SERIES 18 July 17 New England Thrice-1: Kips Bay to Martha's Vineyard & Nantucket
Rationale After the travel south to the Amazon earlier this year and before I go north to Canada in October, some time ago I’d scheduled for this summer something closer to home in New York: some revisiting of New England. I had some very specific rail & sail connections I wanted to make in several directions, as well as several spread-out destinations in New England, so my decision was to divide any potential longer trip into three parts, about one week or so each in June, July, and August, hence the heading New England Thrice. Before, during, and after I was there I was completing the recent loyalist posting, and am now catching up with the week trip in June, which was by catamaran ferry to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
Some three things fell together to make me want to take this trip. First, the catamaran ferry highly appealed to me. It used to be very normal on all continents to use coastal ship travel to reach one coastal destination from another. I can only imagine how it might have been to go from, say, Philadelphia to Charleston in the years through the early 20C, and I did try to imagine in 2006/11 how it would have been to have taken a boat in the 1830’s from West Street, near me in Manhattan, to Boston’s “thoroughfare connecting Boston with the world”, the 1720 Long Wharf. That is today impossible, but sailing commercially from Manhattan to Martha’s Vineyard, also in Massachusetts, is a close second that will very well do.
As for the catamaran itself, I learned about its trip to the Vineyard only last year while visiting Highlands NJ, and used it last summer to go from Manhattan south to Highlands for dinner at Doris & Ed’s and back (2011/5 “Highlands by Catamaran from New York”). I learned that the SeaStreak ferry company on summer weekends extends its route from NJ via NY to Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, with a return trip late Sunday afternoon. It’s a short weekend trip apparently crafted to appeal to the office crowd. Since I wanted more than a weekend, I left one Friday and returned the following Sunday, leaving nine nights for the Vineyard, plus a side trip to Nantucket. It’s even more impressive that their route north starts in NJ, but since I’d already experienced the trip between NJ and NY, the 4h15 balance of the trip the length of Long Island Sound would do me very well.
The second reason for this trip was wanting a more thorough visit. I’d been to both islands twice, some time ago, but each time on day trips. The travel diary tells me that, as part of the two huge auto trips we took around North America in 1968-9, on 2 July 1969 we actually squeezed both islands into one day trip, which amazes me as I read it myself. In those pre-catamaran days, ferries out of Woods Hole on Cape Cod would often stop at both islands, and early in the day, we went all the way to Nantucket, rented bikes (!!!) to ride around town, then came back to see Martha’s Vineyard in the afternoon, before returning to Woods Hole in the evening. Even now that tires me out. Then, on 14 July 1984, we took the American Cruise Lines “Savannah” out of East Haddam CT down the Connecticut River, along the eastern part of LI Sound to stop in Block Island RI, then spent the night in Nantucket harbor with a day visit to the town, another day visit to Martha’s Vineyard, and stops in New Bedford and Newport. I honestly felt I’d seen both islands, but each time was so fleeting, that I welcomed the high-speed ferry trip to be able to spend more time this trip, and it was a very wise move, since I saw and accomplished so much more.
Thirdly, I quite simply wanted to celebrate the emotional geographical bond of sailing there directly from Manhattan. Ever since I learned about the Outer Lands (Staten Island to the left should also be green in this map) when writing 2010/26, it became meaningful to me that these areas of New York and Massachusetts are geologically related, and only separated by subsequent ocean flooding. I felt an additional bond when I found out that the two islands, plus the string of Elizabeth Islands to their NW, were once part of New York Province, and that NY in 1683 established, to parallel Dutchess County in the Hudson Valley, Dukes County for these islands. Alas, they remained part of New York only eight years, when in 1691 they all became part of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. Then, even as Nantucket was separated to become Nantucket County, the Vineyard and Elizabeth Islands retained the original New York name of Dukes County. To me this is all significant, and was an additional reason for me to enjoy revisiting the area.
Kips Bay The high-speed catamaran ferry was to leave from the East 35th Street Ferry Terminal, which is where the ferry last summer coming up from Highlands had stopped before bringing me back to the Wall Street ferry terminal, so I was familiar with the area, just one block north of the major boulevard of 34th Street. As a matter of fact, just this summer an upgraded local East River ferry service started between those two points in Manhattan, making several stops on the other side of the river in Brooklyn and Queens as well.
I’d never been to Kips Bay other than driving along the FDR Drive that runs on a viaduct along the East River and zips right through Kips Bay. I’d been to the Turtle Bay area in the Forties just north of it, where the UN is located, but had no reason before to come here. Also, the recent awareness of the Revolutionary War invasion of New York (Manhattan) having taking place here was going to make it an interesting visit on the way to the ferry.
Getting there was a cinch: the #6 subway uptown with an immediate transfer to the M34 bus, which at the end of 34th turns up to 35th, and has a sheltered waiting area at the ferry. But beyond, that, to my mind, people unaware of history miss so much. The neighborhood today called Kips Bay stretches along the East River (Photo by Jim Henderson) in the Twenties and Thirties. This drizzly view is from Stuyvesant Cove Park at 20th Street, so it shows mostly the lower end, in the Twenties, but if you note the Empire State Building on the left and picture 34th Street running from it to the river, you’ll have a proper idea of the area. But still, it’s a typical New York highrise scene, not particularly of interest--until you know the background.
The bay itself is long gone to that old nemesis, landfill. The shoreline is straight today, but picture the bay as an indentation between 32nd and 38th Streets inland, past First, to Second Avenue. Dutch settler Jacobus Hendrickson Kip (whose name, unfortunately, happens to be the Dutch word for “chicken”) had a farm here along the bay running north of what is today 30th Street, so we have to picture farmland, meadows, fields, and woods. In 1655, Kip built a large brick and stone house at what today would be 35th Street (today the street of the ferry), but it was inland, at today’s Second Avenue. The house stood until 1851, and when it was demolished, it was the last New Amsterdam farmhouse remaining in the city.
[History Magazine reports that the oldest hospital in the US was founded in New York in 1736 (way downtown, of course), without a name. In the 1790’s the hospital established a distant outbuilding to be used in an attempt to cope with the persistent threat of yellow fever. This hospital outbuilding was along the southern border of the Kips Bay Farm, and the border road was called Belle Vue Place (Belle Vue is French for “beautiful view”, presumably of the East River). This outbuilding was the first to be called Belle Vue Hospital. In 1811, the hospital purchased six acres (2.4 ha) of the Kips Bay Farm as an extension, and eventually the whole complex moved up to Kips Bay. Around its opening in 1816 was the first time the name was contracted to the well-known Bellevue Hospital, whose location remains today in the upper Twenties on the river.]
But rewind back to the beginning to picture the earliest settlement times, with Kip building his house in 1655, and then fast-forward over a century to 15 September 1776. After the Siege of Boston, Howe had sailed to Halifax, but then returned in early July to land on Staten Island unopposed, and then also land in Brooklyn, unopposed, on 22 August, where the Battle of Brooklyn/Long Island took place on 27 August. On the night of August 29-30, Washington succeeded in secretly evacuating all 9,000 troops of the Continental Army from Brooklyn Heights to York Island (as Manhattan was then known). The Staten Island Peace Conference had just failed on 11 September, and New York (Manhattan) braced for an invasion. On the morning of 15 September, Howe sent some ships into the Hudson, but Washington recognized it for the diversion it was, and maintained the major part of his forces in the north of the island. The British ships had gathered across the East River in Newtown Creek (today forming the border at the river between Brooklyn and Queens), where there were meadows allowing for a staging area, and, after heavily bombarding the coast, then struck Kips Bay, which also was surrounded by meadows, landing 4,000 troops at what today is the foot of 33rd Street (one source) or 30th Street (another source), but inland on the bay. By late afternoon, another 9,000 troops landed. The 500 inexperienced revolutionaries were vastly outnumbered by the British and Hessians and fled, allowing for a third unopposed landing, which infuriated Washington, who, being so close to enemy lines, had to be led away by his aides to avoid capture. Fortunately, the British didn’t cross Manhattan to the Hudson, splitting the island in two, but instead proceeded south, so that the remaining Continental Army down in the City had the opportunity to march up the West Side and join the balance of the army and Washington in Harlem Heights. The very next day, 16 September, was the Battle of Harlem Heights, which the Americans did finally win.
Historical maps tell the story best, such as the Ratzer map (note again, just east of the Bowery, the Road to “Kepps” Bay, both roads having battle references). I’ve now also found a 1781 British map of the area (click to enlarge). All the shorelines are rather distorted from reality (they should have checked Ratzer’s map more carefully), but start at the misshapen New York at the tip of “York Island”; note Greenwich (Greenwich Village); Crown Point (Corlear’s Hook); Inclenberg (Murray Hill); Kepps Bay (Kips Bay); Bloomingdale (to which Bloomingdale Road, today an extension of Broadway, led); Haerlem (Modern Dutch Haarlem, but in NY, Harlem), along with the Harlem Heights; the King’s Bridge with the Kingsbridge area; Spiking Devil (Spuyten[de] Duyvil, actually “Spouting Devil”). On the Long Island side, note how Brooklyn is considered Brooklyn Heights plus Red Hook, with the indication of the “rebel lines 1776” of five years earlier; the town of Bedford with the Road to Jamaica (Jamaica Avenue); a note about General Howe; Newton [Newtown] Creek, whence they embarked; and, further up, the turbulent meeting of waters Hell Gate (second word missing on map), named Hellegat by Adrien Block himself, and the site over the centuries of the loss of hundreds of ships (see below). Still, the major point to see is how the British, to attack Manhattan across the river, came up from Brooklyn to Newtown Creek, crossed to Kips Bay, and proceeded south.
