Protecting Our Past, Protecting Our Future

Cape Cod’s rich history, a defining characteristic of the area, is deeply embedded and highlighted in development patterns and building styles. Inventorying historic resources is a critical first step in preserving their history. An analysis of Massachusetts Historical Commission data for inventoried buildings and structures with construction dates up to 1950 shows distinct stories and patterns of the region’s development.

As transportation routes throughout the region became established, development followed, evidenced in numerous properties in Sandwich, Barnstable, and Yarmouth dating back to 1750 or earlier located along the Old King’s Highway, the region’s early transportation route.

From the late 1700s and into the early 1800s, the region’s maritime industrial activities boomed, leading to development throughout the region, particularly in towns with harbors such as Barnstable, Chatham, and Provincetown. By the latter half of the 1800s, Cape Cod harbors’ growth slowed dramatically, apart from Provincetown. Provincetown’s deep harbor allowed for continued maritime industrial growth throughout the 1800s, reflected in the large number of buildings in Provincetown dating back to 1851-1900.

As the region transitioned from a subsistence farming and fishing way of life to a seaside resort destination, new development concentrated near the coastline. The large number of buildings constructed after 1900 in Falmouth, Barnstable, and Chatham show the increased popularity of Nantucket Sound shorefront areas as a second home and vacation destination.

Overall, Mashpee has the smallest number of early historic buildings, reflecting its unique designation as a Native American district until the 1870s, which limited the transfer of land to individuals outside the tribe and effectively shielded it from development.

The percent of inventoried structures that are protected due to inclusion in a local historic district or being listed on the National Register of Historic Places varies widely from town to town. Nearly 100% are protected in Provincetown and Sandwich, and 85% are protected in Brewster, reflecting the extensive historic districts in these towns. Inclusion within a local historic district and National Register listing each provide protections against the demolition and alteration of historic structures, ensuring their key historic attributes are preserved. While thousands of the region’s historic resources are located within local and regional historic districts, or listed on the National Register of Historic Places, thousands are not, leaving them unprotected against development pressures and demolition.

However, this is not the only threat they face, with thousands of historic resources located within floodplains, at risk from storms and sea level rise. Truro, Falmouth, and Provincetown have the highest number of inventoried historic structures in flood zones. Falmouth’s and Provincetown’s significant harbors drew 19th-century development to shorefront areas. Most of Truro’s at-risk buildings are small vacation cottages from the early 20th century, built in the Beach Point area between Cape Cod Bay and East Harbor.

Protecting these buildings is a critical part of preserving the region’s history. Improved strategies for protecting these buildings in the floodplains can maintain the region’s history while also helping to fortify our built environment against climate change and future storms and provide a more resilient future for the region.

Examine the patterns across the region and filter by town and time period: