This was then: The Capawoc

Little black devils dancing over the door.

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Capawoc or Capawock Hall, later known as Masonic Hall, and located on Church Street, Vineyard Haven, is today the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. — Courtesy Chris Baer

Methodist lay pastor Louis Jansen, a young London-born religious firebrand, may not have been well educated, but he was a passionate and popular speaker. He spent only two years on the Island, but during his pastorate here he built the first dedicated Methodist church in Holmes Hole, the structure known today as the Playhouse, erected 1833 on Church Street. In its original form it was a modest one-story building with its main entrance facing the harbor. A melodeon was eventually purchased to accompany the active choir.

Not everyone was thrilled with the new church. Two hundred feet away, on the Main Street side of the block, stood the shop of Chase the Hatter, about where Bespoke Abode is today. And behind it stood the hatter’s home, which overlooked this new building. In the pamphlet “Sketches of Old Homes in our Village,” Mrs. Howes Norris wrote about the new church: “Over the doors and windows were placed fan-like blinds which so distressed Mrs. Cynthia Chase,” wife of hatter Hiram Chase, “that she saw strange sights. She said, ‘They were little hypocrites and saw little black devils dancing over there every night — and it was wicked and sinful to ornament God’s house in such a manner.’”

Hiram Chase, a veteran of the War of 1812, had moved to Holmes Hole from Sandwich with his wife Cynthia and their young children at the end of the war. The odor from his dye vats was so powerful that William Cottle, who lived two doors down Main Street, sued him in court. Nineteenth-century American hatters evaporated large volumes of mercury nitrate solution to prepare felt for their hats, potentially exposing them to neurological damage.

Cynthia’s hallucinations aside, there is no evidence that Hiram suffered from mercury poisoning. But their son Alfred Chase was paralyzed on his right side, and grew up to become an eccentric invalid who spent his days visiting homes across town. “Many a time I’ve seen him stop, on some street corner, take a little New Testament from his pocket, and turning its pages consult them for instructions and guidance, as to whom to visit next,” recalled Rev. Warren Luce.

Mr. Jansen began the Seamen’s Prayermeeting, a non-sectarian monthly service for visiting sailors, a tradition which lasted 25 years, long after he moved off-Island. But the church itself outgrew this building after only 12 years, and a new church was soon built across the street.

The old church building was purchased in 1848 by Capt. Charles Smith, who named it Capawoc — or Capawock Hall (spellings vary). It became the site of Tisbury town meetings until the end of the Civil War, and hosted concerts, lectures, balls, “coffee suppers,” “dancing parties” and other town activities for decades. It also became a makeshift morgue in 1884, when it was used to store some 11 bodies, covered in sheets, recovered from the wreck of the City of Columbus on Devil’s Bridge. Sometime during this era the old church was raised over a new first floor.

It became a Masonic temple in 1895, and thereafter referred to as “Masonic Hall.” (Originally “King Solomon’s Lodge of Perfection,” the Masons had been active in Holmes Hole on and off since 1800.) The Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse has occupied the building since 1982.

 

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.