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New England's Harborside Fish Shacks

New England’s Harborside Fish Shacks
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Nearby Rockport Harbor, where gentrification has transformed many of the old structures, nevertheless hosts a large, classic fish shack, painted red, standing alone on a wharf, like a wooden sculpture on a granite plinth. Dubbed “Motif #1″ sometime during the last century, it’s undoubtedly the best-known fish shack in the world.
And while the Motif, as it’s called, isn’t alone on Rockport Harbor as a classic fish shack–there are still a few others–at one time there were many more. The great majority of them once stood, cheek by jowl, separated sometimes by just a few feet from one another, on a spit of sand known as Bearskin Neck.

But by the 1920s, with the advent of the automobile, fishermen no longer needed all of their equipment right by the harbor; they could now build and store lobster traps in their backyards, away from the water. And then the artists who came from cities to paint picturesque Rockport Harbor began renting the Bearskin Neck fish shacks as studios and rough summer cottages.

This was also the period–those Depression years–when artists sat their students down to study that handsome red fish shack at the end of Bradley Wharf, and to paint it. Its fame growing with every passing year, the Motif seemed never to change. Of course, that was partly because the town made sure it didn’t. The Motif had become Rockport’s own symbol and trademark, far more valuable as an icon than as a storage unit.

But with the passage of time, the Bearskin Neck fish shacks, now summer cottages, became small houses and art galleries. By the 1970s, as the price of waterfront real estate escalated, those fish shacks, with their tiny footprints, went up, often three stories, as high as they legally could, and were rebuilt into year-round storefronts and dwellings.

What happened to Rockport in the 1970s had already happened elsewhere. When my wife, Edie, and I visited Nantucket on our honeymoon in 1972, we found perfectly constructed little fish-shack-like buildings storing gear for perfectly constructed multimillion-dollar yachts along the wharves of Nantucket Harbor. Just recently I was equally taken aback, but not so disappointed, really, to see on a Gloucester, Massachusetts, wharf–planted where the weathered cedar-shingle and clapboard fish shacks had once stood–what looked suspiciously like those plastic, prefabricated garden toolsheds you can buy to store your lawnmower. Cheaper to buy them than to make them, I’m sure.

My friend Dave Frary, who lobstered on the North Shore of Massachusetts and recently retired to Cape Cod, tells me that in his area he can think of just one old-fashioned fish shack of the kind that we once saw all up and down the New England coast: the kind with weatherbeaten walls of lumber salvaged from other buildings, and with mismatched windows. The point then was shelter, cheap, because those buildings were perilously close to the water, and they got used hard. Fish guts don’t appear as decorative objects in Architectural Digest.

“On the Cape, the old fish shacks are almost all gone,” Dave told me, “because now you have to construct one according to building codes. The foundations, the framing–it all has to be according to code, so the new ones don’t look like the fish shacks you and I remember.”

Right here on Pigeon Cove Wharf, the newest fish shack is proudly built of expensive architectural masonry block. Though modest-looking compared with buildings away from the shore, it’s a veritable castle compared with the old shacks–and just to construct it at all required special exemptions from the town building inspector and a certificate from the conservation commission.

The same mix of fish houses holds true elsewhere in New England. The old ones are grandfathered in, but in some places the new ones look different. In other places, usually farther away from the regulators, the shacks, new or old, look pretty much the same as they always have.


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