The Gingerbread Cottages of Oak Bluffs
Story & photos by Deborah Loeb Bohren
No visit to Martha’s Vineyard is complete without a stroll through the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association community in the heart of Oak Bluffs.
The 34-acre National Historic Landmark traces its roots to an 1835 Methodist revival camp meeting of nine tents. Twenty years later it had become one of the largest and best known camp meeting sites in the country, home roughly 200 temporary tents each summer.
The early revivals lasted for a week to 10 days and over the next few decades the tents were gradually replaced by unique, boldly colored gingerbread cottages designed by local carpenters. Their architecture was designed to mimic the shape of the the tents and were adorned with intricate painted filigree trim, including designs such as diamonds, hearts, scallops, and birds. The homes were each named and slowly the camp evolved into a permanent summer colony. At its peak there were 570 cottages.
Once a year in August — beginning in 1869 and continuing to today — residents hang paper lanterns around the exterior of their homes and light them all at the same time creating a truly magical atmosphere. This special annual tradition is aptly named Illumination Night.
Today, 318 of the original houses remain, still painted in a rainbow assortment of vivid colors and sporting names such as Oz, Oops, Sorrows End and Happy Daze. And if you happen to be there on August 18th this year (Covid restrictions permitting) you can be whisked back through time and bask in the glow of this year’s Illumination Night.