Owning a Bit of The Camp Ground

The Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, an old-fashioned neighborhood of tiny colorful cottages in the center of Oak Bluffs, has an appealing storybook quality to it, along with some unusual ownership eccentricities.

Summer mornings in the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Ground are quiet. A rocking chair creaks as someone turns the page of a newspaper. Children ride bikes along the narrow streets. Throughout the historic neighborhood, it’s a cherished time before the pulse of another summer day quickens.

The community began with the first camp meeting in 1835, when summer visitors who gathered for Methodist revivals pitched their tents in a semi-circle within Trinity Park. Tent platforms came next, to make it easier to set up from year to year. Wooden cottages began to appear in the 1860s, and during its heyday there were five hundred cottages clustered closely together around the great Tabernacle. Today, these quirky little gingerbread houses number about three hundred, and some ten of those are for sale this year.

The Camp Ground these days hosts a thriving summer population with a small number of year-round residents. The cottages tend to be less expensive than others on the Vineyard, largely due to their small size, close proximity, and lack of land title. Buyers own their homes but lease their lots from the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, and lease fees are based on lot sizes. The association offers optional services for homeowners, including lawn mowing, street care, and community bulletins with event updates throughout the summer.

“They’re like one big family. It’s a good place for kids and it’s close enough to town,” explains real estate broker Pat Hughes of Hughes and J.C. Murphy Realty. “It’s a nice community of activities.”

Pat says buyers should accept the cottages as old treasures. “People need to understand you’re buying a house that was originally built in the 1880s, so it’s not going to be a perfect house no matter who owns it before you,” she says. “Something most likely is going to have to be attended to. They’re fun houses. They’re the low end of the market.”

Prospective homeowners are required to go through a thorough application process to become a member of the association. They must provide three letters of recommendation, at least one of which must be from a clergy member attesting to the homeowner’s religious practices, and another should be from a camp meeting association member.

Pat says financing can be an issue for new homeowners because most banks will not issue mortgages for a house without land ownership. Many turn to Vineyard banks that are “familiar with the Camp Ground’s rules and regulations and will honor it.”

Broker Candy daRosa of Karen M. Overtoom Real Estate explains homes cannot be rented out to others for more than six weeks a season, and the owner, not just family members, must spend at least two weeks a year on-site. “The Camp Ground encourages you to be a part of the community, so there are limitations in terms of it being an investment property,” she says. “They would like you to participate with one another, know your neighbors. It’s not for everybody....People who live in a city and don’t know their neighbor in the apartment next door, this might not be their cup of tea, but if they want to be front and center, be able to walk to everything, and have the opportunity to participate, this is for them.”

Many of these homes have been in the same families for generations, and each carries a distinct set of traditions and stories. And if you’re lucky, the paper lanterns that dot the whimsical pink, blue, green, and yellow cottages on Grand Illumination Night every August will be passed down to the next owner.

When a cottage needs a little extra attention, broker Jim Hupperich of MV Premier Properties explains the association is “very flexible as far as build-out goes.” He says, “I sold a house [in] the Camp Ground that was totally contemporary inside....They’re not restrictive that way that I can tell.”

Jim says he’s seeing more places get winterized for year-round housing. “You’re one block from Circuit Avenue, where the grocery store is, the ferry boat [for] when people want to visit you – to me it may very well turn into that kind of community where the majority are retirees,” says Jim. “It’s very controlled. The association takes care of the streets; they watch the trees and make sure nothing is falling down.”

Summer or winter, the Camp Ground embraces old-fashioned traditions. “This is a great place to just sit on the porch and watch the world slow down,” Jim says. “It’s a place where you’ll say good morning a thousand times a day if you sit out here long enough.”

My blue heaven

There’s something comforting about the wraparound porch at 26 Commonwealth Avenue, bowed from the many gatherings, small children, and rocking chairs it has hosted over the course of its 140-year history.

Through the front door and dining room, up a narrow winding staircase, and across the master bedroom, comes a sweet reward: a peek at Sunset Lake through the treetops. Sitting upstairs on the balcony looking over the lake, broker Pat Hughes remarks on the open feeling. Blue Heaven is nestled among the many rows of Camp Ground cottages, but has more open space surrounding it than most. The lot size is 2,500 square feet with open lots on either side, which means plenty of light finds its way inside.

