The Tabernacle, which celebrates its 125th birthday this season, still feels young. A structure suited to a vast range of human activity, the Tabernacle - which towers above Trinity Park in the heart of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association in Oak Bluffs - remains a living landmark.
The word tabernacle refers to a temporary shelter, such as the tent sanctuaries used by the Israelites during the Exodus. But the Camp Ground’s Tabernacle has proved anything but temporary.
Now as much as ever it serves as a center of Vineyard social, cultural and religious life, sheltering everything from high school graduations to church services to weddings to town meetings to choral concerts.
The Tabernacle is a democratic space. Birds, butterflies and toddlers are free to flutter in and out. While an unusual serenity exists under its roof, its open iron arches keep nothing out and hold nothing in. It is an atmosphere, more than a building.
Everyone on the Island is invited to experience this atmosphere on July 10 at 7:30 p.m., at the Tabernacle’s 125th birthday celebration.
Newsman and summer resident Mike Wallace will host the free event, delivering a narration about the place of the Tabernacle in America’s history from the building’s 1879 construction to the present. Throughout the evening, the Island Community Chorus will perform - along with audience participation on songs that illustrate this history, such as Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” and Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday.”
“This is not really a fundraiser event but a friend-raiser,” said JoAnne Sgroi, one of the event’s coordinators, quoting Tabernacle Restoration Fund chair Doug West. The restoration fund will be accepting donations that night, but mostly it is an open gathering for people to spend time in the Tabernacle and see the results of the restoration already completed.

The Birth of the Tabernacle

It’s no accident that the Tabernacle is characterized by an indoor-outdoor feeling, or that the iron supports of the structure resemble bent tree branches. At the time of the Edgartown Methodist Church’s first camp meeting in 1835, a grove of oak trees - known as the largest in New England - stood where the Tabernacle rises. The natural canopy of the oaks protected the congregation from the sun and rain. That year, the entire campground consisted of nine tents and a simple preacher’s stand made out of driftwood.
By 1860, more than 500 tents and 12,000 people gathered under the oaks for the summer camp meetings. During the ensuing 20 years, when most of the cottages were built, preserving the oaks was a priority; the cottagers would do anything to avoid cutting them down, even building their porches around the trees.
Despite their efforts, the wear and tear of so much human traffic began to kill the oaks, and the annual meetings were no longer protected from the elements.
A huge circus-like tent was the solution. In 1870, the Camp Meeting Association constructed a canvas tabernacle out of 4,000 yards of sailcloth supported by three ship masts. This $3,000 tent seated 4,000 people.
The canvas tabernacle was not without its problems. It was difficult to set up and take down; it collapsed easily during storms; it was so badly ventilated that people fainted in the summer heat.
After nine years, the directors of the association agreed it was time for something more stable; they proposed a tabernacle made of wood. But the bids ranged from $10,000 to $15,000, and the association had only $7,200.
A tabernacle made of pre-fabricated wrought iron - the most innovative architectural technology of the 19th century, used for the Eiffel Tower and the Brooklyn Bridge - would be much cheaper and more lasting. Unlike the Baptists’ wooden tabernacle, erected on East Chop in 1877, the Methodist tabernacle would never be vulnerable to wood rot.

