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!
This stunning house on Starbuck Neck in Edgartown was originally built on Main Street by Frederick Baylies Jr., as his own residence. Baylies was the architect of the town’s original Methodist church, the Old Whaling Church, and a couple other extant churches in town in the early 19th century. The home was sold to William Cooke Pease, a shipbuilder and merchant. In 1839, he joined the United States Revenue Cutter Service, an armed customs enforcement service, and he quickly rose in rank, spanning the transition from sail to steam. Capt. Pease designed and built new Cutter ships for the Great Lakes and refitted many aging vessels on the West Coast. Today, he is regarded as a founder of the modern Coast Guard, which in 1915, was created by the consolidation by an act of Congress of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service the United States Life-Saving Service to form the United States Coast Guard as we know it today.
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.
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.
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.
One of the most unique buildings I have ever seen is the Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. The chapel, built in 1870 in the American Stick Style, is in the form of an Octagon, very unique for churches. Built as an inter-denominational house of worship, it is significant as the first non-sectarian religious building to be erected in a community that until 1870, was noted primarily for its strong association with the Methodist Church and its summer camp meeting (Wesleyan Grove) assemblies. The Chapel offered islanders and seasonal visitors regardless of religious affiliation not only an opportunity to worship but a gathering place for cultural activities. According to historic images, the chapel once had more elaborate stick work and finials, since removed, likely due to storms and general maintenance concerns. The chapel was designed by island resident Samuel Freeman Pratt (1824-1920) who had no known architectural training besides working as a wood carver in Boston, yet his work is characterized as having a dynamic and festive style. Pratt’s other major contribution to Oak Bluffs’ architecture, the Sea View Hotel, was erected at the head of the wharf in 1872, but burned down in 1892.
Oak Bluffs got its start as a resort community when the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association began constructing permanent summer cottages in 1860 in the area known as Wesleyan Grove. Due to this success, a couple wealthy men in Edgartown formed the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company, who purchased land adjacent to the Grove, between the Campground and Nantucket Sound. The 75-acre parcel was laid out by Robert Morris Copeland, a Boston landscape architect, who created a system of curvilinear streets and parks, with house lots surrounding each park, in much the same manner as the Campground itself. A few parcels were established for places of worship, but the development wanted to appeal to other religions as the Methodists already had an entire development, from this the 1870 Union Chapel, designed by Samuel Freeman Pratt, was the first built. Another anchor of the development was to be a large luxury resort.
At the head of the Steamship Wharf, the Company built one of the most spacious and luxurious resort hotels of its time, the Sea View House. When it was completed in 1872, the Sea View House was the symbol of the Company’s success. The Sea View was built at a cost of $102,000 with a further cost of $30,000 in furnishings; five stories high on the waterside and four on the inland elevation, it measured 225 feet in length and 40 feet in depth. It contained 125 rooms, office, parlor, spacious dining salons and reception suites. Speaking tubes connected every room with the office; the whole hotel was lit by gas, and warmed by steam heat. The hotel was the first thing seen by new visitors disembarking from the steamers onto the island. The hotel was designed by the same architect as the Union Chapel, Samuel Freeman Pratt. He continued his use of the Stick style for the hotel with elaborate wood framing, trim and Victorian flair. Sadly, on September 24, 1892, the Sea View House caught fire and burned to the ground in less than 40 minutes after the alarm was sounded. The fire originated in the basement near the kitchen, and it was thought resulted from a stray spark getting into the cotton waste that was near the engine.
This quaint little summer cottage in Wesleyan Grove was built in 1875 for Hanson Arnold, a merchant and methodist from Woonsocket, R.I. The home is typical of many other summer cottages in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, with its delicate stick work, turned posts, full-length porch, and second story balcony with pierced bargeboards. The home was at one point named “Seas the Day”, a trend of naming the cottages occurred sometime in the 20th century by families who summered on the island, many incorporating the family’s name somehow. The home was restored recently with all new detailing and a reversion back to the original porch configuration.
Located at the center of the Wesleyan Grove, – the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association – this Italianate building has long served as a hub of the active summer community. The building was constructed in 1859, before any cottages were built in the newly formed summer colony. The office building was not only the headquarters for the Camp Meeting Association, it also served as a storage space for the baggage of the many who stayed in tents, many who didn’t have the means to purchase or rent a cottage. The building even was home to the associations’ post office. It now houses the Association director’s offices and contains the lease holders records back to 1864, a great way to learn about the diverse groups of people who visited and worshiped in this camp.