dune shack occupancy.
“The [National] Seashore has wanted to rewild this for 60 years,” said Michela Murphy, a restaurant manager and Del Deo family friend, who organized a protest Wednesday morning in support of Del Deo’s efforts to remain in the Schnell shack. She referred to earlier efforts by the Park Service to raze structures after they were taken by eminent domain. In response, advocates, including Josephine Del Deo, successfully fought to protect the remaining shacks.
On Wednesday, more than 20 protesters clustered around the dune road entrance on Route 6, waving handmade signs. National Park Service rangers arrived in SUVs to provide site visits to the hundreds who had applied for a chance to take on a shack, Murphy said. A ranger, when approached, refused to comment. Online, a Change.org petition to halt the eviction had collected more than 5,000 signatures at press time.
Dune shack advocates say the Park Service process threatens to uproot the unique artistic community that has called the dunes home for decades. And Murphy contends the leasing contest ignores the shacks’ status as a haven for outsiders.
“A lot of the people who traditionally have lived out here are not people who thrive in normal society,” she said. The application process requires a credit check, for instance. “There are some people, I don’t even know if they have bank accounts. So they’re actually not eligible even to put in a bid.”
Romolo Del Deo said the family has been touched by the community’s show of support.
“I’m still hoping that someone in a position of authority essentially goes to whoever is blundering their way through this policy,” he said. “We will try to continue to get the message through to somebody who’s capable of halting this travesty.”
“I don’t want to be the only one that has it,” said Salvatore Del Deo. “But I also don’t want to be the one to be sacrificed on the altar of pleasure, because somebody else has more money than I do. I don’t have any money. But I built that shack with my own hands. My son helped me and my friends helped me. And we did it.”
Del Deo said he is prepared for disappointment. “I’ve had a wonderful life,” he said. “So if this has to be, it’s to be. . . . But I’d like to finish my life being able to go out there.”
This week, he hopes to visit one more time.
Lindsay Crudele can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.