A Seven-Week Project

Architect and campground cottager J.W. Hoyt was awarded the contract for the new iron tabernacle on April 25, 1879. The first pieces of the Tabernacle - some weighuing as much as 1,000 pounds - were preassembled in Hoyt’s shop in Springfield, Mass., and shipped to the Vineyard by barge via the Connecticut River and the Long Island Sound. They arrived on June 9.
Seven weeks later, the $7,147.84 structure was complete, thrust into being with typical American efficiency and determination.
The first religious service in the new Tabernacle was held July 26, with 800 worshipers in attendance. Reporting on the dedication, the Cottage City Star described the Tabernacle as an “object of utility and beauty.”
The Tabernacle is one of the nation’s finest remaining examples of iron architecture. Developments in engineering meant that iron could be used to make buildings feel light and soaring. The Tabernacle is at once cozy and vast, stable and airy.
Four principal iron supports, reminiscent of the trunks of the great oaks, are placed 40 feet apart and arch in toward the center, meeting 75 feet above the floor. Five arches fan out from each of these, creating 20 major supports. It has been estimated that individual Tabernacle columns carry as much as 62,250 pounds of weight. The wooden cupola alone, weighs approximately 22,000 pounds. Though they carry great weight, many of the smaller supports are a delicate two inches at their widest, contributing to the lifting effect and maintaining the original feeling of the Tabernacle as a vast tent.
Because the Tabernacle was built on uneven ground, it had to be flexible, so the iron pieces were connected with wooden joints, creating the sensation that the building is an animate being. During storms, the building literally flexes.
The three tiers of roof plus the cupola almost seem to float above the 130-foot diameter circular floor space. The layers of roof contribute to the unique and effective acoustics.
All 11 feet 5 inches high, 7 feet 3 inches wide, 350 pounds, and with 66 electric bulbs, the Tabernacle’s cross has been a beacon for sailors and “a symbol for which returning and embarking Vineyarders always watched,” as described by the Gazette in 1949. Placed above the cupola in 1926, the cross was replaced when it was felled by hurricanes in 1944 and 1967.
To modern viewers, the two bands of 48 clerestory windows may look more like an understated Frank Lloyd Wright design than Victorian stained glass. With their simple rectangular shapes framed in amber, blue, red and yellow, the windows add to the Tabernacle’s ageless feel. So do the benches: Some of them date from the gatherings before the Tabernacle was built.
The Tabernacle outlasted the other great 1879 architectural project in Oak Bluffs - the roller skating rink adjacent to the Oak Bluffs wharf. The rink and the Tabernacle were emblematic of the conflict between the two sides of town, which in 1867 had driven the Camp Grounders to construct a seven-foot picket fence to separate them from the secular, pleasure-seeking vacationers on Circuit Avenue.

Events Over the Years

Before long, secular entertainment began to enter even the Tabernacle.
Within 20 years of its construction, the Tabernacle began hosting nonreligious events.
One of the most beloved of these remains the Wednesday night community sings. Many of today’s Camp Ground residents remember the sings as the event of the week throughout their childhoods, and continue to share these evenings with each new generation.
“That’s what you did Wednesday nights,” 96-year-old Camp Ground resident Albion Hart said, recalling his attendance at the earliest sings in 1920.
The tradition continued through the 1960s, when the traditional patriotic Americana repertoire was juxtaposed with brief guest appearances by performers who were playing at a local coffeehouse and sang songs with political or bawdy themes.
Over the years, folk siners as illustrious and diverse as Arlo Guthrie, James Taylor, Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Tom Rush performed at the Tabernacle. In 1964, the Camp Ground board almost didn’t allow Pete Seeger, the dean of American folk music who had been labeled a Communist during the McCarthy era, to play in the Tabernacle - but the concert was a huge success.
Other memorable entertainment has been delivered by performers as diverse as BB King; Bobby McFerrin; Bonnie Raitt; Dwight Yoakam; Mark Russell; pianist David Crohan and Catherine Carver Burton; the Harlem Gospel Chorus, and the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra.

Restoration and Future

Now the Tabernacle - added to the National Register of Historic Places on its hundredth birthday and currently under consideration for National Landmark status - is undergoing its most significant restoration to date, after a fundraising drive for $2 million.
Improving the Tabernacle’s dangerously weak foundations, repainting the rusted iron, and adding light fixtures true to the 1901 interpretive period have been the first steps taken. The next projects will include replacing the asbestos roof and repairing the cupola. An additional $1.9 million is needed for these improvements, and for the creation of a permanent endowment for the Tabernacle Restoration Fund.
As important as the preservation of the Tabernacle’s structure may be, its meaning goes far beyond its physical presence. “I never thought of the Tabernacle as a building,” said Sally Dagnall, author of a book about the Camp Meeting Association. Instead, it is a community and a way of life.
“It’s been the gathering place all these years since the 1870s,” said  Eleanor Shabika, who has never missed a Camp Ground summer since 1918.
All the time, the Tabernacle has exerted a powerful pull on the people around it. Mr. Hart, who first came to the Camp Ground in 1912, remembers receiving a tricycle for his fourth birthday and begging his parents to let him ride it about the Tabernacle. “You have to be emotional,” he said 92 years later, “about the entire feeling of the Camp Ground - the serenity of the place.”