“You can sit on the wraparound porch,” Pat says, “and you’re not looking at anyone except the people across the street. It’s not claustrophobic.”

Built in 1870, this single-family home includes two bedrooms, one full bathroom, an outdoor shower, and two parking spaces. A new roof was added earlier this summer. Tucked away in the back of the house is the kitchen, renovated in 2007, and a breakfast nook; there is also a full dining room that can seat six people. The bedrooms are roomy, with wide painted floorboards; the master bedroom opens onto a balcony overlooking Sunset Lake. It sleeps a total of seven people.

Over the years additions have been made to the front and back of the house. The previous owners were artists and left traces of their craft in stained-glass porch light fixtures and overhead lights inside.

The house is assessed at $334,100 but is listed at $289,000. Property taxes are $3,000 annually; the annual Camp Ground lease fee is $1,675. Pat says the price point for Blue Heaven reflects current real estate trends. “This is a market where people try to really get a bargain, and in my opinion this house is already a good bargain.”

Mellow and yellow

Hidden in the roof of 15 Butler Avenue are letters from every previous owner. It’s been a house rule since 1865, when the cottage was built: When a new roof is put on, the current owner must leave a memento behind.

“Somewhere in that roof is a packet with names and a letter from the original owners talking about the Camp Ground,” listing broker Jim Hupperich says one morning, looking up at the roof. The current owners have also left a note. “They had to,” Jim says.

Sisters Patricia Banks and Dorothy Denalsky, who are selling the cottage, have a long history in the Camp Ground. Their grandfather would make the family paint one exterior side, one railing, and one interior room every year. Now it’s time for the sisters – the house has been in their family for seventy years – to pass it along to another family, who hopefully will feel as lucky to have it. Jim says, “It’s almost like if I get an offer, I have to have it approved by the personalities.”

The 1865 house is priced at $360,000, and includes three bedrooms, one full bathroom, and a covered front porch; the upstairs bedrooms are tucked underneath the old eaves. Jim says the house has only been used on occasion and is in good condition.

“It’s the quiet part of the Camp Ground,” Jim adds. “The streets feel wider. There are good-sized trees. It’s very comfortable here.”

And there’s room to grow. “It’s hard sometimes to expand these places but this one here – with the kitchen and bath in back – you could take the roof off and go up,” he says. All of the cottages are now on town sewers, so adding another bedroom or bathroom is an option.

The family kept the integrity of the gingerbread look, with butterfly brackets on the porch and teardrop patterns along the trim. The teardrop pattern on the Gothic bargeboard, the decorative gabled area from a projected roof line, is consistent with other Camp Ground cottages. The bargeboard is often the cottages’ most defining characteristic.

“When I look at some of this architecture, it could be anywhere on the Island,” Jim says, pointing to a neighboring house with nondescript characteristics, then turns back to the yellow cottage. “But when I look at this, I know I’m in the Camp Ground right away.”

On the waterfront

At the height of summer, it can seem impossible to sneak away to a quiet place in Oak Bluffs, but one Camp Ground house sitting squarely on the harbor offers just that.

There are three staircases at 36 Lake Avenue, leading to a maze of rooms on multiple levels. It’s a hide-and-go-seek haven. The 1870 house is listed at $550,000; property taxes are $4,300 a year with Camp Ground fees of $1,500 annually. At 1,660 square feet, it’s on the larger side for Camp Ground houses, and the high ceilings provide even more room.

The house includes two living rooms, a dining room, a new kitchen, four bedrooms, and one and a half baths. The central core of the house, including the kitchen, bathroom, and two bedrooms, is insulated and has a gas heater. Listing broker Candy daRosa says previous owners have sectioned off that part of the house to use it during the winter.

A large side door with two staircases may mean the single-family home was formerly a multi-family dwelling, Candy says. A garden and patio in the back connect the main house with a converted garden shed that now includes a shower. It’s much quieter in the back, and Candy explains that the close proximity of houses “balances the sound of traffic.”

At the front of the house overlooking the harbor, you can watch the comings and goings of sailors, fishermen, day-trippers, and restaurant-goers – a fun spot for people-watching. Then retreat out back for some privacy. Candy says, “It doesn’t feel like you’re in the middle of town when you’re back here – it’s pretty unique.”