Cement Hideaway (a/k/a “Bubble Shack,” “Concrete Igloo,” “Wine Bottle Shack”).
The ebullient seaside cousin to the “Mushroom House” (236R Bradford Street) was designed and constructed in 1959-1960 by the architect and painter Alan Peter Dodge (1929-2017) and the painter Betty Lou Martensen, who was Dodge’s fiancée at the time. She described the project to me in 2021 as a “small, experimental, reinforced cement hideaway out on the dunes.” The Cement Hideaway was made of concrete spread on to an undulating wire mesh form. (The “Mushroom House” is undergirded by far stronger rebar.) The Cape Cod National Seashore — and its strict regulatory regimen — had yet to come into existence, so it’s not hard to imagine Dodge and Martensen getting away with this folly. Some photos taken by their Back Shore neighbor Nathaniel L. Champlin (1919-2015) make the structure appear monumental. But if you study the pictures with children in them, you’ll see how diminutive it actually was.
Photograph by Nathaniel Champlin, posted by Mildred Champlin in the Facebook group Provincetown in the 60s on 25 January 2021.
“Without exaggeration, Alan Dodge’s livable cement abode was a one-time structure featuring imagination, durability, and adaptability,” Josephine Breen Del Deo wrote in The Watch at Peaked Hill: Outer Cape Cod Dune Shack Life, 1953-2003 (2015). “In an environment in which these attributes commanded attention, Alan Dodge’s shack was thought to be at the top of the list.”
Simply put, Mildred Champlin said, “It was a work of art.”¹
Photograph of the Cement Hideaway posted by Ben Kettlewell in the Facebook group Provincetown in the ’60s on 24 January 2021. The building in the distance on the right is the Malicoat Shack.
An interior view gives a sense of how small the hideaway was. Photograph by Nathaniel Champlin, posted by Mildred Champlin in the Facebook group Provincetown in the 60s on 25 January 2021.
Not Sainte Chapelle, perhaps, but most impressive and memorable for a dune shack. Photograph by Nathaniel Champlin, posted by Mildred Champlin in the Facebook group Provincetown in the 60s on 25 January 2021.
By far its best remembered feature was an arched segment in which the concrete was penetrated by bright cobbles — the bottoms of wine bottles — laid in random courses. “Like a stained-glass window,” Rachel White said.² The bottles largely came from the Flagship restaurant, 463 Commercial Street, which was run by Manuel Francis “Pat” Patrick. Martensen (now Betty Lou Whaley) said she worked there when she arrived in Provincetown after receiving a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the Rhode Island School of Design in the spring of 1958.
“Tips there were good, and that fall, rents were lowered all over town,” she said in a comment on the Building Provincetown site. “I decided I could afford to stay there and spend the winter painting. I rented a former chicken house (which had no insulation) on Tasha Hill, and lived there during the exceptionally cold winter of 1958. … Sunny Tasha [Rose “Sunny” (Savage) Tasha (1910-1994)] was so kind to me, she often invited me for dinner, and I remember her big old cast-iron wood stove pumping out waves of blessed heat, her loaves of bread set on top to rise.”
Also in Provincetown was one of Martensen’s RISD classmates and her fiancée, Alan Dodge, who had also earned a B.F.A. in painting in 1958, having already received his architectural degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Dodge was born in 1929 in Middleborough, which also claimed Hazel Hawthorne Werner (1901-2000) as a native. Dodge worked with Charles Zehnder, the foremost Modernist architect on the Lower Cape, and later with Hershey Associates in Durham, N.H. More recently, he had his own practice, Architects Studio Ltd., in South Wellfleet, with Joy Cuming.
“Alan was such a nice, forthcoming, and friendly man,” Mildred Champlin told me in 2021. “I wish I could stop by again and say hello.”
Corbusier-sur-la-Plage. Photograph by Nathaniel Champlin, posted by Mildred Champlin in the Facebook group Provincetown in the 60s on 25 January 2021.
Detail of the fireplace. Photograph by Nathaniel Champlin, posted by Mildred Champlin in the Facebook group Provincetown in the 60s on 25 January 2021.
Inasmuch as sand is an important element in concrete, you’d think that a beach dune would be the perfect setting for a concrete structure, since so much of your building material was lying around quite literally at your feet. But it turns out, as Mildred Champlin noted, that beach sand “is smooth and tumbled into a more rounded shape that won’t stick together.” So — like coals to Newcastle — “sharp sand,” a builder’s material that’s more angular and cohesive than beach sand, had to be brought out to the Back Shore.
About her brief life as a dune dweller, Whaley told me: “I remember that we had absolutely no luck making bayberry candles, but the jam I made from beach plums was highly successful. I knew Hazel Hawthorne there, and after I left she sent a package of beach plum pits which I sprouted and planted here in Mendocino, California!”
Mildred Champlin holding her younger daughter, Andrea, in the family’s surplus military Jeep. Maia Champlin is on the roof of the Concrete Hideaway. The photo was taken in 1967 by Nathaniel L. Champlin. Courtesy of Mildred Champlin.
Left: Detail of the wire mesh on which the concrete was slathered. Photograph by Alan Dodge, reproduced in The Watch at Peaked Hill: Outer Cape Cod Dune Shack Life, 1953-2003, by Josephine Breen Del Deo. Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2015. Right: Photograph by Nathaniel Champlin, posted by Mildred Champlin in the Facebook group Provincetown in the 60s on 25 January 2021.
After a few years, Dodge gave the shack to one of Sunny’s sons, Carl Tasha (1943-2006). “I so remember discovering Alan’s amazing hut in the early ’60s,” Stephen Brown said in a comment on the Provincetown in the ’60s Facebook page, when a post by Ben Kettlewell excited a lot of fond reminiscences.³ “The wine bottles in the wall and the sculpted candle holders in the walls. Later became friends with him but never knew it was he who built this wonder until his architecture apprentice Joy Cuming told me.”
“Eventually it was deserted, gradually deteriorating until it fell apart,” Mildred Champlin said about the Cement Hideaway. At the same time, the National Park Service, keepers of the newly created Cape Cod National Seashore, were pursuing a pretty relentless policy of removing all traces of human habitation from the Back Shore.
The Cement Hideaway posed a challenge, however, Josephine Del Deo wrote.
“The construction of the shack evaded the normal methods of destruction, either burning or bulldozing. The only alternative, therefore, was to blow it up with dynamite, which the Park did in a last-stand effort to restore the ‘natural landscape.'”
There are no traces of the Cement Hideaway in the dunes, but there is a kind of homage at Tasha Hill, in the cottage that Sunny Tasha built for Harry Kemp in 1960, with the help of Zehnder among others: a concrete wall penetrated by gorgeous bottle and jar bases, like a stained-glass window.
The bottle wall in Harry Kemp’s cottage on Tasha Hill may have been inspired by the Cement Hideaway. Photo taken in 2010 by David W. Dunlap.
¶ Last updated on 29 April 2021.
Thumbnail image: Detail of a photograph posted by Ben Kettlewell in the Facebook group Provincetown in the ’60s on 24 January 2021.
¹ Posted by Ben Kettlewell on the Facebook page, Provincetown in the 60s, 24 January 2021.
² Posted by Ben Kettlewell on the Facebook page, Provincetown in the 60s, 24 January 2021.
³ Posted by Ben Kettlewell on the Facebook page, Provincetown in the 60s, 24 January 2021.
You can’t bulldoze memory. I heard an oral historian say recently that a story passed down from generation to generation is measured in 500 year blocks of time. Our dunes walk faster.