It’s a shame that most people waiting with me in line for the ferry surely failed to see in their mind’s eye Kip and his farm, the bay, then the bombardment from across the river, followed by the British landing boats crossing from Newtown Creek and landing just a few blocks south of the ferry landing. (What? Manhattan was invaded? Like Normandy on D-Day? Never!) But there’s even more they miss at this spot from the 19C and 20C: the northern side of Newtown Creek, in Queens, is called Hunter’s Point, and when the Long Island Rail-Road had its problem with Brooklyn and decided to serve Midtown Manhattan instead, the new line to Hunter’s Point Station started in 1861, with the Hunter’s Point Ferry crossing the East River to Kips Bay to a ferry landing that was one block adjacent to this new one, at 34th Street. Then, in 1910, the Pennsylvania Railroad built, along with Pennsylvania Station, the New York Tunnel Extension, with a tunnel under the Hudson, and the four single-track tunnels under the East River right below us at 32nd and 33rd Streets, now used heavily by the LIRR and Amtrak, which then proceeds north over the 1916 Hell Gate Bridge. Also invisible below us is the Queens-Midtown Tunnel (connecting to the Long Island Expressway), which leaves Manhattan at 36-37th Street and crosses the river at about 39th. It’s so deceptively simple to look at the still “belle vue” across, and of, the river, with its straight shoreline bordered by highrises and remain so very unaware of so very much.
SeaStreak High-Speed Catamaran Ferry So now we finally board the SeaStreak ferry. The terminal is now under construction and is larger than this picture shows, with a number of docking spaces extending out from the M34 bus shelter on the right. At the back of the catamaran you can see the two hydrofoil “skis”, in blue (actually twin side hulls), that, once two jets of whitewater begin shooting out the rear of the boat, raise the center of the ferry out of the water to permit higher speeds.
The passengers already on board were coming up from the only other stop, in Highlands NJ (click to enlarge--Highlands is just to the left of Sandy Hook down in the corner; all nine bridges I’m mentioning can be spotted on this satellite view). They would have just had the pleasant experience after entering New York waters of passing through the Narrows under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge
(as I had last summer [2011/6]), slipping behind Governor’s Island up Buttermilk Channel and entering the East river (three following pictures repeated from 2011/6) under the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, and Williamsburg Bridge up to 35th Street in Kips Bay (you can judge where Kips Bay is [was] by looking across from Newtown Creek).
Once we joined them, we immediately passed the United Nations complex (42nd-48th Streets, inland to First Avenue), then passed under the 1909 Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, whose name was extended last December in honor of the former mayor (it’s also known as the 59th Street Bridge). In the Nineties, we came to a fork (follow satellite view above). To the left, hugging Manhattan, was the entrance to the Harlem River. I’d taken the Circle Line several times around Manhattan, and had experienced that route, but now we took instead the right fork into the Hell Gate, so that now all waters would be new for me from here to the eastern part of the Sound. As we entered the Hell Gate we were in the Upper East River, the part that had been a glacial lake, with today’s Lower East River flowing from it. The Hell Gate has been tamed by rock blasting and extensive landfill connecting islands, today forming the neat river channels visible on the map. The fork is also clearly seen in this northwest view from Queens. We were coming from the left, the Harlem River takes off at the top, and the Hell Gate is at the bottom, first spanned by the 1936 RFK Bridge (formerly the Triboro Bridge, renamed in 2008 for Robert F Kennedy), and then immediately thereafter by the beautiful single-arch bridge for rail (you can see the tracks but here’s a separate picture), the Hell Gate Bridge (the RFK is right behind it). The graceful 1916 Hell Gate Bridge was the inspiration for the 1932 Sydney Harbour Bridge. Flip between the two pictures; it’s hard to tell them apart.
If you continue to follow on the aerial map, we then passed to the north (bottom of following picture) of Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex, which itself obscured LaGuardia Airport behind it (the plane that landed on the Hudson had taken off from here--check satellite map). Shortly thereafter, we passed under the 1939 Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, connecting the Bronx with the Whitestone neighborhood of Queens, and finally the 1961 Throgs Neck Bridge, which rises spectacularly over the peninsula known as Throgs Neck. The view is south here, and it was the last bridge before we entered Long Island Sound, to the left.
Thus the complete run from NJ (again, I’d done the first part last summer) rather uniquely for a commercial trip crosses entirely through New York City on the diagonal and passes under nine spectacular bridges; after Kips Bay there were five. Then as the satellite picture shows, the estuary widened into Long Island Sound, and I remember being surprised that one could see both the Connecticut and Long Island shores in the distance quite easily most of the time. By the far end, it had begun to darken, and those sights would have to wait until the return trip, which ended up being even more spectacular.
Martha’s Vineyard I have an excellent satellite picture of the area around the Islands and Cape. Click to enlarge, and it’s like you’re flying over it. Because of darkness (we arrived in Oak Bluffs on time at 10 PM), very little along the end of the route was visible on arrival, but I saw it all on the return trip. North here would be near the upper-right corner.
After Long Island Sound we had sailed north of Block Island RI at the lower left, which is just south of Narragansett Bay, with Providence (in white) at its north end. We crossed Rhode Island Sound and approached the string of Elizabeth Islands, named in 1641 after Queen Elizabeth I. We passed south of them into Vineyard Sound, but note that north of them is Buzzards Bay, and the white area across that bay is New Bedford MA, which we’ll refer to later as being the place that helped suck the whaling life out of Nantucket. The Elizabeths are at the elbow of Cape Cod, with Provincetown at its tip. And remember that Cape Cod Bay is twinned with Massachusetts Bay to its north, which developed the Massachusetts Bay Colony (that took over Plymouth Colony) built around Boston (in white) and, halfway out on Cape Ann, Salem, which I’ll be visiting on my July trip. Finally, south of the Cape are Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. We can comment here on the distinctive U-shapes of the two islands. The ice sheet in Vineyard Sound had formed an inverted-U, giving the outwash that became Martha’s Vineyard a north shore in the same inverted-U, while the ice sheet in Nantucket Sound projected into a U, so that the outwash forming Nantucket developed into the highly distinctive U shape coming from Nantucket’s north shore. Also notice how all the sandy beaches on the Cape and Islands reflect the light, forming stark white outlines. Realize that Martha’s Vineyard is the largest island on the US east coast that is NOT connected to the mainland by a bridge or tunnel, hence all the ferry connections, mostly from Cape Cod. And note that the land area of Nantucket is just over half the size of that of Martha’s Vineyard.
This entire area was first the home of the Wampanoags; note Aquinnah (discussed later with Gay Head), which to this day includes areas of tribal lands, and has a year-round population of Wampanoags, that include about a third of town voters. It is also one of the earliest whaling sites, an activity the Wampanoags did from shore, and taught to the settlers in Nantucket, starting the entire 19C industry.
We’ve mentioned the name of Bartholomew Gosnold regarding the discovery of Cape Cod. He was the English explorer who pioneered a direct sailing route due west from the Azores to New England, a route followed 18 years later in 1620 by the Mayflower. He arrived in early 1602 in Maine, and followed the coastline to what is today Provincetown Harbor, where he discovered and named Cape Cod. He then discovered Martha’s Vineyard at Gay Head, sailed past Nantucket at Sconset, and discovered and established a small post (later abandoned) on what is today Cuttyhunk Island, the outermost of the Elizabeths. In his honor, all the Elizabeths today constitute the town of Gosnold MA. Although I don’t often include paintings of historical events, I’ve found this charming 1858 picture by none other than the German-American artist Albert Bierstadt, of the romantic Hudson River School, entitled Gosnold at Cuttyhunk, 1602. I’m pleased to find this painting, since most of his spectacular landscapes are not of the east, but of the American West.
Gosnold was instrumental in founding Jamestown VA, but died in 1607 at age 35 only four months after they landed. In the past decade a grave was found in Jamestown that is believed to be his.
Martha’s Vineyard (VIN.yurd), often shortened to “the Vineyard”, certainly has a quirky name. Gosnold probably named it after his second child, who died in infancy, and after the "abundance of trees and vines of luxuriant growth" that he found there. It is therefore the eighth-oldest surviving English place name in the US (Virginia, named in 1584 by Sir Walter Raleigh, is the oldest; I don’t know what the others are, and wish I did).
It has one other quirk: its unusual apostrophe. It is normal for possessive apostrophes to be dropped in place names, and in this posting alone were mentioned Kips Bay, Rikers Island, Buzzards Bay, and Dukes County. The US Board on Geographic Names worked to standardize place names, including apostrophes, in the late 19C, with the result for a time of the spelling “Marthas Vineyard”. But it reversed its decision in the early 20C, making Martha’s Vineyard one of the 5-6 US place names with a possessive apostrophe (ALL the others are extremely obscure).
