One of the oddest juxtapositions of architecture on Cape Cod can be found in North Truro at the boundary of the old air force base and the Highland Links Golf Course immediately to its north. During most of the Cold War, the North Truro Air Force Base was part of the DEWLINE, or Distant Early Warning system. This was a series of radar stations operating across Canada and the US designed to detect incoming Soviet bombers or missiles so as, in the mad phrasing of that era, “to give us thirty extra minutes to prepare for an atomic war.” The base was decommissioned in 1985 and is now owned and managed by the Cape Cod National Seashore as the Highland Center, a scientific research and cultural center.
After the base was officially closed, the original three radar domes were dismantled and replaced by a single, larger, white geodesic dome, and this is the one we see today. The stated purpose of the new dome is considerably more benign than the earlier one. It’s under the authority of the Federal Aviation Administration and is used to monitor commercial flights. It looks like a giant soccer ball, or vanilla ice cream cone on steel girders.
Less than a hundred yards from this high-tech, space-age radar dome, and in striking architectural contrast to it, is a tall, medieval-looking stone structure known as the “Jenny Lind Tower.” It’s a crenellated rook of a tower built of massive cut granite blocks and is about 70 feet high and 15 feet across at the base. Though quite visible from the golf course, its fairy-tale appearance is intensified by its difficulty of access. Thick stands of nearly impenetrable scrub oak surround it like the thicket of briars that protected Sleeping Beauty’s castle.
Like all good fairy-tales, the story of the Jenny Lind Tower has numerous variants. One version goes like this: In 1850 the famous European soprano Jenny Lind, known as “The Swedish Nightingale,” gave a concert in Framingham, Massachusetts. The concert was sold out, and several hundred disappointed fans lingered outside the concert hall, hoping to catch a phrase or two of the Nightingale’s song. Not wanting to disappoint her admirers, Jenny Lind gave a free concert the following night from the battlements of a decorative stone tower attached to the Framingham railroad station. Nearly 80 years later, when the station and its tower were slated for demolition, a local businessman named Henry Aldrich bought the tower, had it transported to the then-barren plains of North Truro, and reconstructed it on its present site.
Why did he do it? If the story is accurate, Aldrich wasn’t even born when Jenny Lind gave her memorable outdoor concert. Was he so taken with the story of her generous gesture that he felt the tower should be preserved? But, if so, why move it to North Truro? No one seems to know, and there is little hard evidence to support any part of the story. But the tower itself is undeniably real. It sits, visible but inaccessible, walled off by its protective forest, waiting for its next nightingale. And I cannot help but think what a splendid and appropriate gesture it would be if the National Seashore were to commemorate Jenny Lind’s legendary performance from the tower’s battlements by inviting some present-day diva - Renée Fleming, perhaps, or Beyoncé – to sing to contemporary masses gathered on the fairways below it.