In stark contrast to Wesleyan Grove’s spare cottages, the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association (MVCMA), the governing body of Wesleyan Grove, decided to build the modern, wrought-iron Tabernacle in the center of the campground in 1879. The large oaks that provided shelter in the central space had begun to die by the 1870s. Leaders attempted to use an expansive wood and canvas tent for the large meetings, but it tended to fall down in storms. The Association hired John Hoyt of Springfield, Massachusetts, to erect a vast, innovative, and largely prefabricated wrought-iron worship space with open sides that could seat 2,000 attendees.
The Tabernacle serves as the hub of Wesleyan Grove’s social and religious life. It is not only physically located at the center of the complex, but it also serves as a gathering and worship space for the community. Seen from outside, the large structure provides the site with a distinctive architectural identity. The relatively darker space within is illuminated by forty-eight stained glass windows.
With its three-tiered roof and iron structure, the Tabernacle is a technical masterpiece. The iron members were prefabricated in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Springfield, Massachusetts. Four major iron supports that act as trusses form the structural core and hold up a square upper roof. The two lower roofs are rounded and have a clerestory between them. Another clerestory existed between the upper and middle roofs. The sides are fully open, and wrought-iron arches hold up the larger, lower roofs. Two prominent entrances with arched openings and gabled roofs stand out on the north and south elevations. An octagonal cupola sits atop the building.
This impressive structure boldly proclaimed that even though Wesleyan Grove gradually took on more characteristics of a summer resort community, it would always remain a space devoted, in part, to religious worship.
Brown, Dona. Inventing New England: Regional Tourism in the Nineteenth Century. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.
Dagnall, Russell, Sally Dagnall, and Ellen Weiss, “Wesleyan Grove,” Dukes County, MA. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, 2003. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Weiss, Ellen. City in the Woods: The Life and Design of an American Camp Meeting on Martha’s Vineyard. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.