There are some famous names associated with the island. In the Chappaquiddick incident in 1969, Mary Jo Kopechne was killed in a car driven by US Senator Ted Kennedy. In 1974 Steven Spielberg filmed the movie Jaws there, including some island natives as characters and extras, and in 2005 the island celebrated the 30th anniversary with a weeklong Jawsfest. The film was made down island: Edgartown was used for town scenes, and beach scenes were filmed between Edgartown and Oak Bluffs. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis maintained an estate, named Red Gate Farm, up island near Aquinnah. In 1999, John F Kennedy, Jr, his wife and sister-in-law were killed in a small plane that crashed off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. A number of presidents have visited Martha’s Vineyard, starting with Grant in 1874. Bill and Hillary Clinton spent vacation time on the island during and after his presidency, and in August 2009 and 2010, the Obamas vacationed in Chilmark, near Aquinnah, renting the Blue Heron Farm, which I passed on my bus ride coming back from Gay Head.
I’ve just used two expressions in passing to introduce them, down island and up island. In New England, because of the prevailing westerly winds blowing ships east, “downwind” has always been east (actually northeast), and by extension, the concept of “down” has also taken on that meaning. Actually the entire coast from New Hampshire, to Maine, to New Brunswick, to Nova Scotia can be referred to as Down East (one or two words, each capitalized or not), but in the narrowest sense, Down East refers to the eastern coastline of Maine. The Amtrak train from Boston to Portland is called the Downeaster. In contrast, west is “up”, and some Mainers talk about going “up to Boston”.
Now by extension, on Martha’s Vineyard, up island is the west coast, as we said, Aquinnah and Gay Head, and the two main towns of Oak Bluffs and Edgartown are down island. Chappaquiddick is the large island east of Edgartown. Cape Cod is to the north, and Cuttyhunk is the furthest west of the Elizabeths.
Most of what we’ll discuss will involve Oak Bluffs and Edgartown (plus Nantucket Town on Nantucket). I did travel up island to Gay Head (and out to Sconset on Nantucket), but it’s the three towns that to me are the most interesting. We’ll discuss them in the order I happened to visit them, which is, à la Harold Pinter, in reverse historical order, which I like. We’ll start with 19C Oak Bluffs, founded in 1835, but first discuss the late Victorian area, then the mid-Victorian area. Then we’ll talk about the two 17C towns, Edgartown (1642), then Nantucket (1659), both of which however, given the passage of time, have much more of an 18C, if not 19C look. (The three towns have traditionally been about the same size, about 4,000 people each, but in the 2010 census, Nantucket (Town) had a stark increase to 7,500.)
Oak Bluffs The ferry, turning right from Vineyard Sound to Nantucket Sound, got in on time at 10 PM to a light drizzle, which added to the nighttime mystery. The modern, roofed wooden dock of the Steamship Authority projected out eastward into the Sound from the beach area of town. The streets in the pier area were brightly illuminated, and the bright light interacted with the drizzle in its own mysterious way. Having been concerned well in advance about a late arrival in a small town, I had not only booked my bed-and-breakfast well in advance, I’d printed out a Google map of town, and knew exactly where my ten-minute walk should lead me and my rolling small bag. I did an immediate left off the pier down Seaview Avenue along the beach, and, walking along large, semicircular Ocean Park, clearly remember passing what looked like your typical Civil War soldier statue at its edge. Drizzle. Black statue silhouette ahead. Bright lights behind. Late evening arrival.
Then, three short blocks after the park, I turned right one block inland on narrow Pequot Avenue filled with late Victorian houses to the Pequot Hotel. Victorian. Cheerily lit. Chocolate chip cookies in the lobby for the weary traveler. Pleasant late evening arrival. There were two taxis outside unloading others, and about a half-dozen check-ins ahead of me. I couldn’t help wondering why they hadn’t taken the short walk. Too much luggage? Didn’t know where the hotel was? Travel wimps.
The Pequot was three-sided on a courtyard facing the street, and my room was across the courtyard and up the stairs. Cozy. The main building, colorfully Victorian, had the requisite porch with multiple rockers, and next morning, before my requisite long walks through town, there was a delightful breakfast of fresh muffins and pastries, plus the New York Times (and the Boston Globe). Heaven.
Michelin gives Nantucket and Nantucket Town three stars each. I agree. It gives Martha’s Vineyard two stars. Probably so. But it gives Oak Bluffs and Edgartown only one star each, and I disagree; they should be at least two stars each, and I very much enjoyed my time there. That particularly applies to Oak Bluffs, which in the past, I’d only regarded as an uninteresting way-stop to Edgartown. Now, as interesting as Edgartown is, I prefer Oak Bluffs. Edgartown, being older, was always the commercial area of the island. What had been this northern area of Edgartown developed into two types of a resort area.
The first thing you always hear about Oak Bluffs is that it started as a Methodist camp meeting site that developed some Victorian architecture. But that was just one part of town. Later on, another part became a fashionable, secular Victorian resort, and these two different Victorian areas remain to this day part of the town’s split personality. It’s easiest to describe the two by explaining the town’s layout.
Let’s start again at the Steamship Authority pier. The Steamship Authority goes back to the 19C, as the name indicates, and includes all the ferries, including car ferries, from the Massachusetts mainland; the SeaStreak from New York docks there, too. There’s another such pier on Nantucket.
From the pier, Lake Street runs west (the 9 o’clock position). North of Lake Street first is a small residential area, then the “lake”, which today is Oak Bluffs Harbor. The lake had been swampy, and a cut was made between it through the beach to the Sound, giving it sea access. It was from this “inland” harbor that the smaller ferry to Nantucket left, which is why my second Oak Bluffs hotel later on was adjacent to the harbor in that residential area.
But more important is what is south of Lake Street. Picture two wedges of pie, separated by Circuit Avenue and coming together close to the Steamship Authority pier. The southwestern wedge between 9 o’clock (Lake Street) and 7 o’clock (Circuit Avenue) is the older Victorian, former camp meeting part of town, and the southern wedge between Circuit and Seaview Avenue on the coast at 5 o’clock is the former Victorian resort part of town.
We discussed the Methodist camp movement before (2011/5), when we talked about Ocean Grove NJ being founded in 1869 for camp meetings. In Oak Bluffs, the Methodists had already arrived by August 1835, up from Edgartown, and pitched thousands of wood-framed tents in a circle around a grove of oaks with a temporary tabernacle in the center seating 4000 people, covered by a huge circus-like tent, made of some hundred yards/meters of sailcloth and weighing a ton. By 1850, 12,000 revivalists were in the temporary tent city; by 1869, 30,000. A summer colony had developed. Eventually, returning visitors replaced the tents on their small plots of land with colorful, petite Victorian cottages. The campground expanded in a circular pattern around Gingerbread Square (also called Trinity Park, after the church there, and Wesleyan Grove). Today the cottages spread out to quiet, peaceful, mostly pedestrian adjacent streets. Because of the Victorian style-cottages, this circle with the grove gets the name Gingerbread Square, and the whole area has been added to the National Register of Historic Places, and is a National Historic Landmark. A Methodist church was built within this circle, and the temporary tabernacle at the center was replaced in 1879 with a graceful cast-iron roof and pillars, and is open-sided. It’s 40 m (130 ft) in diameter and 30 m (100 ft) high in the center, making it the one of the largest wrought-iron buildings in the US today.
But in the late 19C there developed the Victorian movement of establishing fashionable seaside resorts for the supposed health benefits as well as for vacationing. (For just two of many examples, see 2011/4 describing Atlantic City NJ and 2008/7 describing Flagler’s and Plant’s hotels in Florida.) So in 1866, next to the camp meeting site, some businessmen started to develop the sheep pasture between Circuit Avenue and the seaside (today’s Seaview Avenue; this is the southern wedge) into a first-class resort community, with both hotels and private homes. The Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company had a landscape architect design Cottage City, a secular area designed to reflect the landscape theme of circles and arcs within the campground, and included parkland, but to allow for larger construction than those tiny, clustered cottages. Both regular houses and sprawling mansions were built, and also churches and large frame resort hotels, such as the Sea View, located where the Steamship Authority pier is today, but now gone. Cottage City had exuberant architecture, steamship service, a carousel, and was very successful.
In the beginning, there were the inevitable frictions between the religious and secular areas across Circuit Avenue (named for circuit-riding preachers), but by 1880, enough of a community feeling had developed to cause the residents to break away from Edgartown and incorporate as Cottage City, so that the older part also took the name of what was essentially a real-estate development in the newer part. Given that the cottage architecture is the essence of this town, I think that name should have been kept, but in 1907, Cottage City was reincorporated as Oak Bluffs. It’s a pretty name, and refers to the oak grove that started it all, but there are no bluffs whatsoever where the town reaches its beaches. Also, Oak Bluffs was the name of the real estate company, which doesn’t sit well with me. But do keep in mind that the essence of the Victorian architecture of Oak Bluffs is retained in the older name, Cottage City.
Today, we only see the beautiful remnants of this. There are no regular camp meetings any more, and all the houses around the Tabernacle are just private homes in an attractive park area. The Tabernacle is used for the occasional religious meeting or general lecture, but just serves as a community center. I heard that the day after I visited it, it was used for the graduation ceremony for the local high school. Also, the resort area no longer remains as the same type of resort, but just has occasional small hotels and B&Bs.
