Martha’s Vineyard has a remarkable variety of architecture that reflects its
long colonial history, its economic success in the whaling era, and its emergence
as a popular summer resort.
Most of the Island’s historical buildings are still in use as homes and stores,
creating a unique sense of identity far removed from the standardized style of business
areas found in much of America.
The English settlers arrived on Vineyard shores only twenty-two years after the
Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1642. They built simple homes that reflected both
their religious beliefs and the challenges of Island living. The Puritan church
frowned on any ostentatious display, so the wealthy usually chose to live as simply
as their less affluent neighbors. They built one-story houses out of wood, and covered
them with long shingles. They kept their homes low to the ground so they would not
be battered by the lashing winter winds. The Island offers visitors many examples
of such Cape houses, some of which actually date from the late 17th century. The
Vincent House Museum (1672), on Main Street in Edgartown is an excellent example.
As time passed, people began to add a second story to the Cape style to create
Colonial houses. The Thomas Cooke House (1765), at the Vineyard Museum on School
Street in Edgartown is one of many remarkable examples of Colonial architecture
on the Island. Ironically, the Vineyard had almost no Salt Boxes, another popular
style in the colonial period, until the late 20th century when developers built
them, assuming they represented the historical style of the Island.
The Whaling Era
The new wealth of the 19th century whaling era brought show-off architecture to
the Vineyard for the first time. Whaling investors and captains tried to outdo one
another through the grandeur of their homes. Magnificent examples of their efforts
can be found in Edgartown, Vineyard Haven, and throughout the Island. Many chose
to return to the original farm communities — which explains the row of beautiful
Classical Revival homes on Music Street in West Tisbury.
Oak Bluffs Gingerbread
Oak Bluffs, which began as a Methodist Camp Meeting site in 1834, has a very different
style from the rest of the Island. Visitors to the early meetings lived in tents,
but after the Civil War, the tents were replaced by permanent Gingerbread houses.
Their combination of bright colors, stained glass, turrets, and all manner of Gothic
detail is unforgettable. Trinity United Methodist Church (1878), in the center of
the Campgrounds, is a miniature wooden Gothic cathedral. It stands next to the open-air
Tabernacle (1879), the largest iron structure in existence, listed on the National
Register of Historic Places. The Cottage City Museum in the same area is housed
in one of the original homes, and gives one a real sense of how tiny the cottages
The early 20th century saw the development of the Camp Houses, large shingled
summer homes that can be seen in East and West Chop and on the waterfront around
the Island. They were built by wealthy off- Islanders who wanted to experience a
simple rustic existence when they came to the Vineyard.
Today, in addition to its many historical homes, Martha’s Vineyard also offers
distinguished examples of modern architecture, so be sure to keep your eyes open
as you explore the Island.
The Martha’s Vineyard Museum
The corner of School and Cooke Streets
508-627 -4441/Fax: 508-627-4436.
The Martha’s Vineyard Museum is dedicated to keeping alive the history, natural
history, and art of Martha’s Vineyard. The Museum cares for more than 30,000 pieces
of Island history, which are housed and displayed in the following exhibit spaces:
- The Thomas Cooke House, built between 1730 and 1765, is an example of a
colonial home. It has 11 rooms of exhibits, which include furniture, decoys,
ceramics, household furnishings, documents, paintings, and agricultural tools
as well as information on numerous aspects of Island history. Open mid-June
through Columbus Day.
- The Ross Fresnel Lens Building houses the 1850s first order Fresnel lens,
from the Gay Head Lighthouse. Visitors can view the lens, the machinery, and
the more than 1,000 prisms. As the sun goes down, the light goes on and the
reflections can be viewed on an evening stroll past the museum.
- The Carriage Shed is shelter for a whaleboat, an 1854 fire engine, a Noman’s
Land fishing boat, an old peddler’s wagon, and several other transportation
and communication artifacts.
- The Gale Huntington Reference Library offers an extensive collection of
books and materials relating to Vineyarders and Vineyard history. This archive
also includes the Society’s oral history collection of tapes and transcripts.
