Preservation Trust Agrees to Purchase Historic Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs

By JULIA WELLS
Gazette Senior Writer

The Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust confirmed this week that it will buy Union Chapel, the storied Oak Bluffs chapel whose rich history forms a distinct chapter in the annals of the Vineyard as a summer resort.

Designed by the late Boston architect Samuel Pratt Freeman, the chapel was built in 1870 at a cost of $16,000 on a rise of land dubbed Chapel Hill at the head of Kennebec avenue off Circuit avenue. The chapel is an octagonal, light-filled building with a soaring ceiling and superb acoustics. Spiritually, the chapel has embraced a worldly, nondenominational congregation of many colors for more than 132 summers.

Among other things, Union Chapel is known for attracting talented preachers from around the world. It also has a rich musical heritage that goes back for generations.

"It's a real privilege to be asked to be the stewards of the Union Chapel," said Chris Scott, executive director of the trust.

"If anybody wanted to put together the all-American congregation, one that represents what this country stands for and what it is all about, well, that is what you see at the Union Chapel every Sunday," said James Bryan, who is president of the Union Chapel Association.

The purchase price is one dollar. A closing is planned for Sept. 15. The trust will take ownership of the building, and the chapel association will continue to run religious programs. The chapel is open from late June until Labor Day.

The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

The partnership between the trust and the chapel association came about partly by chance. About a year ago, Mr. Bryan was thinking about starting a campaign to raise money to create an endowment fund for the chapel. He had begun to talk with a few people about his idea, and along the way he decided it would be useful to get some advice from Mr. Scott about fundraising. He went to meet with him.

"All of a sudden I realized that Chris was leading the conversation and we weren't really talking about fundraising," Mr. Bryan recalled.

A few more meetings followed and the result was a sale agreement between the chapel association and the preservation trust. Mr. Scott said the terms of the sale will work well for both institutions.

"This will enable us to focus 100 per cent of our resources on renovation and not acquisition, and the chapel will be able to devote its funds to religious activities and not building maintenance," Mr. Scott said.

"This guarantees the preservation of the building - forever," Mr. Bryan said.

Mr. Bryan, whose family dates back to the early summer colony on East Chop, first began attending Union Chapel in the later 1930s as a young child with his grandfather, who was treasurer for the chapel. He remembers looking up at the huge windows with the light streaming through. "It wasn't going to church, it was a wonderful place to go," Mr. Bryan said. Today Mr. Bryan attends services at Union Chapel with his own grandchildren.

"I love Union Chapel, plain and simple," he said.

The chapel has always called its members pillars. "A pillar is a person who says they will financially support and attend on a regular basis," Mr. Bryan said. Although the chapel has never had a formal endowment, in the old days, Mr. Bryan said, a small group of East Chop summer residents made themselves available as silent benefactors in the event of an emergency. "They made it clear that if the chapel ever needed money because of a hurricane or some other unforeseen event, that they would provide the money. I don't think they were ever called on," Mr. Bryan said.

Every member of the Union Chapel congregation is a member of another congregation in some other place. One person who attends the chapel services rides his bicycle from Edgartown every Sunday, Mr. Bryan said.

Mr. Scott said the building is sound, and there are preliminary plans to launch a renovation project that will include interior work and the restoration of a Victorian tower that once topped the building. Mr. Bryan said he believes the tower blew off in the 1938 hurricane and was never replaced.

"This is a high-quality landmark," Mr. Scott said. "The decision for our board was, do we feel it is a worthy public landmark, and is it a partnership that can work? In both cases the answer was yes," he said.

The history of Union Chapel dates to an era when summer visitors traveled to the Vineyard by steamboat and the Oak Bluffs harbor was still called Lake Anthony. It was also the heyday of the Methodist camp meetings, which had begun to draw large, enthusiastic crowds to the area where the Tabernacle now stands (the Tabernacle was built in 1879). Concerned about fostering a quiet and serious religious atmosphere, the Camp Meeting Association erected a seven-foot picket fence around the Camp Ground in an effort to shut out the growing crowd of people who were considered too worldly.

The town was left without a chapel, and the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Co. decided to build a chapel that was dedicated to providing a place for preachers of every theological persuasion - even liberals.

"This was a breakaway group and they were swingers. They liked music. They decided to open the chapel to everyone and they would call it a nondenominational place of worship," Mr. Bryan said.

With its 96-foot spire and fretted woodwork, the building was a typical example of the architecture of Cottage City at the time. It was built entirely by hand.

"It's interesting to imagine how those pillars were erected, the roof assembled. It required courageous and skilled craftsmen," declared a history piece about the chapel published in the Vineyard Gazette on the chapel's 125th anniversary.

The chapel was dedicated in 1871 in an extended ceremony with seven preachers representing an array of faiths. The Park Street Church Choir from New York city sang the Credo from LaHache's Mass for Peace.

The chapel is also known for hosting an array of lectures and concerts over the years. The chapel houses a historic 1924 Austin organ and a Knabe concert grand piano whose former home was David's Island House. The piano is reputed to have come originally from Radio City Music Hall in New York city.

Religion and music are not the only things that have echoed inside the walls of Union Chapel - the chapel also hosted the heated political meetings that preceded the secession of Oak Bluffs from Edgartown.

In 1958, on the occasion of the first baptism in the chapel, an editorial in the Vineyard Gazette took special note of the chapel's unique history.

"About its origin there was a worldly complication: The camp meeting people had put up a seven-foot picket fence around their grounds, and the new community of the Oak Bluffs Land & Wharf Co. was being called ungodly. With liberality much praised at the time, and also with business acumen, the Oak Bluffs company erected the chapel, and thereafter the picket fence lost some of its pointed quality."

Concluded Mr. Bryan: "I think people come to Union Chapel because it's a place where they know they're welcomed."