THE (FORMER) RESORT AREA To tell the story in Pinteresque style, we’ll start with the “newer” part of town, where I was staying, within the southern wedge east of Circuit Avenue, and work backwards. I had a brochure with a walking tour of the entire town, and spent the day on one long, but enjoyable “hike”. Everything described below is in this area, with the exception of the 1879 Wesley Hotel, today restored, which, although a great example of the huge wooden Victorian hotels, is on Lake Avenue facing the harbor, and its back projects into the camp area, with little cottages abutting its rear side.
Where the wedges meet, at the top end of Circuit Avenue, is the Flying Horses Carousel, located within a semi-enclosed building, an obvious remnant of the resort era. It is the oldest (1876) operating platform carousel in the US, listed as a National Historic Landmark, and owned by the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust. It was actually moved here from Coney Island NY early on, in 1884, then relocated again in 1889. To this day, the horses have real horsehair manes and tails, but unlike most modern carousels, the horses do not go up and down. The carousel was very busy when I was there, mostly with kids, and yes, you’d better believe I rode it, collecting on the peg on the horse’s head a stack of rings I’d caught (all returned), but not getting the brass ring.
A bit to the south of the carousel is the area I’d bumped into the night before, Ocean Park on Seaview Avenue, with its Civil War statue. The treeless, grassy, semicircular park (7 acres / 2.8 ha) has an 1880’s bandstand in its center, which is so iconic that it’s now part of the town seal. The park had originally been laid out for house lots, but then the developers thought better and felt the views, breezes, and sunrises would instead enhance the value of homes around it.
At this point I discovered the unusual, particularly inspirational nature of the Civil War statue. Usually they show a soldier and a list the names of the war dead from the area, but this one was very different. Charles Strahan of Virginia moved to Oak Bluffs after the Civil War and became the editor of a local paper. But war memories remained, and he felt excluded, particularly when, as a veteran, he wanted to join veterans’ groups. So, as a gesture of goodwill, he erected this statue (with a horse-watering trough around it, today empty, and located until 2001 at the end of Circuit Avenue) in honor of the Union Army. The plaque reads: “Erected in honor of the Grand Army of the Republic by Charles Strahan, Co B 21 Virginia Reg.” Obviously this sat very well with the locals, and in 1925 they reciprocated with an even more inspiring plaque affixed to the rear of the pedestal: “The Chasm is Closed / In Memory of the Restored Union / Tablet Dedicated by Union Veterans of the Civil War in Honor of the Confederate Soldiers”. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Around Ocean Park, and south of it, where the streets, including Pequot Avenue, are laid out in a row of arcs emanating from the Park, is restored Victoriana, both simpler homes and splendid mansions. Unfortunately, I have a picture of only one example, the 1869 Dr Harrison A Tucker Cottage (click to enlarge), right on Ocean Park. President Grant viewed fireworks from this porch in 1874. While the neighboring houses are of more modest size, this is one of the mansions. Visible is the typical gingerbread scrollwork under the eaves, other gingerbread scrollwork in the fencing, a tower, and the traditional somber, deep colors, as seen in the Normandy Inn in Spring Lake NJ in 2011/4. On occasion, these buildings will have a roof terrace, but almost unique to this building--I saw one other like it in Oak Bluffs--is a roof terrace that is itself overroofed, but with open sides. This is very unusual, although personally, I think it’s oversized, and also gives an unfinished look to the building.
There were many beautiful buildings, but my favorite, the Corbin-Norton “cottage” is particularly unique, not only because it’s beautiful, but because of its complex history. For this I have to mention the computer giant and philanthropist Peter Norton. (You may know of--and use--Norton AntiVirus on your computer.) In 1990, he and his former wife Eileen visited Oak Bluffs, became enchanted with it, and became involved in life there. The very walking tour brochure I was using, which is “presented” by the Oak Bluffs Historical Commission, is “sponsored” (read: paid for) by the Peter Norton Family Foundation, founded in 1989 to help arts and social services organizations financially. On Pequot Avenue, down from my B&B, is the striking Cinderella Cottage of 1881, purchased and restored by Norton in 1991. But that same year, they also purchased the Corbin “cottage” (mansion) on Ocean Park, built just a century before in 1891, which had been a splendid example of craftsmanship, but had fallen on hard times and had been almost completely stripped of its splendor. Norton, over three years, to 1994, had Design Associates meticulously restore the eight-room Queen Anne Corbin cottage to its original prime for his own use. And then disaster. In 2001, the restored house was devastated by a fire caused by electrical wiring. So Norton decided to have it rebuilt, again by Design Associates almost exactly as it had been, and it was finished in 2005. Now called the Corbin-Norton House, he and his second wife now spend ten weeks there every summer.
I mention the name of the architectural firm only because it’s on the Design Associates website that we can look at this restored house. Obviously, I didn’t see any interiors, so I’ll just comment on two exteriors. Look at image 1.
The structure is magnificent. Note the two-tone deep colors, which are brown and light green. It’s also very typical to see two versions of the same color, such as forest green/light green, maroon/light red, deep purple/lilac. Typically, the building is all eaves, turrets, balconies, and porches. Note the fenced-in roofwalk (sometimes mistakenly called a widow’s walk) at the top, which we’ll discuss later on.
Not visible in this picture (perhaps they were added later) were three surprising inscriptions, in three different Western alphabets. On the woodwork under the turret and above the window was a phrase in Latin. One story below above the window was a phrase in Greek. (I tried checking them both out online, with no success.) But on the curved molding above the steps was written in Cyrillic : Дача Петергоф. I read it, thought for a moment, then started to laugh. It transliterates as Dacha Petergof. I appreciate that he refers to his summer home as a dacha, which in Russia can be anything from a simple building to, well, this. Petergof (with G) is the Russian version of the Dutch (and German) name Peterhof (with H), which is the famous palace outside Saint Petersburg. But the second level to cut through is that Peterhof means Peter’s Court, a reference to Peter the Great. And here in Oak Bluffs, Peter Norton has his own Peter’s Court Dacha. How many people did he expect to see through his two-language bit of whimsy? Maybe he enjoys explaining it at dinner parties.
Image 13 shows a side view, with more of the roofwalk. One can also see the brown and light green color scheme, as well as the red roof. This blend of deep colors is typically late Victorian.
THE (FORMER) CAMP MEETING AREA I was surprised that Circuit Avenue, separating the two areas, was so narrow. It only has one lane of traffic, with perpendicular parking on the other side. Although there are a few tiny side streets offering access to the camp area, down about halfway on Circuit Avenue is the Arcade Building, a tall wooden structure with a passageway in the center, forming sort of a grander entrance, that brings you from the traffic of Circuit Avenue to the limited-traffic peace and quiet of the cottages leading to Gingerbread Square. Where there had been upward of 500 tents at the meetings there are today some 300 petite cottages. In the center of the tree-filled park is the Tabernacle, described above, and just inside its perimeter is the Trinity-United Methodist Church.
But the eye is drawn to the huge circle of petite cottages around the park, as well as in many side streets. You notice the filigree trim, spires, domes, and very unique color schemes, much brighter and more unique than in the resort area, giving them a quaint, storybook look. People still sit and rock on their brightly decorated porches. This style of wooden architecture (also in the resort area) is called Carpenter Gothic.
CARPENTER GOTHIC Carpenter Gothic is a manifestation of the Gothic Revival movement that intensified in the late 19C in houses and small churches. The majority of structures were wooden, and were often both designed and built by house carpenters. The style improvises on features prevalent in authentic Gothic architecture that had been carved in stone, but applied here to wood, with a picturesque result. Absent the restraining influence of genuine Gothic structures, the style in its improvisation emphasized charm and quaintness, often adapting Gothic elements such as pointed arches, steep gables, and towers, to wooden construction. Still, most of these buildings were usually relatively unadorned, retaining only the basic elements of pointed-arch windows and steep gables.
Typical of the decoration is the filigree woodwork, characterized by moldings with a profusion of sawn details, known as gingerbread, usually applied under eaves, but usable anywhere for decoration, even on other structures, such as brick houses. The pastry known as gingerbread, related to French pain d’épices and German Lebkuchen, also Pfeffernüsse, can be a soft, moist loaf cake. It can also be something hard similar to ginger snaps (UK et al: ginger nuts; Sweden pepparkakor, and similar elsewhere). It is purely my speculation that this latter hard gingerbread, which can be made into highly decorated, edible gingerbread houses, is the origin of calling this woodwork on Carpenter Gothic houses also gingerbread. I have no proof, but will accept my speculation until informed differently.
It was technology that allowed this architectural breakthrough, the invention of the steam-powered scroll saw, and resulting mass-produced wooden moldings. While I revel in imagining powering a saw with steam--I’d love to see a picture--today most scroll saws operate by electricity. They cut vertically, and differ from a band saw in having not a blade on a continuous loop, but a reciprocating blade that moves up and down very fast. They can quickly and accurately cut intricate curves and allow for considerable creativity.
This is a Carpenter Gothic house in Gingerbread Square. It is quite typically much smaller than the buildings in the former resort area, and its petite footprint would belie its origins as a lot for a tent. The typical porch has a pair of brown rocking chairs (plus three blue “Adirondack chairs”, showing influence of New York State). Under the steep Gothic gable is a magnificent example of gingerbread (picture a scroll saw doing its job). Both downstairs front windows exhibit pointed Gothic arches. The roof posts are lathe-turned by a carpenter. But in comparison from the formal, staid dark colors of the later resort area houses, this house exhibits the exuberant coloring typical of the camp area, in this case improbably combining blue, white, and peach on a grey-shingled house. Once you adjust to these flamboyancies, you begin to appreciate them.
