Each year, the 95-year-old painter Salvatore Del Deo celebrates the birthday of his wife, Josephine, inside the Provincetown dune shack he has cared for since 1946. This year will be no different.
That’s because on Friday, following weeks of negotiations, a pro bono legal team representing the Del Deos, working with Interior Department representatives, struck a deal in time for Del Deo’s late wife’s Oct. 4 birthday, granting the family a five-year special use permit that allows them to continue to occupy the shack.
In June, the National Park Service evicted the artist and his family from the shack, one of the remote seasonal structures in the historic colony that has long been a summer retreat for artists, writers, and those seeking solitude. The agency had begun a bidding process in May to invite the public to apply to occupy one of eight shacks for leases of up to 10 years, and while the shack the Del Deos occupied, known as “Frenchie’s,” was not one of the eight shacks up for bid, the family was told it would be part of a future round.
The fate of those eight shacks currently subject to the bidding process remains publicly undecided. According to the request for proposals issued in May, criteria for leasing a shack included the applicant’s experience and capacity to maintain the remote, historic structures, as well as financial reports and an opportunity to name a rent price. According to a Globe public records request, the agency received more than 400 applications.
“I’m hopeful that our resolution is a predictor of the course of things to come, that the community is not going to be broken up, that the National Park Service is going to essentially allow this community to remain,” said Romolo Del Deo, Salvatore’s son, who is also named on the special use permit. “One thing that became clear to me was that we could do more good as dune dwellers if we were still stakeholders in that story than if we were just historical people who had once been in the shacks.”
He spoke with optimism regarding the agency’s responsiveness in learning of his mother’s October birthday. Josephine Del Deo, a writer and activist, died in 2016.
“They did it . . . out of sensitivity to our wishes, because we were expressing a desire to be back there for my mother’s birthday,” he said. “I think that indicates a general human appreciation for the community and for our concerns.”
The dune shacks of the Peaked Hill Bars Historic District, scattered along the remote edge of Provincetown, were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012. Dune dwellers have argued that their community constitutes a cultural entity of dune shack culture and maintenance that merits protection, too. As part of the development of a multi-year Use Plan, an ethnographic study determined that the colony and its extended community — numbering more than 800 people at the time of the 2005 report — constituted a “Traditional Cultural Property,” a designation that would protect the dune community’s practices. The Park Service subsequently refuted its own consultant’s finding, and the designation was not granted.
Frenchie’s shack, now leased to the Del Deo family, once belonged to Jeanne “Frenchie” Schnell, who arrived in the 1930s to build the driftwood structure. Schnell signed a lifetime lease following the creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore, which also named her daughter as next of kin to receive the shack following her death. The Del Deos continued to maintain the shack alongside Frenchie and her daughter until the daughter eventually moved away, after which they assumed full management of the shack. The Del Deos say Schnell willed the shack to them, but the Park Service has only recognized its own lease as a governing document.
Romolo Del Deo reentered Frenchie’s shack on Sunday. He said that as of Monday, he and his father officially hold a special use permit through the Cape Cod National Seashore on behalf of the Department of the Interior. He made an exploratory trip with his wife, Tatiana, before bringing his father back to the shack, in order to determine its condition.
It had survived the summer with minimal damage. “It was like a time capsule,” he said. “A time capsule with mice.”
In June, all the family’s belongings were boarded up inside the shack, including his mother’s quilted jacket, hanging in a vestibule, and her portrait on the wall. Josephine Del Deo’s advocacy led to outcomes including the creation of the National Seashore, as well as the shacks’ historic registry listing.
“I always feel like she’s there, like her spirit lives in that shack and moves in that space,” said Romolo Del Deo.
Salvatore Del Deo expressed his gratitude for the agencies’ flexibility in the matter and willingness to consider alternate perspectives.
“It makes me feel so good that in my last few years on this planet, I will be in the heaven that I’ve always had with my wife and my family and my dear friends for so many years.”
Michela Murphy, a Provincetown resident whose family operates the restaurant Sal’s Place and who has worked to advocate on behalf of the dune dwellers, said she was happy that the Del Deos could return to Frenchie’s shack.
“I’m very grateful to the National Park Service, but it’s also not enough to just give Sal his shot,” she said.
On Monday, it became clear the notification process would take a while for the other dune dwellers, with a range of timelines given for different shacks.
Some dune dwellers who applied for the request for proposals received letters from Joan Horgan, a representative of the Cape Cod National Seashore, noting that the selection process would stretch into the coming weeks. If selected, those leases would be modified according to the new agreement, and if not selected, their special permit would be extended through Nov. 15, at which point an exit interview would be conducted. Another version of the letter, issued to multiple other dune dwellers, noted that an award would not be decided “in the near term,” and that the occupants could accept an extension until April 30, 2024, if not selected themselves.
One dune-dwelling family that applied has withdrawn its application, and occupants of the Armstrong shack were granted an extension through Aug. 31, 2024.
“It’s about the preservation of the community and about the preservation of the cultural landscape,” Murphy said. “And if that means removing any of the other dune dwellers, that is just putting a bandage on a problem. So I’m very grateful for this. . . . I’m cautiously optimistic. But I think that it’s important for people to remember that it’s not over.”
Lindsay Crudele can be reached at email@example.com.