Ever wanted to live in a gingerbread house? The Cottage City neighbourhood in Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard gives you an entire gingerbread neighbourhood. Hansel & Gretel wouldn’t have known where to start.
Cottage City dates back to the 19th century when Methodists gathered together each summer for religious meetings. After the first meeting in 1835, the same families would return each year and pitch their tents. Eventually by the 1870’s, the tents gave way to little cottages packed in together around a central wooden structure, The Tabernacle, which held community events.
The cottages were not only decorated with elaborate scrollwork, porches etc but also were brightly painted. This architectural style, called “Carpenter’s Gothic”, makes the houses look like something out of a fairy tale.
Added to the sensory overload, are the profusion of colourful flowers spilling out of window boxes, hanging baskets and gardens. And, let’s not forget all the adornments around the houses – seashells, wind chimes, signs, garden gnomes etc. One house even has a miniature dollhouse replica of itself set out on its porch. A minimalist would probably have a fit of the vapors within 5 minutes of entering the neighbourhood.
Around 300 cottages have survived to the present. In 2005, the grounds and buildings were named a National Historic Landmark which will help preserve them for years to come. Many cottages have been owned by the same family for generations. They do come up occasionally for sale or rent. The prices are exorbitant considering the cottages are minuscule. So, what price history you ask? Apparently, averaging about $2000/week.
Cottage City, however, never feels like a museum. The residents sit on their porches and their children play in the gardens. I’d find it difficult to be constantly gawked at but they seem to take it in their stride.
Cottage City has its own summer event in August, Grand Illumination Night, when the residents hang brightly coloured Chinese and Japanese lanterns from their porches. This event started over a 100 years ago as a way to mark the visit of the Governor of Massachusetts. It became more popular every year thereafter. Initially, the Cottage City residents disliked this secular event which didn’t jive with their conservative religious tendencies.
Prior to the lanterns being turned on in unison in the dark, people hang around eating and drinking. The residents are lucky to have porches on which to sit while visitors bring picnic blankets.
The variety of lanterns is amazing – old, new, floral, patriotic etc. The lanterns are up for the night only and get returned to storage the next day. One homeowner told us packing and unpacking her lanterns took 3 days. We had a lot of fun spotting new and different lanterns. Of the hundreds of lanterns, I did not see one repeat! Some of the lanterns are incredibly fragile because, traditionally, the lanterns were included in a house sale.
The Vineyard Haven band plays old favourites for the crowd before and during Illumination Night. Our children sang to the songs for The Sound of Music even though they were really tired and way past their bedtime.
The Martha’s Vineyard Campmeeting Association also run a small museum on the grounds which is very informative.
My children loved Illumination Night. They got to stay up past bedtime and made a game of who could spot the next cool lantern. The event is crowded but very family friendly. Even without Illumination Night, I think Cottage City is worth seeing. It’s a testament to a bygone way of life of prayer meetings, community sing-alongs and leisurely chats with your neighbours on the porch.