Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Victorian theme park a century before Disney

I think the Wesleyan Grove campmeeting may be Disneyland's great-grandmother.

We're vacationing on Martha's Vineyard, & yesterday walked around the town of Oak Bluffs, including this dainty faith-based subdivision, which was built surprisingly early in the 19th century.

It was Joel who noticed the theme-park feeling. Some real food for thought in the resemblance.

I've been reading up on campmeeting sites since yesterday's visit and, yes, they seem to be recognized as precursors to subdivision design. The theme park connection seems less admitted, but there's a Web site dedicated to the Chautauqua movement that approvingly quotes a travel writer saying Chautauquas are “like a theme park for the mind.” Meanwhile there's a further suggestion that the town of Oak Bluffs may have taken congruent inspirations from both Wesleyan Grove and rural cemetery design.

So when we criticize both suburbs and theme parks for excluding too much of unregulated, unauthorized humanity from their planning, maybe we're picking up the cultural traces of single-purpose communities that were inappropriately used as models for full-time neighborhoods. Campmeetings (like cemeteries, in a way) were originally meant to provide refreshing vacations in clean-living pious simplicity from the inevitable grittiness and complexity of year-round daily life. And then the designers of subdivisions and theme parks tried to entice people to immure themselves completely in these kinds of environments, without admitting that their models were intentionally incomplete.

I mean, there are other sources as well for this problem of oppressively incomplete, too-perfect planned communities. Company towns, for example, are even older than campmeetings. Long before the familiar American kind of company town, which has been bad enough, the world saw dreadfulness like the really creepily carceral-utopian stone walls of the Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans, built in the Jura mountains in immediately pre-revolutionary France.

But maybe campmeetings had something to do with making Americans want to live in unrealistically perfect places?

There's a lot about the subdivision connection in the book, City in the Woods: The Life and Design of an American Camp Meeting on Martha's Vineyard, by Ellen Weiss. From the Google "About" section on Weiss's book:
"The Wesleyan Grove camp meeting, founded on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, in 1835, is the premier example of this distinctive American design. Anonymous planners and builders at the site innovated the richly decorated miniature cottages and maze-like layouts that were replicated at dozens of late Victorian campgrounds across the country. In 1867, Oak Bluffs, a planned resort that mimicked the eccentric architecture of Wesleyan Grove, was laid out next to the already famous camp meeting. Together, these two extraordinary communities generated a sense of otherworldliness, a magical environment that remains virtually unchanged today.... She suggests that the continuing American propensity to live in nature, in the suburbs, is rooted in the spiritual strength of the camp meeting and the astonishing community type it generated."
I'm sure the spiritual strength was real enough during the congregations' gathering. But maybe it was a bit much, later on, for designers of the Levittown sort of place to try and generalize from the special sense of community created by the joyful special occasion of a religious revival meeting into the belief that human beings could sustain a permanently optimists-only suburbia?

The Martha's Vineyard Campmeeting Association, which now runs Wesleyan Grove, has a thumbnail history of the campmeeting on its site. Wesleyan Grove was one of the very first campmeeting subdivisions, founded 1835 as a site for Methodist congregations' summer campouts, which at first were literal tent meetings. Construction on permanent buildings began 1859; the tiny gingerbreaded houses were built steadily through the 1860s, with expansion continuing into the 1880s.

When you visit on foot, there just seems to be an Alice in Wonderland foreverness of these little brightly colored Victorian houses, all on the same general template but each one different, on a series of achingly quaint green village commons. The houses look piously toward the main permanent meeting pavilion, known as the "Tabernacle" (pictured below), and several side churches and chapels.

It's so clearly a planned community, so clean-cut and perfected in that too-good-to-be-true way. For example, no corner stores or cafes. (OK, they sell a few refreshments at the museum gift shop in season.) Nowhere to sit down except in a house or in a place of worship. I'm sure it's a wonderful place to be a member of a community, or a guest at a family Sunday dinner, or a householder in a rocking chair in a front room. It doesn't look like an easy place to be a stranger, or a member of some "different" social category, or some kind of person other than a cheerful joiner.

The Wesleyan Grove campmeeting district is right near Circuit Avenue, the quaintish but refreshingly ordinary main tourist street in the town of Oak Bluffs. It turns out that what's now the main town was built second, by for-profit developers, as a commercial, secular echo of the admired campmeeting complex.

According to the Martha's Vineyard Campmeeting Association site, the religious community didn't approve:
"In 1867, fearing irreligious contamination, the MVCMA erected a high picket fence (rebuilt in 1886) along the boundary between the Campground and this area. The fence was seven feet high and the gates were locked at night."
(Fences again. Huh)

For comparison, at right is a public-domain photo of Disneyland's Main Street, USA. Not the same thing at all but with that same emphasis on ornate regulated facade, and that same insistent singleminded wholesomeness.

Circuit Ave. looks, come to think of it, a whole lot like Main Street, USA. It's reasonably quaint and fairly planned-looking. But it functions in a much more normal way, in contrast to the gingerbread houses on their greens. It's part of a more complete and more public secular world, with T-shirt shops and ladies' dress-casual clothing boutiques and a hardware store and a game/leisure shop built around the owner's clever drawings of the MV island as a sprawled "lazy frog". Also, that inevitable one downtown plaza corner where drunk people sit.

I'm told also that on the other side of the Wesleyan Grove campus, the neighborhood gets more run down, with tougher-looking people in it. As neighborhoods do, come to think of it, when they're cut off by some deadening barrier from the central liveliness of a town.

The Weiss book is where I found the part about rural cemetery design. Not sure how this Google Books link will work for you, but it brought me to Page 80 of the book, which introduces Mr. Erastus P. Carpenter, described as the leader of the developers who decided to build the resort town of Oak Bluffs next to Wesleyan Grove:
"Carpenter... was a man of many business and civic accomplishments. He had already introduced steam power into his family's straw hat factories and had welded these into the Union Straw Company, which employed 6,000 workers. His civic activity included a 'New Jerusalem' of housing for these workers and restoration of the town common, rounding out a legacy of social and environmental concern.
Carpenter, then, must be the man who convinced Oak Bluffs's developers to find a landscape gardener experienced in rural cemetery layout to plan the lots and streets of the new village..."
Hence, she says, the selection of cemetery designer Robert Morris Copeland to do the job.

The cemetery connection sounds a little less morbid considering the note in this local historian's good essay that, when Copeland did his designing, it was "a time when cemeteries subbed-in for public parks." Even so, cemeteries are pretty much always places of ceremonial separation from the ordinary, aren't they?

The campmeeting association continues to sponsor interdenominational Christian worship services and community singing at the Tabernacle. It also helps owners of many cottages to rent them to visitors. I don't know how that would feel for a visitor: to stay in the place as a one-week renter, as a member of just one vacationing household, amid all that close-built, community-oriented kind of architecture. Wouldn't you feel a need to arrive with a whole familiar congregation from your own town in order to feel accepted and at home?

Actually, I bet for that very reason it's a lovely place to throw a wedding. A wedding party is a kind of congregation, isn't it?

Yes, but as suburbanites used to say about the cities, "It's a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there."

Yesterday being chilly, a couple of us had bought oversweet hot chocolate on Circuit before venturing into the Grove. Between the chocolate and the gingerbread houses, J. came down with a holistic general surfeit of sweet cloying goo. He insisted on a steak for dinner. No starches, no desserts.

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