Recently I had the opportunity to visit Martha’s Vineyard. For those of you unfamiliar with the name, it’s an island off the southern coast of Massachusetts that has a rich history dating all the way back to 1602. Full of colonial era and mid 19th century buildings built by the captains of the then booming whaling industry, I was like a kid in a historic candy store! But, the incredible architecture was only the tip of the iceberg. The hidden stories behind this island provided such intrigue that I had to share a few of my discoveries.
1. Famous or Infamous
The “Vineyard” as it is called, is as famous as a summer retreat for the rich and famous such as Lady Gaga, James Taylor, the Obamas, the Clintons and most notably the Kennedy’s. In fact, this was the scene of the infamous Chappaquiddick Incident involving then young Senator Ted Kennedy and the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. Stephen Spielberg also spent a lot of time and money here in 1974 while filming his breakout film, Jaws, which was filmed mainly in the small fishing town of Menemsha. But, the island’s story goes much deeper than stars and politicians
2. A Whaling Island
The Native Americans on the island had been whaling long before the nosey Europeans “discovered” the place. The waters around Martha’s Vineyard were so plentiful with whales that it was only a matter of time before this natural resource was exploited.
In 1765, the first whaling ship set sail from Edgartown on the east coast of the Vineyard and the island enjoyed the massive boom that followed. Until the mid 18th century, whale oil was the primary fuel for street lamps and lighting in homes. For years, Vineyard ship captains got wealthy off the trade and built expansive homes in the port cities. Many of these homes still have their widow’s walk where the captain’s wife could watch the sea in anticipation of her husband’s return.
Soon, the waters around the vineyard became sparse with whales and whaling expeditions expanded from days to months to years as ships had to venture further and further out in search of their prize. In 1859, the discovery of oil in Oil Creek, Pennsylvania began the rise of the petroleum industry and the quick end of the whaling industry.
In 1835, a small group of local Christians, wanting to get away from the distractions of everyday life (I can only imagine how they would handle the distractions of today!) began holding annual retreats in the woods of Oak Bluffs. There would be preaching, praying and community for a week or so in which time they camped in a circle of tents.
The group grew rapidly and the meetings stretched from weeks to months. By 1868, the initial group of 6 had grown to about 30,000! Eventually, tents gave way to more permanent cottages.
Today, there are 315 cottages still remaining. And these cottages have some of the most colorful, creative and elaborate pieces of handmade gingerbreading in American architecture. They are mostly small (450-1000 sq. ft.) and simply constructed timber frame houses. Their detailing is absolutely incredible and very unique, as they were built to resemble the tents they replaced. Most of them even have double doors to resemble the entrance to a tent.
The neighborhood is built in a radial-concentric pattern little used in America. The design consists of overlapping circles with a small inner circle of houses and increasingly larger outer circles. This creates a tight knit community where everyone shares common space in the center of their circle and neighbors can easily meet and converse.
4. Shopping (sort of)
The Vineyard was a beautiful place to spend a week. The island moves at a slower pace and everyone seems to act like family. I created a shopping list of my own as I found distressed historic homes looking for someone to save them. Now I just need $500,000 and a couple months off for my next dream project.
Here’s a sample of some of the cottages we viewed:
Photos by Scott Sidler