Here are two more; close together; brightly colored; gables with gingerbread; picturesque. Where are Hansel and Gretel? There are no Gothic windows, which, surprisingly, I found only sporadically. This is a row of four houses circling around the Tabernacle. Notice the lack of traffic in this calm area. The house on the right is the winner. Notice its gingerbread under the gable, and the work on the porch is also interesting. But this is one of the few houses where ALL the front windows and doors are Gothic (there was another in the new section opposite the Pequot Hotel). Both downstairs front windows are pointed, as is the door between them. Often when there’s a Gothic door downstairs, there’ll be one upstairs as well, very noticeable here. If the upstairs door does not have a balcony, it will appear instead as a large, door-sized window. It’s possible that the house two to the left also has a red, arched window upstairs.
Carpenter Gothic buildings are found in all states of the US except Arizona and New Mexico (don’t ask me why not there). There’s no reason to show many of them here, but I will repeat the picture from 2008/19 of San Francisco’s “Painted Ladies” on Alamo Square. Actually, the colors are rather muted, and there’s not too much gingerbread. Nevada is especially rich in such houses, dating from the silver rush years of the 1860’s to 1870’s (Virginia City, Reno). Actually, if you picture buildings from old Western movies, you’ll see how typical they were for that place in that time. In Canada, Carpenter Gothic churches are found in all the provinces and in the Northwest Territories, but Carpenter Gothic houses are more typical in the east, in Ontario, Québec, and the Maritimes.
While Carpenter Gothic houses are not everywhere, they can also be found in New Zealand and on Australia’s east coast, once again reflecting that affinity between four countries I’ve referred to as C.A.NZ.US, and I therefore WILL show some Australian examples I’ve found, where the style also has the alternative name Rustic Gothic. This is the Christ the King Church in Graceville, Queensland, a southwestern suburb of Brisbane. It seems to be a wooden construction, although the two next two are apparently stone buildings, this 1856 house in Woollahra, east of Sydney, and this 1861 house in East Melbourne.
The last question on this topic is this: What is arguably the most famous Carpenter Gothic house in the world? I can guarantee that virtually everyone reading this has seen an image of it, and probably more than once.
Still not sure? Take a look here and see if you can identify it. It’s in Eldon, Iowa, in the southeastern corner of the state. Although uncharacteristically white, it does have those lathe-turned post on the porch, and, of course, that Gothic window upstairs, although with no balcony. It’s definitely Gothic.
Why, you could even go so far as to call it American Gothic, as painted in 1930 by Grant Wood.
This is a painting that has reached iconic status around the world, along with Leonardo da Vinci’s 1503-1519 Mona Lisa / La Gioconda and Edvard Munch’s 1893 Skrik (The Scream). Furthermore, they are so well known that all three have been subject to repeated parodies.
[Tangential comment: Da Vinci’s painting is of Lisa del Giocondo, and goes by two names, one based on her last name, and one on her first. In Italy, where it was painted, it’s known as La Gioconda, and in France, where it hangs in the Louvre, it has a variation of that, La Joconde. The original Italian name, also used in some other languages, is a pun in Italian. First, it can reflect on her husband’s name by using a grammatically feminine form, so that it can mean something like “Madam Giocondo”. Secondly, just as the somewhat rare English word “jocund” means “cheerful”, the Italian word “giocondo / gioconda” means the same thing, so that La Gioconda can also mean “The Cheerful (One)”, particularly significant given that she’s known for her smile. The French version of that name also more or less covers the same pun.
But most languages refer to the painting by her first name, which is Lisa, and it’s usually misunderstood that the other word with it is a title of respect. In Italian, ma donna means “my lady”, which can become one word, madonna, for religious purposes. But that word can contract to monna in Italian, keeping the same short O, but spelled “mona” outside of Italian, with a long O. This serves as a title of respect used with first names, so that Mona Lisa actually means, quite respectfully, “Milady Lisa”, or “Miss Lisa”. When used at all, the Italian version remains Monna Lisa.]
But back to our own iconic painting, American Gothic, which has a very interesting background. First let’s note that the three elements, the two models and the house, were painted separately, which means the models never met, and neither ever saw the house. Wood himself saw it only on one quick visit. Comparing the picture of the house with the painting (flip back and forth), it can be seen that Wood heightened the Gothic austerity by making the Gothic gable a bit steeper and the Gothic window a bit narrower. Each foreground figure reflects the traditional roles of men and women. While the flowers over the woman’s shoulder, as well as her print apron, are meant to reflect her domesticity, the man is tied to hard labor by his pitchfork. In addition, the figure of the man is solidly tied to the location by an interesting “Gothic” device. Turn the Gothic window upside down and you’ll see it portrayed again (1) in the shape of the pitchfork; (2) in the stitching on the front of his denim overalls; and (3) most curiously, in the very structure of his rugged face, where the two cheek lines and the nose line meet at the round chin.
The house was built in 1881-2 by Eldon resident Charles Dibble. It is very petite, with its two levels totaling only 46.8 m² (504 ft²). The west wing in the back was added much later (but by the time of the painting), and this picture from an angle, which excludes the view of the wing, shows the intimate size of the original house. It is not known why Dibble chose to place such an outsized (but elegant) window in such a small dwelling. It is theorized that they just wanted something on the otherwise simple house to catch the eye, given that there was a trend at the time to include the odd extravagant detail. In those days, it was possible to purchase elements to build an entire house through the Sears catalog, but Dibble bought just the Gothic window, at a price which would have been relatively reasonable.
In August 1930, Grant Wood, whose art studio was a couple of hours north of Eldon in Cedar Rapids, visited Eldon and was driven around by a local artist, looking for inspiration. He came across the house and found it not beautiful, but captivating, considering the elaborate window in such a simple house a pretentious structural absurdity. He sketched the house on the back of an envelope, and the next day, with the permission of the then owners, he made an oil sketch of it from the front yard. He would not see the house again before his death in 1942, although he did request a photograph of it in order to complete the final painting in Cedar Rapids.
He wanted to add the type of people he thought should live in such a house, and recruited his sister Nan to model for the woman, and his dentist, Dr Byron McKeeby, for the man. Once the painting because so famous and everyone thought it portrayed husband and wife, Nan objected to being paired with such an older man, so Wood officially declared it to be a farmer with his spinster daughter, although few people realize that technicality.
Wood entered the painting in a competition at the Art Institute of Chicago. Although the judges had their doubts, an influential museum patron convinced them to award the painting the bronze medal and $300 cash prize. The patron also convinced the Art Institute to buy the painting, quite fortuitously, since it remains there today as one of its most famous pieces. The image was then popularly reproduced in newspapers across the US, which became the basis for the parodies that followed. There was also a backlash at the time among Iowans, who didn’t like being depicted in this harsh manner.
The Carpenter Gothic house, now on the National Register of Historic Places, remained a private residence until 1991, when it was donated to the State Historical Society of Iowa, which maintains a visitor center with exhibits about the painting, Wood, and Eldon. The interior of the house is considered too small and fragile for visitors to enter it, but they are encouraged to view it from outside, and--what else--have their picture taken. As a matter of fact, the visitors center provides many sizes of aprons and jackets like those worn by the models, as well as pitchforks, for visitors to pose with. Each June, Eldon holds its Gothic Days festival, celebrating the painting and 1930’s rural life in Eldon, so I suppose hard feelings have worn off. I’ve never been to Eldon, but it sounds like fun.
And it all started with a Carpenter Gothic window in the Sears catalog.
Gay Head It was time for my day trip out of Oak Bluffs, and I’d checked online earlier about the bus system, the VTA (Vineyard Transit Authority), which turned out to even exceed my expectations. There are many routes, but I bought a day pass to ride the triangle between Oak Bluffs, Gay Head/Aquinnah, Edgartown, and back. However, I was concerned that the first two connections each involved a transfer. How would that work out? Well, just fine. The bus out of Oak Bluffs only went to the small, local airport, mid-island. But everything surrounding the driver was computers and walkie-talkies. The driver talked to the dispatcher, and when the connection arrived, he was expecting me! This whole first connection to Gay Head took maybe 30-45 minutes.
Ends of peninsulas can be called capes, or also heads, such as Diamond Head in Honolulu. Gay Head is a head(land) on the west end of the Vineyard comprising colorful clay cliffs some 20 m (60 ft) above a beach. The layers of clay are blue, tan, gray, red, white, and orange, and the cliffs are 100 million years old. I understand that erosion sometimes makes the adjacent water red. The cliffs are protected, and it’s not allowed to climb them or touch the clay, subject to a fine by patrolling police.
The cliffs are not only ecologically protected, but also culturally, and I immediately saw a parallel here with Australia. I was impressed that, at Uluru/Ayres Rock, the visitors center not only exhibited aboriginal culture, but local native people were very much on hand to explain their culture and the religious nature of the site. It’s also forbidden to remove material from the Uluru area, and the center had a Sorry Book (2010/20) with actual letters from people apologizing when they finally returned rocks or sand. Similarly, although I didn’t meet one, Gay Head is often patrolled by a member of numerous local Wampanoags in Aquinnah, who informs people about the cultural importance of the cliffs to the tribe and how they feature prominently in their spirituality and myths, which was to me very parallel to Uluru. I don’t recall coming across something quite like this before in the US.
