There are hidden stories nestled throughout Edgartown, right in front of our eyes. But you might not know many of them unless you wend your way through the historic district with Claire Thacher, or one of the other architectural tour guides from the Vineyard Trust.
Thacher, an engaging guide, seamlessly led a group last week from one site to another, despite the fact that her usual tour group of four to 10 folks had blossomed that day to nearly 20. At each stop she spoke about the architecture, but the real focus was on the stories behind the façades, who built them, who lived there, and most delightful, bits of interesting information that she found particularly fun to share. The Vineyard Trust website contains information and photographs for each of its properties, but it’s good to share some of the highlights of what makes up the 90-minute tour.
The first stop was the symmetrical, Georgian-style John Coffin House, built in 1703 as a private residence. While it originally belonged to the Coffin family, what captured the imagination was that the house became a tavern.
In colonial America, taverns were extremely important multipurpose venues. Imagine men of all types milling around seeking food, drink, entertainment, lodgings; conducting business; listening to traveling preachers; and members of the circuit court meeting to discuss politics. Given its location, just a stone’s throw from the harbor, it’s likely that sailors newly returned from a long whaling voyage also caught up on the latest news and gossip.
Even though you may know Edgartown, you may not be aware of the gem of a park nestled right behind some buildings on Main Street, which was the original village green in the 1600s. While there are no longer grazing animals or market days, it has remained a common space for 350 years. Among other things, Thacher shared the story of how this once threatened village green was saved from destruction.
In the 1940s, the Age of the Automobile hit the Vineyard, and this little oasis almost became a municipal parking lot. Pulitzer-prizewinning newspaperman and writer Henry Beetle Hough, once editor of the Vineyard Gazette, led the charge to save the green by helping to form the North Water Street corporation, which raised money to buy it.
If you ever doubted that Edgartown’s original wealth came from being a great seafaring town, then the imposing Old Whaling Church, designed in 1842 by architect Frederick Baylies Jr., will immediately change your mind. You can’t help but have a visceral reaction to the majestic Greek Revival façade, which mimics an ancient temple.
The first thing that strikes you are the five enormous columns, which are impressive for more than just their size. These gigantic centurions are actually hollow, and unlike traditional columns of solid stone, fashioned from vertical wood planks wrapped around interior hoops. Despite their size, surprisingly, they serve no structural function. The horizontal entablature and triangular pediment on top of them are actually balanced only on the front wall of the church.
Thacher learned that the bell was given to Edgartown “so the good people of Edgartown will know what time it is.” She went on to say, “I thought, Isn’t that funny, and then my son reminded me that in those days watches were a luxury, so people actually really depended on the church bell to let them know the time.”
However, it is the interior that takes your breath away. The decorative and architectural elements are all trompe l’oeil, a painted “trick of the eye” that defies the church’s actual flat walls. The Vineyard muralist Margot Datz meticulously used only shades of gray to create the three-dimensional illusion. Thacher directs visitors’ gaze to the quiet, soft vertical light emanating from the empty alcove that looked to be receding from the stage. She explained that although there are no other religious references, for the Methodists this light symbolizes the spiritual mystery. Talking about light, Thacher pointed out the original whale oil lamps, now electrified, used a pulley system to lower them for refilling.
Just across the way is Dr. Daniel Fisher’s stately Federal-style house with its symmetrical, slatted façade. As you walk in the door, there is a tall, tightly spiraling staircase with a splendid polished wood banister that creates a sense of vertigo when you look all the way up to the cupola. The best anecdote on the tour came while looking at the elegant interior; Dr. Fisher’s illustrious group of friends included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Daniel Webster, among others.
In fact, Dr. Fisher was a terribly impressive businessman. Thacher reeled off his multiple accomplishments. Fisher came to Vineyard after graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1829. He held the lucrative job as port physician for the busy Vineyard Haven Harbor. Fisher invested in whaling ships, traded in whaling oil, had a hardtack bakery that provisioned all the ships, and farmland in North Tisbury with carts rumbling back and forth on what is now called Daniel Fisher’s Road. He had a spermaceti candlemaking factory, whose candles were larger and more efficient than his competitors’, thus earning him the contract for the nation’s lighthouses. Fisher made so much money with his enterprises that he started the big brick bank in the middle of Main Street.
After the spacious and grand Fisher House, the site of the last stop, the Vincent House, felt a bit claustrophobic. Eight generations of the Vincent family lived in the house from about 1672 to the 1940s. Modest in size, it is a perfect example of a Cape-style abode, and its original character remains intact. The building’s façade has two simply trimmed windows on either side of the central door, a steeply pitched shingled roof, and one big central chimney in the center, to which all three fireplaces fed. Inside, Thacher pointed out the post-and-beam construction and none-too-pretty wattle and daub insulation. Curious about whether the rather large bed would have really been in the same room where the family entertained, indicated by a dining table and chairs, Thacher assured visitors that “a woman would entertain in her bedroom because it gave her chance to show off her coverlets. Textiles were some of the most valuable things in the house, so she would keep the bed made up nicely.”
The tour group roundly thanked Thacher for her engaging tour, which gave all a taste of Edgartown’s days of yore.
Offered Wednesday through Sunday at 10:30 am or 2 pm until late October, the Edgartown architecture tour and harbor tour tell the unique story of Martha’s Vineyard through the trust’s landmark historic buildings. Tickets: $12 for adults, $9 for seniors, $7 for children.