The fairytale-like “gingerbread houses” of Oak Bluffs are a much-loved architectural attraction on Martha’s Vineyard. These vibrant Victorian cottages are clustered together, each with a quaint and colorful design reminiscent of the house made of gingerbread and candy in “Hansel and Gretel.” These adorable homes are now exclusive summer cottages, but they come from humble origins.
In the 1800s, this corner of the island was frequented by a group of Methodists that held annual religious retreats and meetings on Martha’s Vineyard. At the time, they slept in tents during these summer gatherings, but as the camp meetings became more frequent the group built permanent cottages to accommodate them year-round.
The original cluster of 500 cottages was initially known as “Cottage City,” until the name was changed to Oak Bluffs in 1880. The charming storybook design is actually an architectural style called Carpenter’s Gothic that was popular at the time. But these individually decorated cottages, painted with bright and vivid colors with candy-like pillars and ornaments, became known as the “gingerbread houses.”
Today, 300 gingerbread houses remain in the Oak Bluffs Campground, as well as the Cottage Museum at the entrance to the village, which features a prototype cottage furnished as it would have looked in the 1800s. The tabernacle sits in the center of the complex, which still functions as a religious facility.
One night in August, the cottages are decorated with paper lantersn, making them even more magical. This tradition, which is called Grand Illumination Night, began in 1869. You can find additional information online.