If These Walls Could Talk

Text and photography by Amanda Wastrom

For the past year, I have been photographing Cape Cod houses and buildings. It began somewhat haphazardly, as a side project on Instagram. It was a way to both share the odd historical bits and pieces I have picked up in my travels and to keep my creative hand busy. I aim my iPhone at whatever I am drawn to: usually vernacular architecture from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. These photos are equal parts love story, historical trivia and visual explorations. I swoon for cedar shingles and 12 over 12 windows. I delight in historical sidebars and architectural oddballs. I marvel at the buildings that have stood silent as centuries swirl around them.

Cape Cod’s history can be found not only in the written records we keep—diaries, ship’s logs, accounting books, town records—but also in the buildings, large and small, that past generations of residents and visitors have built. The keystone building that defines a main street. The small cottage hidden down a well-worn back road. Through them all, we can see the past three centuries of Cape Cod life unfold. Many of the historical records for lesser-known houses are blank. There is much more to be captured. So much more to discover.


1641 ~ East Sandwich

One of the oldest houses on Cape Cod, the Wing Fort House has been owned by the Wing Family for more than three centuries beginning with Stephen Wing, one of the first colonial settlers in Sandwich. Today, it looks quite different (and significantly larger) than it would have in the 17th century. Architectural history from multiple centuries oozes out of the cracks in this house which, despite the name, was never actually used as a fort. It is open to the public with its rooms populated with furniture and other items owned by members of the Wing family. I recommend catching a tour by caretaker and architectural archeologist Dave Wheelock, who, unlike anyone else I have met, can unpack all of those layers of history.


Circa 1659 ~ Brewster

Described as the outermost saltbox on Cape Cod, the Dillingham House is believed to be the second-oldest building on Cape Cod. Saltboxes were always oriented with the long, sloped roof (still visible despite additions and dormers) facing north, as protection from the brutal winter winds. John Dillingham was one of the first colonial settlers of Brewster, drawn to the area by his friend and fellow Quaker, John Wing (whose land, Wing Island, is now home to the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History). Quakers were often some of the earliest colonial residents in Cape towns, having fled from less-welcoming communities elsewhere in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.


1772 ~ Nantucket

The Counting House is the only commercial 18th-century building left on Nantucket (most of them burned in the massive fire of 1846 that wiped out the downtown). It was built by William Rotch, an entrepreneur heavily involved in maritime trade. Three of Rotch’s ships, the Eleanor, Beaver, and Dartmouth, were involved in the Boston Tea Party in December 1773. Another of Rotch’s ships, the Bedford, was the first to fly the stars and stripes on the Thames River in London in 1783. In 1862, the building was purchased by the Pacific Club of Nantucket, a group of 24 men, most of whom were former captains involved in the Pacific whaling business. The club (which has since gone dormant) was a gathering spot where the captains would spend their afternoons playing cribbage and ‘gamming’ or telling stories of their sea-faring adventures.


Circa 1780s ~ Bass River, South Yarmouth

As 18th-century Cape Codders figured out how to monetize their maritime resources through shipping, fishing, whaling and salt-making (to name a few), many could afford to build and maintain larger homes. This house shows one such design, commonly known as a ‘square rigger’ because of its two-story, square façade said to mirror its namesake, the square-rigged schooner. Originally built in Harwich, this house was moved to its current location on Bass River in 1906-07 to begin a new chapter as a vacation house for the Frothinghams, summer residents from New York City. Cape Cod houses were often moved but it was unusual to move a house of this size. In a uniquely local technique called ‘flaking,’ the house was literally cut up into pieces that were labeled for reassembly. The entire house, chimney bricks and all, was pulled by horse cart from Harwich to Bass River, a distance of about 5 miles.


1878 ~ Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard

Who were the first modern tourists to Cape Cod? Religious travelers. Beginning in the early 1800s, week-long Methodist prayer meetings drew thousands of people to Wellfleet, Truro, Yarmouth and elsewhere. Most famously, they set up permanent camp in Oak Bluffs. Tents came first, then cottages, built in an ornate, gothic style unique to the Vineyard. ‘Wesleyan Grove’ as it was originally called, is considered to be the first resort on Cape Cod. Nestled in the heart of the compound (now called the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association), this church was built by island carpenters and mirrors the architecture of the surrounding cottages. Unlike its counterpart, the Tabernacle (built a year later in 1879) which was only active in the summer season, the church served the island’s year-round Protestant Community.


1907 ~ Provincetown

Gargantuan by Provincetown standards, the Ice House was originally built in 1907 as a five-story storage freezer for Provincetown’s robust fishing industry. The Consolidated Weir Company Cold Storage Plant, known simply as “The Consolidated,” was built like a factory and featured a steam-powered heat absorption system and concrete framing. It is the only one left out of the seven huge cold storage plants that once lined the East End of Commercial Street. Turned into condos and apartments in the 1960s and 1970s, it reflects Provincetown’s transition from a center of maritime industry to a luxury tourist destination.


1910 ~ West Barnstable

The arrival of railroad transportation in the mid-19th century was a transformative moment in Cape Cod history. It facilitated the pivot to a tourism-based economy that still defines the region today. Old Colony Railroad Company extended the Cape Cod line to Barnstable, Yarmouth and Hyannis in 1854. The original wood station built at that time was replaced by this brick one in 1910. The depot’s design, a mix of Arts & Crafts and Spanish Mission, is unusual for Cape Cod. Passenger service continued for 105 years until 1959. This station is now one of the last remaining intact railroad stations on Cape Cod.

Amanda Wastrom is a writer, curator and artist living in East Sandwich. See more of her photographs of Cape Cod buildings on Instagram: @amanda-wastrom.

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