- The Francis Foster Maritime Gallery (in the same building as the library)
exhibits logbooks, scrimshaw, ship models, and charts, as well as treasures
brought back from around the world by Vineyard seafarers.
- The Captain Francis Pease House, built circa 1845, has two permanent galleries
devoted to Vineyard oral history and the Wampanoag people. There are three temporary
exhibit galleries including the Martha’s Vineyard Students’ Gallery. The Museum
Shop, also within the Pease House, offers a wide variety of Vineyard books,
maps, and crafts by local artisans.
Hours: March 15 - June 16, and Oct. 11-Dec. 22, Wed. through Fri., 1-4 pm; Sat.
10 am-4 pm; June 17 - Oct. 7, Tues. through Sat. 10 am to 5 pm. Jan 7 - March 11,
Sat., 10 am to 4 pm or by appointment Wed.-Fri. Groups by appointment. Admission:
Adults, $7 in summer, $6 fall through winter; children ages 6-15, $4. Members and
children under 6 are free.
The Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust
99 Main Street, 508-627-4440.
The Preservation Trust owns and operates the Vincent House, the Old Whaling Church,
and the Dr. Daniel Fisher House, which are available for viewing through Vineyard
History Tours (508-627-8619). Other properties owned by the Trust include Alley’s
General Store, the Nathan Mayhew Schoolhouse, the Flying Horses Carousel, America’s
oldest continuously operating carousel (1876), the Old West Tisbury Library, and
the Grange Hall.
- The Vincent House Museum is the oldest known house on the Island. Built
in 1672, the house was occupied by descendants of the same family for 250 years.
Carefully restored, the Vincent House Museum has been preserved and furnished
to allow visitors to see how Island families lived 300 years ago. It boasts
its original brickwork, hardware, and woodwork.
- The Old Whaling Church, built in 1843, is a fine example of Greek Revival
architecture. It has become a performing arts center, seating 500 people. Events
are scheduled throughout the year, including lectures, film classics, concerts,
plays, and community activities.
- The Dr. Daniel Fisher House, built in 1840, is an excellent example of Federal-style
architecture. The interior of the building was totally redecorated in 1992.
The Whaling Church and the Fisher House can be rented for weddings, receptions,
meetings, and parties.
1 Trinity Park (in the Campground)
See the only Gingerbread Cottage open to the public. It contains period furnishings
from the late 1800s as well as vintage photographs and documents relating to the
history of the Campground. The gift shop has campground-related souvenirs including
jewelry, books, calendars, post cards, and lanterns. Open Monday-Saturday, 10 am
to 4 pm, and Sunday, 1 to 4 pm. Guided walking tours of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp
Meeting Association (MVCMA) grounds start at the Tabernacle every Tuesday and Thursday
at 10 am during July and August. The tour takes approximately 1 1O2 hours. The fee,
which includes a pass to the Cottage Museum, is $10, children 12 and under are free.
Private tours are also available.
Mayhew Chapel and Indian Burial Ground, five miles from Vineyard Haven at the
end of Christiantown Road, which intersects Indian Hill Road in West Tisbury. Owned
by the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah, the property consists of a tiny chapel, the
Burial Ground, and a wildflower sanctuary. A total of 4.5 acres serve as a memorial
to the Praying Indians who had been converted to Christianity by the Rev. Thomas
The Gay Head, East Chop, and Edgartown lighthouses are maintained by the Martha’s
Vineyard Historical Society (508.627.4441) under a 30-year lease with the United
States Coast Guard. The Gay Head and East Chop lighthouses are open for sunset tours
from late June through mid September, from 1 1O2 hours before sunset to 1O2 hour
after. The Edgartown lighthouse opened to the public in 2008, and is open daily.
The lighthouses are also available for wedding ceremonies and other special events.
The five lighthouses on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard represent the most diverse
group in a small, contained area in the country, according to lighthouse enthusiasts.
