The Tabernacle turns 180

The beloved Campground venue has grown up from an early grove of trees

The current Tabernacle, built of iron in 1879, hosts everything from Boston Pops concerts to the high school graduation, and of course, is the centerpiece for Illumination Night. — Michael Cummo

This summer marks the 180th anniversary of Oak Bluffs’ storied Camp Meeting grounds. The Tabernacle, also known as the Iron Tabernacle, shares that anniversary. But the Tabernacle as we know it was not the same Tabernacle back in 1835: The spot at the center of Trinity Park has hosted gatherings from early prayer meetings among a grove of oak trees, and then under a canvas shelter, to recent high school graduations beneath soaring iron spans and stained glass. Architecturally and spiritually, the Tabernacle is the jewel in the crown of the Camp Meeting Association, loved and revered as a thing unto itself, as a reminder of the old prayer grounds beneath it, and the hallowed purpose it serves.

Trinity Park, the cottage-bordered green space the Tabernacle rests on, was a stand of ancient oaks in 1835. According to Sally Dagnall in her book “Circle of Faith,” the Wampanoag knew it as “the place of the big trees.” Under these trees — which became known as Wesleyan Grove — the first Methodist Camp Meeting gathered, thanks largely to the initiative of Jeremiah Pease and half a dozen other Edgartown Methodists, who rented the land from Island farmer William Butler. It would be the first summer religious camp established in the United States. In her book “City in the Woods,” Ellen Weiss describes a sort of open-air church that Pease and his colleagues fashioned, comprised of a driftwood shed, a rudimentary pulpit and altar, and rough-hewn plank benches, still used today, behind which sat a handful of old sailcloth tents for lodging.

Years on, as the Camp Meeting grounds grew from a seasonal tent village to a city of wooden cottages, the worship area these dwellings radiated out from grew as well, giving way, after the unfortunate decline of the old oaks, to an enormous, three-masted tent by 1869. Though known as the Canvas Tabernacle, the Sailcloth Tabernacle would have been more appropriate, for as Dagnall noted, it took 4,000 yards of that material to make. Coincidentally, the Canvas Tabernacle could shelter the same number of people as the yardage. Despite being 50 feet high, this early shelter was oppressively stuffy, and according to Weiss, withstood foul weather poorly. Owing to those factors, nine years later it was replaced with what Weiss called “a remarkable American building.”

That remarkable building, the Iron Tabernacle, came to be in no small part because all the bids to build it

 with wood were outside the Camp Meeting Association’s budget of $7,200. According to Weiss, the short-lived partnership of a Springfield iron builder, George C. Dwight, and a civil engineer and resident of the Campgrounds, John William Hoyt, produced the right combination of material and creative resources necessary to bring the structure to life. The same year the Canvas Tabernacle was disassembled, Dwight and Hoyt designed and built the Iron Tabernacle for the sum of $7,147.84. The soaring space they created was like nothing on the Island, in the county, or in the commonwealth. With elements suggestive of Eiffel’s railway station in Budapest and Turkey’s Hagia Sophia, its graduated, almost levitating roofs echoed (with iron trusswork) that bygone ceiling of branches the campgoers had prayed under years earlier. David McCullough called the Iron Tabernacle “an architectural gem, a historic treasure, a gathering place like no other, and only to be found on the Vineyard.”

Though it underwent periodic refurbishments over the years, the Tabernacle was in such dire need of restoration at the turn of the millennium that it was given federal “Save America’s Treasures” funds to facilitate what has become nearly $3 million dollars worth of repairs. In 2005, part and parcel with the whole of the Campgrounds, it was named a National Historic Landmark. Few Islanders would argue the accolade could be more fitting.

With Illumination Night once again poised to enliven Camp Meeting cottages with the glow of colored lanterns, take a moment to walk by and enjoy a unique American building. The Tabernacle’s curvature will likely be strung with  lanterns — certainly in keeping with what any Camp Meeting Grounds resident would consider the holiest iteration of architecture on the Vineyard.