Martha’s Vineyard Gingerbread Houses in Oak Bluffs

Updated on January 25, 2023 by Meg
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For tourists who come to play in the sand and surf or gaze at the stars, the gingerbread cottages on Martha's Vineyard are the frosting on an already enticing cake.

This island off the coast of Massachusetts has been regarded as a luxury summer retreat for decades. The "Vineyard," as it's known, was first settled by the Wampanoag indigenous trip, later becoming the home of affluent whaling captains in the 19th century. From James Taylor and Chelsea Handler to Spike Lee and Tony Shalhoub, the island is home to a slew of well-known artists, singers, and Hollywood characters. Even Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, both former presidents of the United States, have vacationed here on a regular basis.

Iconic gingerbread houses on Martha’s Vineyard
Iconic gingerbread houses on Martha’s Vineyard, which has been a vacation spot for many celebrities and former Presidents of the United States.

Wesleyan Grove, a 34-acre neighborhood in Oak Bluffs, is home to people who live in their own unique style. The first summer religious camp was established on this part of the island in 1835, which would later inspire Martha's Vineyard gingerbread cottages. I had only recently learned of this architecturally historic colony and chose to see it on an overnight journey from Boston.

Directions to Martha’s Vineyard Gingerbread Houses

The stunning beaches, wonderful restaurants, and maritime history of this low-key island, which is nine miles broad and 26 miles long, could easily keep you occupied for a couple of weeks. But if you're on a quest to see the Martha's Vineyard gingerbread houses, like I was, a day excursion from the Cape or an overnighter from Boston should suffice.

The wealthy and famous may arrive by private aircraft, but for the rest of us, the ferry is a more affordable option. It's a quick 45-minute ride from Wood's Hole in Falmouth, with wi-fi for rainy days when you can’t enjoy the ocean views from the deck. Take a ferry to Oak Bluffs if you want to be more convenient, since that’ll drop you closer to the gingerbread houses. If arriving in Vineyard Haven is your only choice, don't panic; it's only a nine-minute cab trip away.

In the middle of the afternoon, I disembarked the ferry amid the oppressive humidity of New England in Summer. Swept ashore by the sweating tide of my fellow passengers, I felt like an extra in the opening shot of Jaws, which was filmed here in 1975.

My friend and I decided to walk the few blocks to the Pequot Hotel, where we were staying. I envied the beachgoers below who were splashing in the waves as we lugged our baggage behind us. We passed through Ocean Park's lush greenery, across lawns adorned with well-choreographed wildflower beds, and past the famous white gazebo. The rocking chairs on the three-story inn's leafy veranda were full with people cooling off in the shade when they arrived.

Marthas Vineyard Gingerbread Houses
Garden sceneries surround the iconic white gazebo in Ocean's Park, Oak Bluffs, one of the best sights to see on Martha's Vineyard. Photo: Flickr.

We went down Circuit Avenue, lined with stores, restaurants, and galleries, after freshening up. We proceeded down a path leading off Circuit and into a unique community of 315 small "painted ladies" in the wonderful light of late afternoon.

National Landmark Blends History With Whimsey

I'd heard great things about the gingerbread houses on Martha's Vineyard, and what I saw did not disappoint.

More than 300 cozy Victorian gingerbread dwellings in a rainbow palette line this neighborhood of concentric rings. Wesleyan Grove is a National Historic Landmark that has stood the test of time for almost 150 years, and still looks like a beautiful, seasonal dollhouse exhibit.

Martha’s Vineyard Gingerbread Houses
Gingerbread Houses display creativity of original artists and current residents, there’s a unique kind of whimsy on Oak Bluffs.

The gingerbread houses in Martha's Vineyard are a kaleidoscope of bright color combinations, contrasting angles, and geometric designs.

Gothic archways, sharp steeples, miniature turrets, and cut-out patterns in the shapes of flowers and geese adorn the cottages. They’re painted in sherbet colors of lemon, pistachio, tangerine, and raspberry, with lanterns suspended from the rooflines that drip like frosting.

marthas vineyard gingerbread houses
Blueberry colored house is delicate and intriguing, an eye catching wonder of Martha’s Vineyard. Photo: m01229, via Flickr.

Martha’s Vineyard Locals Entertain Comical Questions

I started up a chat with two of the community's long-time summer residents. The whimsy of the Martha's Vineyard gingerbread cottages generates some amusing inquiries, they both agreed.

"Do you put the houses away in the winter and put them back up in the summer?" is a question Peter Jones is often asked.

"Do actual people live here?" Sally Dagnall mimics. "No, I'm a Disney animation," she often replies.