It will be no surprise that the cliffs were discovered by Gosnold in 1602, who named them in his journal Dover Cliff, a reference to the cliffs of Dover. But that name didn’t survive, and some time before 1662 the name Gayhead (at the time, one word) arose. The name, somewhat startling to today’s ears, was based on the fact that, particularly approaching the headland from the sea, the gaily colored cliffs were very evident, and the nearby town was also called Gay Head. But in 1998, although the headland maintained its name, the town reverted back to its original Wampanoag name, Aquinnah.
I would like to think that that change took place purely as a decision to accept the historical name, especially reflecting the large local Wampanoag population. But I remain cynical. Not one, but both words in “Gay Head” can be construed to have sexual connotations, something that I’m sure visitors do wonder about. That has to have been a factor. Later in the day, I was speaking in Edgartown to an older, perhaps narrow-minded woman from North Carolina and I mentioned the name change. “Oh, I’m SO glad they did that, aren’t you?” was the reply I got, and didn’t pursue the matter any further.
On the bus, leaving the Aquinnah and Chilmark areas, with their Jackie O and Obama connections, another transfer was necessary to get to Edgartown, and I loved the names I came across. While in the opposite direction, one is instructed to change at the Grange Hall, in my direction one is told to change at Alley’s Store, two names that sound so rural and quaint. But sure enough, across the street from the stop was Alley’s General Store, as my reliable connection promptly arrived.
Edgartown I find many similarities between Edgartown and Nantucket. They are of similar age (1642 and 1659, respectively), much older than Oak Bluffs. In contrast to the Victorian color of Oak Bluffs, they both give a bright white, New England impression in the color of their buildings, which due to the ravages of time, are largely early 19C structures. And both towns were involved in whaling, although Edgartown, as the Vineyard’s commercial center, followed way behind in the footsteps of Nantucket’s industry lead. That first 1642 Vineyard settlement was in a town then called Great Harbor, for obvious reasons, but then in the custom of naming places for kings’ sons (Prince Edward Island and Fredericton, for sons of George III) Great Harbor was renamed Edgartown for Edgar (who died at age 3), the son of James II.
Main Street and Water Street converge in Edgartown in the form of an X, and roads come in from the northwest down Main, and with the harbor one block beyond Water. The business district forms the upper V of that X, coming down Main and turning up North Water. Most of the historic district dates from 1830 to 1845, the golden era of whaling, and houses built by wealthy sea captains abound.
The only older exception to this period--and I was glad to see it--was just off Main Street, the Vincent House of 1672. Actually it had been moved from the area of Edgartown Great Pond to the southwest, but at least represented its period in Vineyard history. It was a simple, shingle cottage, and closed at the time, but much could be seen through the windows around the building to appreciate the interior.
I walked along Main and then North Water to its end, since that was the point where you could take the path down to the Edgartown Lighthouse on the edge of the harbor (I saw it in daylight). The original lighthouse was built in 1828, but was severely damaged in the famous 1938 hurricane, so in 1939, the cast-iron Essex Light in Ipswich MA was dismantled and brought to Edgartown by barge for reassembly.
On North Water I liked the plaque on the Edgartown Inn that said that Daniel Webster and Nathaniel Hawthorne had stayed there. A block downhill from there led me to Dock Street, where the barge-like Chappaquiddick ferry carried three cars at a time, bikes, and pedestrians, the short distance over to “Chappy”.
But these streets were busy, and touristy. I much preferred the area from Main Street to SOUTH Water Street, which was quiet and residential, and where you could more easily pause to appreciate the Federal and Greek Revival architecture Edgartown has to offer. Both these styles were popular in the early 19C. Federal style homes, named after the early Federal Period in US history, had balanced proportions and light-filled rooms. Symmetry reigned. Flanking columns and pilasters were often on either side of windows or doorways, as doorways often had symmetrical side windows on either side, and fan-lights above them. The most obvious indication of a Greek Revival home or church is the profusion of Greek columns and a triangular pediment above them. On Main Street, the Whaling Church of 1863 sits behind six huge columns with a pediment above. It’s now used for meetings and performing arts.
In the blocks south of Main Street near South Water were many homes and churches in these styles that could be quietly appreciated. As mentioned earlier, other than the occasional gray weathered-shingle house, a bright whiteness prevailed in the choice of house color. Directly on South Water was the Captain Valentine Pease house. He was the master of the Acushnet, the whaler on which Herman Melville sailed in 1841. Pease is reputedly the prototype for Captain Ahab in Moby Dick.
I’ve mentioned 17C and 19C buildings, and I also found a notable 18C house. It was built in 1760 by one Benjamin Smith, who later became a captain in the island militia during the Revolutionary War. The plaque read: “Home of Benjamin Smith, who was commissioned in 1775 Captain of the 1st Company, Martha’s Vineyard Militia MA, for the defense of the seacoast.” I particularly enjoyed reading this, including the 1775 date, as a further illustration of the fact that the revolutionaries were very well prepared for the upcoming struggle that year and that Lexington and Concord were not the surprise by the British on an unsuspecting population that many try to portray it as being.
There was one other architectural feature present in many houses in Edgartown, very typical for 19C architecture, particularly in New England, which we also saw on the rebuilt Corbin-Norton house above in Oak Bluffs: the roofwalk, more often than not referred to by the romantic, but highly inaccurate term “widow’s walk”. A roofwalk is one of two things. In its simpler form, as on the Corbin-Norton house, it’s a railed rooftop platform. Alternatively, and more interestingly, the railed wooden platform could surround a small room. Technically, these roofwalks were supposedly to allow quick access to a chimney, so sand could be dropped down in case of a chimney fire, but to my mind, it was just a pleasant architectural feature that also afforded views. There was one on the modern Whaling Museum in Nantucket, and going up to the top, one could see the harbor view that undoubtedly captains appreciated in order to see what ships were in town. In time, the romantic name “widow’s walk” developed, allowing for the romantic myth of a captain’s wife waiting for his return, but that’s totally inaccurate. Anyway, if she’s waiting for him, she’s not a widow, anyway. I recommend sticking to the term “roofwalk” to describe these viewing platforms. In fact, mid-19C Italianate architecture had always included a cupola, also called a belvedere, as a standard decorative feature, of which the roofwalk is a variation. The Italianate cupola was an important ornate finish to this style, so perhaps the reference should be that of a roofwalk, with or without a cupola.
The bus back to Oak Bluffs passed along the beach area used to film “Jaws”. The next afternoon I walked up to the harbor area just north of Lake Street to board the Lady Martha, a smaller catamaran, for Nantucket. It was just 1h10 out of the enclosed harbor and across Nantucket Sound to Nantucket.
Nantucket: Overview & Arrival We have a literal overview in the form of this satellite view, where the unusual shape of Nantucket (click to considerably enlarge) resembles two strands of a necklace, enhanced by the white beaches. You can see how close it is to Martha’s Vineyard because you see about half of Chappaquiddick on the left. We can learn a great deal from this exquisite view. Look at the harbor entrance and the underwater sandbar that runs along outside it, which negatively affected the island’s history. However, this view shows that there seems to be a dredged channel allowing entrance and egress. The original 1659 settlement was outside the harbor to the left. It was abandoned due to lack of protection from storms, and moved within the harbor area. I’m convinced the town (in gray) is clustered to the west side of the harbor because of the proximity of the old town on the coast. Leaving town to the east, the route of Milestone Road can be traced, leading to Siasconset (in gray), usually shortened to Sconset, the other town of any size on the island. North of Sconset, but before that green pond, is Sankaty Head Lighthouse, a distance I walked (whew!; more later). Sconset is the part of the island Gosnold saw in 1602. The point of land projecting into Nantucket harbor is Brant’s Point, and I took the relatively short walk out from town to the Brant’s Point Lighthouse at the harbor entrance for the view. It’s the second oldest lighthouse in the US (1746); only one in Boston is older.
The Lady Martha came in around Brant’s Point, entered the harbor, and docked at Straight Wharf, so named because it leads west, straight into Main Street. These first broad four blocks or so of Main Street (Lower Main Street), originally called State Street, are the commercial heart of town. It was paved in 1837 with cobblestones that had served as ship’s ballast in order to allow carts laden with heavy barrels of whale oil to move up from the wharves without sinking in the mud. Most other streets today have regular pavement.
At the end of the broad part of Main Street, narrower Upper Main Street continues ahead (to be explored later), while Centre Street turns right (north) in the direction of where the original town was, as well as toward Nantucket’s oldest surviving house. Centre Street is therefore the oldest in Nantucket, having been surveyed and laid out in 1678.
After another four blocks or so, Broad Street entered from the right coming from Steamboat Wharf, the location of Nantucket’s office of the Steamship Authority, where the ships from the mainland dock. Thus, this square along the harbor of Lower Main, Centre, and Broad enclose the central, commercial part of town, where all the good restaurants were. But at this point I continued just a couple of blocks more up Centre Street, past the Congregational church, to the Anchor Inn, where I’d booked a room long in advance.
The 1806 Anchor Inn building had belonged to a sea captain. There was a sitting room and breakfast porch downstairs, and my room was upstairs. It was filled with antiques, including a high, fourposter canopy bed that required the use of a step stool to get into. It was charming.
