Summer is here and I am missing my favorite place to explore, Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. The town is sleepy most of the year, but in the Summer, the place explodes with summer residents and tourists, providing such a lively and diverse atmosphere. One of the most beautiful of the cottages in the Wesleyan Grove campground is the Kickemuit Cottage, built in 1869 for a family from Rhode Island. They so-named the cottage after the Kickemuit River which runs from Massachusetts through Warren, RI and spills out into the Mt. Hope Bay. The story goes that this double cottage was actually just a single peaked home until it was combined with another giving it the double-peaked appearance we see today. The cottage retains the turned posts, delicate gingerbread detailing, and the lancet windows and doors. Swoon!
Side note: If anyone has a cottage in Oak Bluffs that they’ll let me rent, I would love to be in touch!
Located north of downtown Oak Bluffs, this oceanfront summer estate exemplifies the grandeur of Martha’s Vineyard at the end of the 18th century. This home was built in 1890 for Frank A. Ferris, a Manhattan meat dealer who processed and shipped his product to wealthy customers, markets, luxury hotels and restaurants all over the east coast. His processing plant on Mott Street in Manhattan remains an excellent example of Romanesque Revival architecture in the city. He lived at 5 Russell Terrace in Montclair, NJ, and in summers, stayed in this waterfront mansion overlooking the Atlantic. His summer home is a great blending of the Queen Anne and Shingle styles, both very common at the time.
Is anything more “New England” than a historic lighthouse? Whenever I think of symbols of New England, lighthouses, Saltbox colonial homes, and lobster comes to mind. Located just north of Oak Bluffs, the East Chop Light was built to guide the hundreds of ferries every summer, picking up and dropping off passengers to the island. One of the many definitions of “chop” is the entranceway into a body of water. Knowing this, it seems natural that the two lighthouses flanking the entrance to the harbor at Vineyard Haven on the north shore of Martha’s Vineyard are respectively known as East Chop Lighthouse and West Chop Lighthouse. In 1878, a one-and-a-half-story dwelling and a cast-iron tower were under construction at the station. The forty-foot-tall, conical tower was similar in style to several other New England lighthouses constructed during the late 1800s. The lighthouse was painted white at first, but in the 1880s it received a coat of reddish-brown paint and became popularly known as the “Chocolate Lighthouse.” In 1988, it was returned back to white, as the dark color was causing excessive heat and condensation in the tower. East Chop Lighthouse remains an active aid to navigation, although the Fresnel lens was replaced by a modern beacon in 1984. The land surrounding the tower was sold to the town of Oak Bluffs in 1957 for use as a park.
This Victorian mansion in Oak Bluffs was built in 1875 as part of the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Development, a private off-shoot development inspired by the success of the Wesleyan Grove campground. The Stick style house was occupied by wealthy businessmen and their families from its completion to after WWII. The home was purchased by Joe Overton of Harlem, NY, likely the home’s first Black owner. Under Overton’s ownership, Martin Luther King Jr., Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and other civil rights leaders visited what has come to be known as the Summer White House for African Americans. Overton was New York’s first African American labor organizer and president of NAACP New York Chapter. The home served as an informal inn, which provided a safe night’s stay for African American elite visiting the island. There was a guestbook with the signature of nearly every major Civil Right’s organizer in it, even Fidel Castro stayed here once. The home is now owned by Valerie Mosley, who named it after her grandmother as Villa Rosa.
This grand home was built in 1871 for George Hills, one of the original investors in the Oak Bluffs Land & Wharf Company development, a development to the east of Wesleyan Grove. The home was designed by Samuel Freeman Pratt, a Boston carpenter turned premier architect of Oak Bluffs, who likely designed the home in his distinct Stick Style with intricate wood carvings and posts. In 1877, the home was purchased by Governor William Claflin after his time in office as a summer retreat from his home in Newton, MA. The governor was an ardent Methodist who was involved with liberal causes such as abolition and Native American and female enfranchisement. Within 10 years of his purchasing of the home, he modified and enlarged it with Colonial Revival motifs including the gambrel roof, Tuscan columned porch, and simplified dormers.
Sited prominently on Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs, the Corbin-Norton House overlooks the Nantucket Sound with no buildings obscuring the gorgeous sunrises. When the home was originally built in 1891, it belonged to Philip Corbin, a manufacturer of household hardware and locks from New Britain. Conn., who got his start as a locksmith apprentice and grew his business until it employed 15,000 people. Corbin summered on Martha’s Vineyard and saw the shift from Cottage City, a Methodist-oriented summer resort town to Oak Bluffs, an exclusive summer colony. The house was built by Eli A. Leighton, a carpenter from Oak Bluffs whose descendants still live on the Island. The house remained in the Corbin family for some 40 years, after which it changed hands a number of times, at one point, housing a doctor’s office. By that time, nearly all of the historic character had been stripped of the home with replacement vinyl windows, removed trim and finials, and a monochrome color scheme. In 1991, when Peter Norton, the computer software magnate, and his wife, Eileen, decided to buy the old Corbin house for a reported $350,000, it was begging for someone with the resources to restore it. The restoration would take three years to complete, and Mr. Norton commissioned a team of consultants, architects and contractors to do the job. They meticulously restored the home, only to have the misfortune of a fire which destroyed the home. Norton funded the replica which was completed soon after, and passers-by wouldn’t be able to tell the difference!