These whimsical houses decorated for Illumination Night feel surreal, as if built by a master craftsman on a miniature scale. Photo: Meg Pier

Illumination Night | Popular Historic Tradition

My visit fell on Illumination Night, the community's yearly event. Illumination night celebrates the custom of adorning Martha's Vineyard gingerbread houses with Chinese and Japanese lanterns, many of which are family heirlooms. Initially held by the Association about 150 years ago, it was held to welcome Massachusetts' then-governor.

Illumination Night displays Japanese and Chinese lanterns which are often heirlooms passed down generations. Photo: Meg Pier.

Marthas Vineyard Gingerbread Houses
At night, the lanterns are even more magical. Photo: Meg Pier.

It was difficult to tell who loved people-watching more, the residents or the visitors wandering around the grounds at this hour, as my friend and I made our rounds. We met residents sitting on their porches, proud to inform tourists about their homes' histories and the lanterns that adorned them.

On his front porch, Ernie Mallory sipped a rum and coke. A platoon of small hot air balloons floated from the ceiling, each one a remembrance of Ernie's participation in balloon festivals around the world. On Martha's Vineyard, he witnessed his first hot air balloon 25 years ago. His next birthday present was a balloon ride, which he enjoyed until he retired at the age of 76. Ernie was having a Mac-n-Cheese meal with four generations of his family to commemorate Illumination Night.

Martha’s Vineyard Gingerbread Houses
Residents enjoy spending Illumination Night with generations of their family, seeing how much the area has changed over the years. Photo: Meg Pier

Over the past 45 years, Danielle Kish has fulfilled one of her aspirations here. She recalled how she and her husband, a Methodist pastor, had first visited the Camp in 1965 as guests of another minister while sitting on her porch with daughter Robin, grandsons Will, and John.

She was so enamored with the neighborhood that she marched over to the campground office the following day and made a "low-ball offer," to which the employee replied, "You couldn't build a garage for that." When Danielle replied she could only raise her offer by $500, she assumed the negotiation was over. A few days later, when she returned home, her husband had informed her, "Well, you bought yourself a house-now we have to come up with the money."

She first visited the cottage when she was 11 years old, according to her daughter Robin, who was playing with a doll in the car as the family pulled up. Three neighborhood boys suddenly leaped over their porch railing to assist the Kish family in unloading the automobile. Robin chuckled, "I put the doll away in a hurry. She still lives next door to those Harris "guys" now.

Many residents have been visiting for decades, dating back to that first Church Camp and contributing to the community ever since. Photo: Meg Pier.

Martha’s Vineyard Stroll Along Historic Gingerbread Houses

Cheryl and Heather, the wife and daughter of Harris "boy" Jim, were busy next door hanging lanterns on the family cottage's modest upstairs porch. Jim's mother, from West Hartford, Connecticut, visited the campground for the first time in 1962, shortly after her husband died, at the request of her best friend. With the insurance money, she purchased the cottage entirely furnished for $3,600. "Jim's mother was aware that the boys had recently lost their father, and she wanted them to have a fantastical location to go every summer," Cheryl explained.

Most campers, according to Cheryl, install the lanterns during the day of Illumination Night, enjoy beverages and appetizers during the "stroll," and then take down the decorations about 11 p.m. She stated that she stores the lanterns once the crowds have thinned down because many of them are handcrafted and irreplaceable.

Martha’s Vineyard Gingerbread Houses
Lanterns on Illumination Night in Martha’s Vineyard are only kept out for the evening since most are handcrafted and irreplaceable. Photo: Meg Pier

Anne and Chris Hurd's porch, further down the street, proudly displayed a hand-made lantern announcing "Bunker House, established 1875." Anne's family has owned the three-bedroom cottage for over a century. Her grandpa, together with ten siblings, were born here. Every year, the Hurds travel from California, where Anne was born.

"I love being here," she said. “The quaintness, the 'magic' that surrounds it, the bringing together of so many diverse individuals and their backgrounds– it's like a fairy tale."

"Has anyone told you about the religious side of the camp?" Chris Hurd inquired.

Backstory of Wesleyan Grove

Despite its humorous appearance, the community's roots were serious business, I soon discovered. I'd heard Wesleyan Grove was known as "the campground," and I was about to discover why.

The gingerbread cottages on Martha's Vineyard are part of an organization founded in 1868 to keep the island's yearly religious meetings going. The Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association (MVCMA) has its roots in the early nineteenth-century spiritualist movement.

