I visited Martha’s Vineyard primarily for the beaches and the boats (I’ve been hooked on ferries since living in Seattle–hello Whidbey and Orcas Island!) but I was amazed by the architecture. Sure, there are extravagant houses. This is Martha’s Vineyard, after all, vacation place of presidents. But what I’m talking about are the cottages of Oak Bluffs. Cottage, as I quickly learned while on the Cape, doesn’t just mean a small house here. The words “cottage” and “camp” are used to describe summer houses that are small, modest, and lacking in amenities like insulation and plumbing. In the case of Oak Bluffs, they may be modest in size, but they are not modest in decoration.
Why are there so many cottages in Oak Bluffs and why are they all the same style? The cottage community in Oak Bluffs, originally known as Wesleyan Grove and now the Martha’s Vineyard Campmeeting Association (MVCA), was part of a movement in religious camps in the 19th century. These “campmeetings” would last a week and included daily prayer meetings and preaching. In the early years, attendees were given tent sites circled around a tabernacle and children were not allowed.
Wesleyan Grove, a Methodist camp, had its first gathering in 1835 and grew quickly. By the mid-19th century, families began to construct small, simple dwellings on their tent lots. The tent lots dictated the house size; the church inspired the Gothic Revival style. Slowly, the camp shifted to a more social event, children began to attend with their parents, and families stayed for longer periods of time. The now iconic cottages were largely constructed between 1859 and 1864, and the current outdoor Tabernacle at the center of it all was built in 1879.
Today, the houses stand closely together like the tents that preceded them. Many of the roads are footpaths only and they curve in loops, forming radiating communities beyond the original Wesleyan Grove. Over 300 cottages are still standing in Oak Bluffs. Most stand at their original locations on the MVCA’s 34 acres. A number, too, have been moved elsewhere on the island were they continue to serve as family cottages.
Sources and Further Reading:
If you want to read a detailed history, look no further than the Martha’s Vineyard Campmeeting Association website. Their History of the Campground is thorough and fascinating!
Visiting Oak Bluffs? See inside one of the cottages for yourself! The Cottage Museum & Shop is housed in one of the historic cottages.