Located at the heart of Oak Bluffs, this modest, wood-frame building has held some of the most important civic and cultural uses on the island. Built in 1882, the growing town of Cottage City (later renamed Oak Bluffs), which separated from Edgartown, needed a new town hall and fire station with the rapid development caused by summer visitors and increased year-round residents. After WWII, the property was renovated and expanded to allow space for a small police department in the building as well. In 1966, a new town hall was built across from the ferry pier at the waterfront, and the town soon after sold the former, outdated building, and two years later, it was purchased by The Cottagers, Inc. The Cottagers, Inc., is a philanthropic organization founded in 1955 by a group of African-American women who owned cottages or homes on Martha’s Vineyard. The social group provided a safe space for the growing Black community who lived on and visited Martha’s Vineyard. The building remains as an iconic landmark not only for its historical use and architecture, but as a symbol of the diversity and the black community in the small island town.
The Crystal Palace cottage Pequot Avenue in Oak Bluffs was built by Henry Clark, a local builder of many summer homes on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. The cottage is a charming blend of Stick, Shingle, and Queen Anne styles, which works perfectly. The wrap-around porch is supported by turned posts with a balustrade capped by urns, the square tower has two elongated windows with eyebrow lintels resembling a face with bushy eyebrows. Oh the charm of Oak Bluffs, architectural eccentricity on every street!
The Wesley House on Lake Avenue is the sole survivor of the numerous large hotels that sprung up in Oak Bluffs in the mid-1800s in response to the growing summer colony and tourism after the growth of the Methodist Camp Meeting Association. While many such hotels did not fare so well with storms and fires, the Wesley House has thrived over the years, even expanding multiple times as Martha’s Vineyard has continued to see larger summer crowds. The Wesley House was named after its original owner, Augustus G. Wesley, who was born Augustin Goupille in 1843 in Saint-Gervais, a village near Quebec City. Goupille emigrated to the U.S. in 1859, and in 1869 changed his name to Augustus G. Wesley. Whether his name change was motivated by sympathy with the teachings of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, or to endear himself to the Methodists who would soon patronize his cafe (and later hotel), is not known. Mr. Wesley built the hotel for the sum of $18,000, after seeing the demand for larger lodging options with limited space near the ocean. The original main entrance fronted Commonwealth Square and the Wesleyan Grove, before shifting the entrance to the more prominent Lake Avenue. The hotel remained under Wesley’s ownership until he was convicted of attempted arson of the hotel in 1894, for the insurance money, and on September 25 of that year, he began serving a sentence of three years at hard labor in the New Bedford House of Corrections (but was pardoned after just ten months).
The hotel ownership was passed to a family friend and after subsequent owners and expansions, it was purchased by Lark Hotels in 2015, changing the name to Summerhouse, and completely updating the interior, while preserving the iconic Second Empire exterior with balconies.
The year after Trinity Methodist Church was constructed, the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association at Wesleyan Grove, built the wrought-iron Tabernacle, the most significant single building in the campground. The beautiful iron Tabernacle, which seats over 2,000, was designed and built in 1879 by John W. Hoyt of Springfield, Massachusetts. The building was completed in less than four months after the contract was signed. The Tabernacle covers the original consecrated ground of 1835 where the first Methodists erected canvas tents to worship under the trees. By 1869, the attendees at the revival meetings needed more protection from the sun and rain because the large oaks that had attracted the founders 35 years before had begun to die. Since 1870, the Association erected a mammoth canvas tent supported on tall poles every summer. The tent proved unsatisfactory because of ventilation problems and a tendency to collapse in storms. In 1878 the Association solicited designs for a large wooden tabernacle a building of vast roofs, minimal supports, and open walls. The plans it received, which were elaborate versions of the wooden tabernacles or “arbors” of southern camp meetings, proved too expensive to build on this site. Campground resident John W. Hoyt solved the problem with a much cheaper wrought iron structure that was largely prefabricated and could be speedily erected on the uneven site. The gorgeous Victorian Gothic tabernacle remains today as the centerpiece of the Wesleyan Grove National Historic Landmark District, an esteemed historical designation.