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Trust for Architectural Easements Recently Toured the Wesleyan Grove Historic District in Martha’s Vineyard

Washington, DC, September 22, 2011 --( The Trust for Architectural Easements is proud to present an online tour of Historic Martha's Vineyard. The multimedia tour can be found on the Trust's website.

It’s been called a fairyland. There are more than 300 tiny clustered cottages, painted in a rainbow of pink and purple and pastel blue and green, and decorated with curlicue trim that drips off the roofs like icing on a cake. But this isn’t Wonderland at the end of a rabbit-hole. It’s the Wesleyan Grove National Register Historic District, located in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, on the island of Martha’s Vineyard.

Wesleyan Grove started out in 1835 as a Methodist revival camp named after John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church. The location was chosen for its undeveloped, primeval beauty – an oak tree grove, quiet lake, ocean breezes, and island location made for an ideal spiritual retreat.

The first revival meeting lasted a week. Participants gathered in the grove for open-air sermons given by celebrated preachers, and retired to dormitory-style canvas tents at night. The revival was so successful that the preachers and participants returned the following August, and every August after that for nearly a century, their numbers continuously growing.

Nine tents provided shelter for the first campers in 1835, but as the campers grew in number, families chose to pitch tents of their own – 100 tents in 1851, and 320 by 1858. In neat, concentric circles, the tents ringed the central preaching ground, where over 20,000 congregants gathered on a summer Sunday in 1858 to listen to a sermon.

By 1859, families began to erect wooden cottages instead of tents. Like the tents, the cottages were narrow – between 11 and 16 feet in width, with wide, double-door entrances and tall roofs with steep gables pitched at 90 degrees. They were one and a half stories in height, and generally twice as tall as they were wide. The wooden platforms over which the tents had been erected morphed into the wide front porches of the cottages.

Cottage windows and doors were arched, with either round-headed or pointed lancet arches. Of course, the use of such Romanesque and Gothic Revival style features was well-suited to the spiritual nature of the camp, as many of the campers’ home churches had been constructed in these styles. Yet, Romanesque and Gothic elements were so overlaid with whimsical architectural flourishes – and painted in so many different pastel colors – that the cottages became something else altogether – Victorian flights of fancy born from the holiday atmosphere of a summer retreat.

“Gingerbread” was added to every edge and eave. This ornate wooden trim – usually painted white like frosting, but sometimes colored to contrast with a cottage’s exterior walls – was a new product in the 1860s, its mass-production made possible by industrialized band-saws and jig-saws. Bought in bulk and by the yard, gingerbread trim was a quick and inexpensive way to dress up a house – and for a summer seaside cottage, the more gingerbread the better.

But a Martha’s Vineyard Campground Cottage was not expensive. It couldn’t be – the campers were mostly middle-class folks who had worked hard to save up for a few weeks’ worth of summer seaside vacation. They rented cottage lots from the Association, and placed their orders for cottages with local carpenters.

Thanks to mass-production, all of the lumber required to build a cottage could be purchased in pre-sawn parts, just like the gingerbread. Carpenters could erect a cottage in just a few days using the new balloon-framing method, whereby tall studs and horizontal sheathing (usually wide boards of various widths) were nailed together to create a rigid skin around the volume of a cottage’s interior. Because the cottages were used only in the summertime, insulation was not needed, and as they were so tiny, neither was cross-bracing. Windows and doors were cut into the walls, the cut-outs saved to board up the cottages for the winter.

On the ground floor, a typical cottage had both front and back parlors –Victorian mores dictated the separation of formal and informal spaces – but the parlors were tiny, and often separated by a curtain. A little bedroom was sometimes included on the ground floor, and one or two (or sometimes three) bedrooms were located under the eaves at the second floor. A narrow winding staircase connected the two levels. Kitchens and dining rooms were not necessary, as meals were taken communally in the camp.

This cottage form was widely copied at other camp meeting sites across the country in the late 1800s. The architectural style – now known as Carpenter Gothic - became associated with communal summer retreats in rustic settings, and was one of the most original architectural styles ever to develop in the United States.

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Trust for Architectural Easements
Heather Bratland

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