Jeremiah Pease, who converted to Methodism after hearing the fiery speaker "Reformation John" Adams, arranged the first camp meeting at the MVCMA site in 1835. People from Methodist congregations in southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island would assemble for a week-long revival meeting in the 1830s, according to Peter Jones. They slept in big canvas "society" tents, each housing members of a different church.

Religious Camp Meeting Burbank
Religious camp meeting founded by Jeremiah Pease back in 1835. Photo: Watercolor by J. Maze Burbank, c. 1839

A ringing bell would awaken campers at dawn for the beginning of a day's worth of prayer services, according to camp historian Sally Dagnall. Exhortations, confessed sins, conversions, healings, and "love feasts," in which attendees enthusiastically recounted their stories and experiences, made these meetings extraordinarily emotional gatherings. In fact, it wasn't until 10 p.m. that the bell tolled again, signaling that it was time to go home.

To avoid sleeping on the wet ground, campers began to construct platform flooring made of straw. Soon after, these platforms sprouted walls, and in 1851, the first house, consisting of only one room, was completed.

Architectural Evolution of the Gingerbread Houses

"The cottages' front doors are reminiscent of both the opening of a campsite tent and the entrance to a cathedral,'' according to Martha’s Vineyard resident, Peter Jones. Jones told me the most common types of church era architecture were Gothic with a pointed arch and Romanesque with a rounded arch. "The early dwellings lacked porches and gingerbread filigree, and were essentially boxes," Jones continued. “They were the first modular homes, and they could be put together in as little as two or three days."

Since the first huddled tents, close quarters have been a persistent community element; the cottages are nestled closely, most only inches apart. As a result, there is an air of trust and consideration.

Marion Burke, a resident since 1972, said, "The proximity produced a politeness, a Golden Rule, good neighbor policy that persists today. In the beginning, the tent flaps were left open to allow the air to flow, and there was little privacy. 'Barney the Shusher' made the rounds each night at 10 p.m. to enforce a 'lights out' policy in the 1940s and 1950s. Today, one of the houses has a sign that reads, 'Take it to the Beach,' which is stern advice for any inhabitant who wants to brawl."

While the constructions are often recognized as distinctive to MVCMA's Christian camp culture, gingerbread is a key component, one that arrived with the advent of new technologies.

It wasn't until recently that the brilliant colors of Martha's Vineyard gingerbread houses became a form of self-expression. Paint was only employed as a preservative in the past, and most dwellings were painted white, gray, brown, or olive drab. Then, in 1944, a local artist painted her house pink, turning the neighborhood into a painting.

Marthas Vineyard Gingerbread Houses
In 1944, a local artist painted her house pink for the first time, sparking decades of creativity on the Gingerbread Houses of Martha’s Vineyard. Photo: Meg Pier

Tabernacle Hosts Summer Concerts on Martha’s Vineyard

This 19th century wrought iron open-air chapel, another historic item of architecture, now stages an ecumenical summer concert series. This hidden gem, which seats 2,000 people, is located in Trinity Park, a community green. The tabernacle, which cost $7,147.84 to build, was repaired for $3 million around the turn of the century.

Marthas Vineyard Gingerbread Houses
Open air Tabernacle in Trinity Park, Martha’s Vineyard cost ​​$7,147.84 to build, and was repaired for $3 million around the turn of the century. Photo: Francesca on Flickr.

We returned to the campground after a fantastic seafood meal on Circuit Avenue to catch the finish of the concert and see the lights turn on. The prudence of our plan to undertake most of our sight-seeing during the day was immediately confirmed. What had been a serene sight had turned into a mob of thousands—albeit of the Norman Rockwell sort.

Families thronged the lawn surrounding the tabernacle, which was throbbing to the beat of thrilling American songs. Grandmothers rocked to the music with their newborn grandchildren on their chests, young couples linked hands, and toddlers who were up beyond their bedtime waved glow-in-the-dark wands.

The band's leader then delivered the signal. The lights began to flicker, and a golden glow began to spread from house to porch, across the campground's encircled neighborhoods. For a brief moment, the throng came to a halt, sucking in its collective breath. The crowds then surged forward, squawking and gawking and posing for photos. Everyone is a star on this wonderful circular stage.

Marthas Vineyard Gingerbread Houses
The Wesleyan Grove open-air Tabernacle was built in 1879 by John W. Hoyt of Springfield, Massachusetts. Image Credit: Flickr

Illumination Night is a wonderful, feel-good piece of Americana, regardless of your spiritual views. If you can't make it to the festival, which is held every year in mid-August, a visit to the Wesleyan Grove to view the community's architecture is a delightful way to spend a few hours.

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