Colorful Martha's Vineyard homes create a fairy tale community

Email|Print| Text size + By Linda Matchan
August 8, 2002

For sale: Extremely bright pink house in Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard. Gingerbread cottage style, built circa 1864, 2 bedrooms, 770 square feet. Exterior has 14 different kinds of filigree trim, including many pink hearts. Price includes pink wall-to-wall carpeting and pink and white furnishings, but no land, no insulation, hardly any storage space, creaky slanted floor. Seller requests that buyer keep the house pink. Buyer must be willing to tolerate tourists peeping through the windows at all hours.

The Pink House, as it's known here in Oak Bluffs, does stand out a tad, even in this neighborhood, what with its magenta and raspberry paint job, its perfectly color-coordinated begonias, its ornate filigree dripping down the eaves.

But it doesn't stand out that much.

This, after all, is the land of gingerbread, of storybook decorative details on houses so fanciful you'd think you were looking at dollhouses, It's the land of teeny-tiny rainbow-colored Victorian cottages with high-peaked roofs, dainty verandas, and themed embellishments on the balconies, turrets, cornices, and gables, a lot of which are arguably over the top.

For example, there's the shrimp-colored cottage on Central Avenue, where the balcony cutouts are shaped like children, carousel horses, grapes, the outline of Martha's Vineyard. There are even gingerbread gingerbread men. There's the little house on Fourth Avenue (it once belonged to circus midget Miss Lucy Adams) with dog shapes stenciled in the trim. There's Angel Cottage on Rock Avenue where the railing pickets are a row of angels. There are houses that are top-to-bottom lavendar, or patriotically red, white, and blue, and houses with names that proudly proclaim their littleness, like Sea Shrimp Cottage or Big Enuf or Small Frey.

Many of the cottages are so small in this neighborhood, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, that their roofs touch one another, and residents must haul furniture through an upstairs balcony because the staircases are too narrow. Oak Bluffs carpenter and gingerbread specialist Robert Gatchell once tried to add an exterior wall to a house that was only 6 inches away from the one next door. "The space was too small to swing a hammer," he said. "I had to build the whole exterior wall first, carry it up on the roof, and lower it in place."

Of all the cute cottages in this 34-acre, 312-cottage enclave known officially as the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association Camp Ground, probably none is better known than the very pink "Wooden Valentine." Since 1984, when they purchased it on Valentine's Day, it's been the summer home of Jack and Anita Welles of Barefoot Bay, Fla. Anita maintains it is the most photographed home on the Vineyard. Even former president Bill Clinton has seen it.

"I think everyone in the world who has visited here has a picture of it," she said. "It brings a lot of people to the campground, and I think that's the way it should be."

It will be even more prominent next Wednesday night, on famed Illumination Night, the one night in the whole summer when, for more than 130 years, the campground is lit up with hundreds of Japanese lanterns hanging from the cottages, to the delight of thousands of spectators. The Welleses, who just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, will be ready for it. Many of their 60 lanterns and icicle lights are, of course, pink.

"The peaks are covered, the porch is covered, and out in the backyard it will be all pink lights across the fence and into the tree," said Anita.

Now, the pink house is for sale.

It is hard to convey how hard it is to say goodbye to a gingerbread cottage. The Welleses are selling theirs because of Jack's health problems and the sheer effort of painting and washing it every year to keep it looking fresh. Anita gets teary-eyed as she talks about Wooden Valentine, which she has lovingly decorated with pink heart knickknacks and outfitted with pink dishes and linens.

"It takes a special person to have this house," says the petite Anita, wearing a crisp pink blouse and pink sapphire bracelet. "You have conversations with a lot of people who ask a lot of questions," some of which are about the pinkness of her cottage, but many of which are about the neighborhood. "They want to know about the campground and how it started, and what it is all about."

The Welleses have quite a tale to tell. The campground grew out of the religious camp meeting movement of the 19th century, introduced by the Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists in Kentucky, and brought by the Methodists to New England. They held weeklong Bible-thumping meetings in Oak Bluffs, where the cottages are now.

"It was religion morning, noon, and night," says Sally Dagnall, author of a history of the campground. "They were interested in reclaiming souls, and converting them."

Of course they needed a place to sleep, so they set up primitive tents (500 of them, eventually) in circles and parks around a tabernacle. Gradually, the tents with straw floors started to undergo a strange metamorphosis. Wooden sides went up and floors went down, and the tents gradually turned into cottages - except they still looked a lot like tents, with canvas tops and pointy roofs. They looked oddly ecclesiastical, too, with cathedral windows and doors and steep gables. Then came the filigree decorations, or gingerbread. For reasons that still puzzle historians, local carpenters began to have a heyday with it.

"We laughingly say the Methodists were so staunch they needed something frivolous in their life," says Dagnall. "They were staunch, but they were not without humor."

No two cottages were alike, "as cottagers vied to outdo one another with decorative additions," she writes in her book. Whether consciously or not, the carpenters revived a variety of Victorian styles, creating what Vineyard architectural historian Ellen Weiss calls a "19th-century neo-medieval" effect.

"They were hybrid buildings," says Weiss, who has written a book on the cottages' history. "I'd argue they were actually a new American-invented building type." There were scrolls and crosses, and fan shapes and doodads of every imaginable shape and size, many of them, in Weiss's words, "architecturally imperious."

Still, she adds, "the purpose seems to be to be delightful. It's very clear that for these Christians, this was a very loaded moral situation. The cottages straddle the line between ostentation and humility. The Methodists were described as being stern people, but their homes were winsome and cute."

Eventually, many cottage owners made their houses more livable by merging adjoining properties and putting on additions. Some have been winterized, but many are only seasonal, with walls that are just one plank thick, as in the case of the Pink House, and still in the original verticle, tongue-in-groove construction.

The campground is a mishmash of styles, colors, additions, and trims, but cottagers are conscientious about keeping the historical value intact. Gatchell, the carpenter of Splinters and Sawdust (known to many in the campground as "the man who fixes the gingerbread"), has a studio filled with Victorian reference books, templates, and assorted gingerbread pieces, so he can repair rotted filigree and add new trim to additions.

"Probably 50 to 60 percent of the gingerbread is original," he says. "There seems to be more interest and attention paid in recent years to what was there originally."

There is a lot of interest in the cottages from prospective buyers, says real estate agent John Newsom, who has been showing the Pink House, priced at $275,000.

"We've had three sales of cottages over $300,000 this year," he says.

Of course, there are limitations to living in this community, not the least of which is that owners own only the cottage and not the land, which is leased on an annual basis from the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association.

Also, "the rental rules are real killers," he concedes. Occupants have to obey a "good neighbor policy" and be quiet after 11 p.m. No yard sales are allowed. Owners can rent the cottages for only six weeks a year.

Plus, there's hardly any storage. "People say, `Where are the closets?' The answer is: in trunks, under stairs."

That didn't stop Aviva Kempner of Washington, D.C., from falling in love with the Pink House on a recent visit to the island. Kempner, who directed the film "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," saw it several times and came very close to buying it. "I find the house delicious," she says. "I collect folk art and the thought of having a house that is folk art is amazing."

To her regret, however, she decided against it, for practical reasons. She couldn't earn enough income with the stringent rental rules, and there was no bathroom on the second floor, where the bedrooms are. "It's a small-bladder situation," she explains. "But the house is delicious. It was to die for."

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