Nantucket: Rise & Fall Nantucket is an island, a county, and a town. It is the only place in the US with the same name for all three. More importantly, the entire island has been a National Historic Landmark District since 1966, and is the largest historic district in the US. Its listed “period of significance” is the two centuries from 1650 to 1849, although in actuality the oldest structure dates from 1686. Most of the district features Federal architecture, but also Greek Revival, and the district has one of the highest concentrations of pre-Civil War structures in the US, more than 800 buildings. How could this have come to be?
I learned quite some time ago that the biggest contributor to historic preservation is poverty, and like to phrase it this way: POVERTY PRESERVES. It’s as simple as this: you own, or purchase, a house that’s a little old fashioned. You want to “modernize” the kitchen and bath, but can’t afford to do so, so it remains as is. Even more extremely, you’d love to tear a house down and replace it with a “modern” house, but can’t afford that. This lack of funds is a powerful impetus in keeping the urban landscape as is. I first learned this when visiting the medieval German city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, where one can’t avoid being amazed at all the historic structures. It even has its wall running entirely around it. But in order for poverty to be effective, there has to be something really worth preserving. What I learned then is that Rothenburg’s commercial prosperity was gained because it lay at the intersection of two salt roads, along which salt was traded. Then, that commerce declined, lack of funds became the norm, and they couldn’t afford to tear down the city wall or “modernize” buildings. In other words, you need a high, so when the low of poverty strikes, you actually have something worth preserving. A similar thing happened in Nantucket, which was the rise and fall of the whaling industry.
THE RISE As happened in Gay Head, the Wampanoags here too had learned, and taught the settlers, how to harpoon whales near shore. As I learned at a lecture in the Whaling Museum, the local whales were right whales, which swam close to shore and got that name because they were the “right’ whale to hunt. The principal product was whale oil, extracted from blubber, which was vital in illuminating homes and business, and was also a machine lubricant in the Industrial Revolution.
The right whale, with its distinctive curved mouth and low eye (shown here with a human for size comparison), is a baleen whale, which means it has in its upper jaw a comb-like filtering device called a baleen, used to filter out edibles from seawater. Baleen is also often called whalebone, an inaccurate term, since it isn’t bone at all but the same substance as horns, claws, and fingernails. So-called whalebone was used commercially as the plastic of its day, such as for corset stays, dress hoops, fishing poles, and buggy whips.
As the population of whales depleted, Nantucketers set out to sea, including into the Pacific, and primarily hunted the sperm whale instead. This larger whale was hunted, not only for the oil, but for spermaceti, and the name sperm whale is just a short form of the full name, spermaceti whale. This substance was originally mistaken for the whale’s sperm, hence the name, although it’s present in females as well as males. Spermaceti is a semi-liquid, milky-white, dense waxy substance found in the spermaceti organ in front of and above the skull bone. Spermaceti was prized because it burns with an exceedingly bright flame, and was used to make candles. There was a quote on the wall of the Whaling Museum from President John Adams, praising the light from a spermaceti candle as the brightest he’d ever seen. It is interesting to reflect on the importance of candles in this period--but then that of whale oil as well.
A bull sperm whale can grow to 20.5 m (67 ft), although the skeleton hanging from the ceiling of the museum was 14 m (46 ft). The sperm whale is not a baleen whale, but a toothed whale, which was perfectly clear from the lower jaw of this skeleton. It’s these teeth from which sailors carved scrimshaw, of which the museum had an extensive collection. Thus the sperm whale is the largest living toothed animal. Given the large spermaceti reservoir, the head can represent up to one-third the animal’s length. Spermaceti was prized for the high price it could get. Once gathered, it would be placed in barrels for the voyage home. Note that a large whale could provide as much as THREE TONS of spermaceti. The museum is built connected to the former Hadwen & Barney Candle Factory, which still exhibits a beam press that was used to extract the spermaceti oil, with the residue remainder used to produce candles.
Thus, Nantucket was a preeminent whaling port, and became the world capital of the whaling industry for about a century, from 1740 to 1840. At its peak, there were 88 Nantucket whaling ships sailing around the world. Merchants and ship owners got rich selling up to 30,000 barrels of oil in London and other major cities, and built appropriate residences in town. During its whaling days, Nantucket was the third largest city in Massachusetts, with a population of 10,000. Only Boston and Salem were larger. Given the business connections with the London oil market, it will not surprise that most Nantucketers wanted to preserve the status quo, and were loyalists during the Revolution.
THE FALL Listing the causes that led to the decline and fall of Nantucket is like describing a Greek tragedy. Some problems were from within, others from without.
Nantucket Bar The most ironic problem came from within. We pointed out earlier on the satellite view of Nantucket that there’s a sandbar--a shoal--that runs across the harbor entrance to this day, one that seems in the picture to have been dredged for today’s needs. Leaving the harbor involved “crossing the bar”, a term that began to refer not only to literally starting a long whaling voyage but also beginning any grand venture. But as whaling developed with new and larger ships, too many were not capable of crossing the Nantucket Bar, which has a maximum depth of only about three meters/yards at high tide, and it was very expensive and time-consuming to send out tenders to offshore ships to load and unload cargo. Eventually, an interesting device was developed, the Nantucket Camel, which was used in the 1840’s and 1850’s. It was hard for me to picture until I saw the model of one in the museum. The Camel was a floating dry dock in two pieces, which looked like a pair of parentheses that would wrap around the hull of a visiting ship. These two hollow pontoons cradled the ship’s hull, and then chains between them under the ship were tightened by a steam engine (what else?), and the two parts of the parentheses squeezed together and raised the ship higher out of the water. Thus, the aptly-named Camel could “carry” it over the bar. It was a very clever solution to at least try to resolve this problem. But then as it turned out, New Bedford on Buzzard’s Bay just beyond the Elizabeth Islands had, ominously, a deep-water port.
Railroads When Nantucket first developed “sail” ruled, and it made no difference if a port were located on an island or the mainland. Product would be offloaded from ships, processed, then reloaded on other ships for delivery. But that’s when Nantucket’s status as an island became a disadvantage, and another weakness from within, as the era of “rail” began. New Bedford on the mainland was connected early on to the rail system, and product offloaded there for processing could then be easily shipped to customers by rail. The whaling industry gradually began to migrate to New Bedford, and Nantucket’s economic hardships increased.
Great Fire In 1846, the Great Fire of Nantucket destroyed the main town, and precisely that square of city blocks described earlier on the harbor between Main, Centre, and Broad Streets. It started in a hat shop in Main Street and burned furiously, also burning down the newly-built (1834) Atheneum (library) and its entire collection. (It was the first building rebuilt, the very next year in 1847, in Greek Revival style [columns with pediment].) But as befits a Greek tragedy, it wasn’t only lumber that burned, the fire was fueled by all the stored whale oil. The town was devastated, with hundreds homeless and poverty stricken, and many people left the island. This is the reason that there are few to no 17C and 18C buildings in the center of town, which is rather uniformly 19C in style.
California Gold Rush The California Gold Rush ran from 1848 to 1855 (President Polk declared it a rush in 1849, which is why we associate that date with it). This is an advertisement for a clipper ship leaving the East River in New York, and this shows merchant ships in San Francisco harbor in 1850-1851. Nantucketers swarmed to California, many going on old whaling ships, which they then scuttled in San Francisco harbor.
Pennsylvania Oil Rush But the coup de grâce came with the discovery of oil in Titusville PA in 1859, and the subsequent Pennsylvania Oil Rush, which lasted until about 1870. If you could use cheap kerosene in your kerosene lamp, why bother with whale oil? Nantucket’s golden era came to a close with an almost complete collapse of the industry by 1870. In 1869, the very last whaling ship, the Oak, “crossed the bar”.
But fortunes improved somewhat from the 1870’s until perhaps after WWI. Nantucket reinvented itself as a Victorian summer resort (see Oak Bluffs et al). Not in town, but along the south shore and in Sconset, grand hotels were built for arriving vacationers. To accommodate them, Nantucket in 1881 actually got its railroad, a narrow-gauge (3 ft / 914 mm) one that ran from Steamboat Wharf south along the harbor to the south shore and Sconset. However, frequent washouts on the south shore changed the route diagonally in the Milestone Road area to Sconset instead. However, that era passed too, as did the railroad, which became history in 1918. There was a working model of the rail route in the Whaling Museum. I think if the real railroad had been mothballed instead, or at least its right-of-way, it would be a very popular route today in the island’s period of prosperity.
At any rate, so much depopulation and poverty left the island under-developed and isolated until the mid-20C, after WWII. But poverty preserves. There was the additional advantage that the island was spared 19C industrialization, leaving it charming and well-preserved, and kept the pre-Civil War buildings intact. By the 1950’s developers began buying up large sections of the island and restoring them as an upmarket destination. With landmarking, the island is now safe from untoward changes. There are plenty of real estate offices in town showing pictures in their windows of houses for sale, usually without prices, which frequently run into the millions.
Nantucket: The Visit It was a pleasure walking around the center of town to absorb its architecture and history. I visited the Atheneum and walked out onto Steamboat Wharf to just enjoy watching one of the mainland ships unloading its cars and trucks, bicyclists and foot passengers. I stopped into the Quaker Meeting House, now used as a community center. Walking up Upper Main Street led one within a block or two into a quiet, leafy residential area, where the 1845 Hadwen House, the residence of one of the owners of the above candle factory, was the most prominent building on the street, with its Greek revival columns and pediment. Directly opposite were the Three Bricks, three identical brick residences built by another wealthy oil merchant for his three sons.
