John “Jack” C. Phillips, Jr. was born on Christmas Eve in 1908 into a prominent Boston family whose antecedents had come over from England on the ‘Arabella’, soon after the Mayflower. Jack was a direct descendant of John Phillips, the first mayor of Boston, and Wendell Phillips, the famous abolitionist. The family founded Phillips Exeter Academy and the Phillips Academy in Andover. Phillips’s father, John C. Phillips, was a non-practicing physician and a naturalist who wrote A Natural History of the Ducks, still the definitive text on the subject.
Phillips’s uncle, Dr. William Herbert Rollins, was a dentist, birder and photographer who started coming to Cape Cod around 1900. He bought 800 acres on the ocean side straddling the Wellfleet-Truro line with the intent of creating a bird reserve and saving it from the “ravages of a crude civilization.” At this time, the area was considered to be mosquito-infested wood lots, and land was extremely inexpensive.
After graduating from Harvard College in 1930, Phillips went to Paris to study painting under Leger and Lhote and became familiar with early European Modernist architecture. He remained a lifelong artist, becoming a very accomplished lithographer.
When Phillips turned 21, his uncle left him the 800 acres and Jack took up year-round residence with his wife, Libby, and two daughters, Blair and Hayden. He expanded his uncle's cabin on Horseleech Pond and (along with friends, Hayden Walling and Jack Hall), began building structures on the land according to his own, untrained take on Modern architecture. The ‘Paper Palace’ was one such building, so named because the exterior cladding was painted homosote (pressed shredded paper). In 1937, he attended Harvard’s Graduate School of Design for one year, studying with Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer who was later to become a neighbor and intimate friend.
At the start of World War II, the family moved to New York City and Phillips was stationed at the Brooklyn Navy yard, painting camouflage. He soon went AWOL, returning to Wellfleet to try raising turkeys, eventually on quite a large scale. Since this was considered “essential farming” by the government, he was allowed to continue.
In 1943, Peggy Guggenheim and the surrealists Max Ernst, Roberto Matta and Arshile Gorky, all recent war refugees, took up summer residence in the Paper Palace. Although their visit was short-lived, Phillips later married Gorky’s widow.
The first of the well known European architects who appeared in Wellfleet was Serge Chermayeff. Chermayeff was invited down by Peter Harndon, an architect and mutual friend. Phillips sold Chermayeff twelve acres of land with a cabin on it for $2,000. Breuer came soon after, followed by Weidlinger and the rest. Phillips sold each one land around his ponds, and the remote woods soon became a Who’s Who of émigré designers.
At the end of the war, Jack saw a newspaper advertisement for the barracks of a Georgia army base that were free, provided the recipient would pay for shipping. They arrived in Provincetown frozen on a train car and had to be chipped apart. Breuer reportedly observed that ‘It would have been much easier if you had let me build them.' Phillips assembled the pre-fabricated buildings around the woods in spots that looked promising.
These barracks still stand today, often as the nuclei of expanded structures. Occupants included the historian and JFK cabinet member, Arthur Schlesinger; the economist Dwight MacDonald; and the architecture critic and theoretician, Charles Jencks.
Projects on the Outer Cape
The Turkey Barns
'The Camp’, Wellfleet
This photo shows some of the land Phillips inherited from his uncle Dr. Rollins. Horseleech Pond is in the foreground and the Atlantic Ocean is beyond. At this time (circa 1930) there were no houses and very few trees as the area had been used as wood lots until very small scrub pine was all that remained. The Phillips/Wilson house would be built circa 1937 and is in the center of this photo, on the far side of the pond.