All of the lighthouses are on the north side of the Island: they look out over Vineyard
Sound and Nantucket Sound, and over the entrance to Edgartown Harbor and Cape Poge.
The West Chop Lighthouse was the Island’s last manned light. The lighthouse was
built in 1817, and in 1838 the wooden building was replaced by the present brick
structure. It was moved back from the edge of the 60-foot-high bluff in 1848 and
again in 1891. Today, the small caretaker’s cottage at its foot is occupied by Coast
The East Chop Lighthouse in Oak Bluffs stands on the site of one of the first
telegraph signals, set up in 1828. Signals from Nantucket were received here and
relayed on to Woods Hole, Bournedale, South Plymouth, Duxbury, Marshfield, and Dorchester
Heights. A series of raised and lowered arms and flags conveyed news about cargos
of ships arriving at Nantucket.
In the mid-1800s, Captain Silas Daggett built a privately owned lighthouse on
East Chop. It was funded by local merchants who sailed in the area and by some of
the ships passing through. Many, however, refused to pay a fee after they arrived
safely in port and this lasted only six years.
In 1875, the U.S. government bought the lighthouse and the present cast-iron
structure was built on the cliff 79 feet above the sea. Until 1988, when it was
painted white, the East Chop Light was fondly called the Chocolate Lighthouse, for
its brownred color.
The original Edgartown Lighthouse was built in 1828, on a small man-made island
in the Edgartown harbor. An Act of Congress allocated money to build it 1O4 mile
from shore. Later, $5,500 was appropriated to complete the project and Seth Vincent
was paid $80 for a right of way to the tower. For the first year, the only way to
get to the light was by boat, but another $2,500 was allocated to build a foot bridge.
The first structure was replaced in 1938 by one that was rafted to the Vineyard
from Ipswich. Although the new light was placed on the original site, sand had filled
in the area between the island and the shoreline, and the current Edgartown Lighthouse
stands on shore.
The Gay Head Lighthouse has always been perilously close to the ever-eroding
cliffs. The red brick light was built in 1844 to replace a wooden tower authorized
by President John Quincy Adams. In 1856, the marvelous Fresnel lens with its 1,009
prisms was installed, after having been proudly exhibited at the World’s Fair in
Paris. It is now preserved at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, and is lighted every
evening after dark.
The Cape Poge Lighthouse is by far the Island’s most remote, built in 1801 when
an act of Congress appropriated $2,000 for it.
The original lighthouse was made of wood and had a small caretaker’s cottage.
By 1838, the building was destroyed by the ravaging sea and rebuilt farther inland.
It lasted only 50 years before the sea again claimed it and it was rebuilt, with
a change from reflector lamps to red and white revolving prisms.
The sea would not be denied, and reclaimed the lighthouse in 1892. It was rebuilt
as a 33-foot-tall tower that lasted only another 35 years.
The present white wooden structure was built in 1922, and is 55 feet high with
a light visible for a distance of 12 miles. In 1985 it gained the distinction of
being the first entire lighthouse to be moved by helicopter; in 1997 the lantern
was again moved by helicopter for repairs. The lighthouse’s present site is 300
feet from the ever-hungry sea.
The Trustees of Reservations (508-627- 3599) offer tours of the Cape Poge Lighthouse.
The Gay Head, East Chop, and Edgartown Lighthouses are maintained by the Martha’s
Vineyard Museum (508-627-4441) under a 30-year lease with the United States Coast
Guard. The Gay Head and East Chop Lighthouses are open for sunset tours from late
June through mid-September, from 1 1O2 hours before sunset to 1O2 hour after. The
Edgartown lighthouse opened to the public in 2008 and is open daily. The lighthouses
are available for wedding ceremonies and other special events; call the Martha’s
Vineyard Museum at 508-627-4441.
Tax-deductible donations to help save the lights may be designated as “lighthouse
donations” and mailed to The Martha’s Vineyard Museum, PO Box 1310, Edgartown, MA
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