A few blocks south of that was one of the few 18C buildings in town, the Old Mill (1746), which is the oldest functioning windmill in the country. It was used commercially until 1892, and is still used to grind corn for sale at the Historical Society. In a quiet street nearby was one of two 17C buildings in town, the Old Gaol of 1696, which still uses the British spelling of “jail”. Like the nearby mill, it must have originally been isolated in a field at the edge of town, but today is surrounded by pleasant historic houses, and one goes down what appears to be a driveway between houses to find it sitting in its own grassy area behind backyards. It’s tiny, but made of massive gray beams. It’s footprint only covers two cells, with a fireplace in between. There are two more cells upstairs. One is on one’s own to visit the building, and it’s a jail one would not want to be in. It has vertical iron rods on the massive, heavy wooden walls, iron rods in the two tiny windows in each cell, and massive wooden doors reinforced with iron. There were two bunk beds opposite the fireplace. The last prisoner left here in 1933.
The other 17C building is perhaps my favorite in town, both because of its age and because of its dour, gray somberness. Walking from my B&B up Centre Street away from town in a few minutes ones comes to the Jethro Coffin House of 1686, often just referred to as the “oldest house”. It is the only remaining structure from the original settlement, which was just north of here. It’s by itself a US National Historic Landmark.
I took the extensive tour of the building to see how everything is clustered around that central fireplace, two downstairs sitting rooms, and the upstairs bedrooms. In the back, the kitchen has a beehive oven projecting into the same structure. It’s a time-traveling experience to see the severe conditions under which even a middle-class family lived. This 17C style building is called a saltbox, because it resembles the type of wooden lidded box in which salt was once kept. I’ve never seen an actual one, and suggested that the Historical Society acquire an actual saltbox as an illustration. We’ll talk more about this style in the next posting on Salem, but it is essentially just what you see, a frame building, usually with gray, weathered cedar shingles, with a pitched roof that slopes further down in the back than in the front, essentially having therefore only one story in the back, but effectively two in the front. Both at the Historical Society’s Whaling Museum and at the house, they kept on trying to convince me that it was built that way to deflect cold winds from the sea. It may do that, but that doesn’t explain why there are saltboxes all over Massachusetts and beyond. A saltbox is generally an example of American colonial architecture, distinguished by the asymmetry of its sides, flat front, central chimney, and long, low rear roof line. The explanation for its shape that I accept is that it resulted from a tax that Queen Anne put on houses taller than one story. The low one-story roof line of the saltbox made it exempt from the tax, while still having two stories internally. It’s a classic example of having your cake and eating it, too. On the Jethro Coffin house, the horseshoe design in brick on the chimney was, according to who tells the story, just for general luck or as a special charm against witches.
The bus system on Nantucket was just as efficient as on Martha’s Vineyard, and I planned a short bus trip down Milestone Road to Sconset. Those of us getting on the bus were surprised that that day, 16 June 2011, was the 6th annual “Dump the Pump” day of the American Public Transportation Association, meaning one should avoid filling one’s car with gas at the pump and use public transportation. Souvenirs were distributed on the bus, and the fare was cut in half. I was unaware of it, but certainly do advocate public transportation, so it was an extra plus.
Sconset was as I remembered it, a pleasant residential village with not really much to do, but I had--perhaps a bit unwisely--decided to walk north up the coast to the Sankaty Head Lighthouse (1850) on what seemed on the map to be a pleasant country road. Google maps had suggested it would take a half hour, which it did, more or less, but it was in the blazing sun with little shade. In addition, there were houses on both sides almost the whole way, so one didn’t see much down off the bluffs. Where I could walk near the edge, the considerable amount of erosion was evident, and some of those houses must have quite a bit of concern. When I got to the lighthouse, I found it had been moved inland about 122 m (400 ft) in 2007 because of oncoming erosion. Since we were on the southeastern corner of the island, I enjoyed the sign that said “3048 Miles to Spain” (4905 km). However, I met some people with a car, who were nice enough to drive me back to Sconset to catch my bus.
The best long-distance view in town was supposed to be from the Congregational Church two doors down from my B&B, which was then my next stop. It’s a beautiful white structure from 1834 on a hill, but had a little secret: it was joined to a Siamese twin. Actually, the back of the newer part of the church had been built onto the side of the original church from 1725 (one of the few 18C buildings on the island), which was therefore still in the back and served as a rear chapel. Put it this way: the length of the old church, which now is called the Old Vestry, is the width of the new church, so it was just sitting behind the altar, and reachable around it. Very clever.
But for $5 one can climb the 94 steps into the wooden steeple, passing the organ loft on the way. To the northwest I could look down on my B&B, although the Jethro Coffin house was lost in the trees. Still, with the binoculars provided, I could see the outline of Martha’s Vineyard on the horizon. To the northeast was the entire town and harbor, and to the east, to my delight, I could see, with binoculars, some buildings in Sconset and the Sankaty Head Lighthouse, which, to my surprise, was blinking at me even in the daylight, which I hadn’t notice up close. Spain, alas, was too far in the distance (!!!).
Since I had some evening time available, I’d notice that the Theatre Workshop of Nantucket was putting on performances in the basement of the Methodist Church on Centre Street near Main, and I bought a ticket to see Irish playwright Connor McPherson’s The Seafarer (2006), which in London was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Play and on Broadway in 2007 was nominated for a Tony for Best Play and Best Director. The theater was tiny--ten seats across with a center aisle, maybe seven raised rows of seats--and I took a seat in the front row on the aisle to be particularly close to the action. The actor John Shea, a Nantucket resident, is Artistic Director for the company, and I was surprised when he showed up standing right next to me in the center aisle to give an introductory speech. It was interestingly very intime to have the actors just a few steps away on the same level, and have them using as an exit the side doors we’d entered the theater by.
Nantucket: Miscellanea We have some miscellaneous facts of interest:
Many celebrities are Nantucket residents. A few, other than John Shea, are Tommy Hilfiger, Ben Stiller and parents Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller, Brian Williams. Frequent visitors are Jimmy Buffet, Steve Forbes, Robert De Niro, Michael Dukakis, Meg Ryan, Mark Wahlberg.
The most famous inhabitant, however, is fictional, and is undoubtedly the “man from Nantucket” mentioned in the opening line of many limericks (2008/17). I enjoyed seeing in a gift shop window a tee shirt that said: “I am the Man from Nantucket . . .”
In Herman Melville’s 1851 Moby-Dick we find two more fictional characters from Nantucket, Captain Ahab and First Mate Starbuck. The coffee shop chain Starbucks (no apostrophe) is named after him, but is based in Seattle, not Nantucket, and there is no connection. I dined in an excellent restaurant named Queequeg’s (with apostrophe). It food and atmosphere were great, and how can one resist dining at a restaurant with two Q’s in its name? Queequeg is also a Moby-Dick character, the chief harpooner on the Pequod, but he’s from the South Pacific. He’s also had been a cannibal, which makes you wonder about naming a restaurant--good as it is--after him.
To move to real people, but maintain the coffee connection: James Folger was a Nantucketer who went to San Francisco for the gold rush, but who, like many, found it wiser to become a merchant and provide others with goods and services rather than go mining himself. He eventually got involved in coffee making, so today, Folgers Coffee (no apostrophe) is credited as a San Francisco and not Nantucket product.
Rowland Hussey Macy (R H Macy) was a Nantucketer who, at the age of fifteen, sailed on a whaling ship and had a red star tattooed on his hand. He learned the retail business in a small shop on Main Street, and eventually founded his department store. This red star to this day is part of the logo of Macy’s (with apostrophe).
On 25 July 1956, 51 people were killed in the collision of the Italian ocean liner Andrea Doria with the Stockholm in heavy fog 72 km (45 mi) south of Nantucket.
SeaStreak Home On Friday, I wrote in the morning on the sun porch of the B&B, and then took the Lady Martha in the afternoon back to Oak Bluffs, where I had booked the Dockside Inn right across from the inner harbor where I docked, and just a couple of blocks away from where I’d leave for New York. It was a contemporary building, but in Victorian style, and I like my ground-floor room abutting the front porch. Saturday I walked through the campground area again to sense its tranquility. After dinner there were fireworks over Nantucket Sound. Sunday afternoon I boarded the SeaStreak fast ferry for New York.
It was a beautiful late afternoon on the ferry, and in daylight, I could see all the islands on this end of the trip. We went down Vineyard Sound with the Elizabeth Islands on the right, and crossed Rhode Island Sound, passing Block Island on the left, which forms a geological continuum (Elizabeths-Block Island-Montauk Point). We then sailed through the next continuum with New York’s Fisher Island off Connecticut on our right, and Plum Island next to Orient Point on our left. I will be passing from Orient Point to CT on my July trip.
But after a while came the nicest part, entering New York City by water right after sunset from the east, which I had never done before. It was two days before the summer solstice, so the city lights blended after sunset with a lingering twilight. We passed under the bridges on the Upper East River, then turned left at Hell Gate to go down the Lower East River to 35th Street. Most got off here, and fanned off in all directions. I got the bus here to the subway, and the SeaStreak continued down through the harbor to complete its trip back in New Jersey.