The cottages in Northampton's Laurel Park retain the charm of its roots as a Methodist revival camp. The densely packed homes offer history and character to people looking to avoid cookie-cutter communities. (Photograph by Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Aubin Tyler
June 14, 2009
Thirty years ago, book editor Norma Roche and her then-husband decided to look at a house for sale in Northampton's Laurel Park, once a Methodist revival camp during the populist religious movement of the late 19th century. They liked what they found: more than 20 acres of woods and grassy open space surrounding an enclave of about a hundred charming, ramshackle cottages -- none alike -- strung together along winding lanes for a sense of closely shared living. The price was $7,500. "My husband and I thought, wow, we could own a house," she says. "So we bought it."
"It" was three rooms and an attic, built as a summer-camp cottage in the early 1900s but considered "winterized" by park standards at the time, she says. "That's not to say it was warm."
Roche still lives in the funky, tightknit community, though in 1985 she paid $25,000 to upgrade to her current home, a one-bedroom, one-bath cottage built at the turn of the last century and quaintly named Tarry Awhile. At 700 square feet, the home is slightly larger than her first, but still Lilliputian by contemporary standards. It has a tiny attic bedroom and an adjoining screened porch for sleeping in hot weather. The first floor is just big enough for a small sitting room -- giving onto another screened porch -- and a dollhouse-sized office space, a kitchen, a dining room, and a single bathroom with a shower. It was recently assessed at $145,000.
Roche figures that over the past 30 years she's probably spent $35,000 in renovations on her homes; for example, she had to reroute outdoor water pipes originally meant only for summer use, to keep them from freezing in winter. But she's not complaining. "In [downtown] Northampton, I'd be priced out."
Price isn't Laurel Park's only draw. Its densely packed homes offer history and character and attract people looking to avoid cookie-cutter communities. Northampton mayor Mary Clare Higgins lives in Laurel Park, along with doctors, nurses, writers, and lawyers; there's even a musicians' row, nicknamed Manhattanville. "There are a lot of characters," Roche says. "Everybody knows your business," a fact of life that she's only come to appreciate with age. "Because we're close, we look out for each other." In contrast to the intentional communities of the co-housing movement, she likes to think of Laurel Park as an "unintentional" community.
Laurel Park is just one of the half dozen Methodist revival-camps-turned-residential-neighborhoods in Massachusetts. Perhaps the best known is in the town of Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard; its multihued Victorian cottages festooned with gingerbread details radiate whimsy and are a popular tourist attraction. If you're looking to buy a small home or rent a unique vacation property, these communities are worth a look.
In 1872, Methodist ministers of the Springfield District Camp Meeting Association founded the park. Church families came by trolley or rail from downtown Northampton and Springfield to enjoy picnics and preaching amid its shady groves of chestnuts, pines, and maples. Before Interstate 91 intervened, the park even had its own beach on the Connecticut River.
In the following decade, the park lost some of its religious emphasis and embraced the so-called Chautauqua movement, which organized assemblies meant to educate and enlighten participants. Each summer, Laurel Park became a tent city of 6,000 to 8,000 people eager for lectures, concerts, and entertainment aimed at cultural, spiritual, and intellectual uplift. Susan B. Anthony, Ida Tarbell, Henry Ward Beecher, William Jennings Bryan, Booker T. Washington, and Mark Twain all traveled the Chautauqua circuit. By the early 1900s, simple frame cottages had replaced many of the tents on the property; each of the area's Methodist churches built a cottage dormitory, and these were arranged in a circle around a grassy common and open-air tabernacle.
The Chautauqua movement faded after World War I. Almost a century after founding the park, the Springfield association turned it over to the Laurel Park Association, which maintained it as a religious community. In 1986, a secular condo association formed. It purchased the 28 acres of land under the cottages from the Laurel Park Association, and then sold homeowners their lots (often no bigger in size than the cottages themselves), which they had previously leased. The homeowners had always held the titles to their cottages.
Frank Barrett-Mills, a corporate chef, and his wife, Marge, bought their one-bedroom, one-bath cottage in 2005 for $127,000. They spent $31,000 on renovations plus their own hard labor to turn it into a three-bedroom house with an open floor plan -- all on the same footprint -- with modern plumbing, wiring, heating, and insulation. The experience gave Barrett-Mills a healthy respect for old-time ingenuity: "We opened up the kitchen area and found all chestnut beams. Bugs don't go after chestnut, so we're covered."
Current real estate in Laurel Park ranges from $20,000 to $299,000. Last year, a Provincetown restaurateur paid $263,000 for a fully renovated cottage -- "the most expensive house ever sold there," says Craig Della Penna, a Northampton real estate agent. About 90 percent of current residents own their homes and live in the park year round, Barrett-Mills says. The rest of the park grounds and buildings -- the former dining hall, a post office, and the former schoolhouse -- are held in common. Cottage rentals are few and limited to six months out of the year.
Retirees Fred and Joan Brown started coming to Laurel Park in 1991 and moved there full time in 1997 from a condominium in the Northampton village of Florence a few miles away. "Fred wanted a yard and a dog," explains his wife. The couple tore down their existing cottage and built an imposing two-story home, its upper floors cantilevered out beyond the existing footprint for extra space.
As with any condo community, there are rules: no noise after 9 p.m., for example, and no chain saws or building construction on Sunday. "You still can't hang your clothes out to dry on Sunday in the summer when religious groups come in and use the tabernacle," Joan Brown adds.
The same impetus that created Laurel Park drove six men from the Edgartown Methodist Church to a spot on the northeast shore of Martha's Vineyard to start an outdoor camp and prayer meeting in 1835. The island brethren liked it so much that they, too, pitched tents. "After a while, they built wooden platforms for the tents and wooden frames with canvas thrown over that. About 1864, the first permanent cottage was built," says Nancy Le Blanc, a fifth-generation cottage owner in Oak Bluffs, who has spent all but a few summers there since the mid-1940s.
Le Blanc says her grandmother remembered going to the island from New Bedford by steamer in the mid-1880s. "They would put the trunks on a buckboard drawn by horses and then walk into the campground," singing hymns as they came down the hill. "They were real Bible-thumping Methodists."
When Le Blanc's husband, Robert, retired in 1994, the couple moved to Oak Bluffs permanently. They live year round in Henhouse on Siloam Avenue, "named for the underground water that sustained the residents of Jerusalem in the Bible," she says.
Today, about 300 colorful cottages -- their porches, balconies, and gables famously decorated with Victorian ruffles, scallops, and flounces -- inhabit the campground's 100 acres. Le Blanc estimates that about 50 are lived in year round. Most people come for the summer season only, some renting cottages like Le Blanc's Solomon Chadwick House, named for her great-great-grandfather, who built the four-bedroom cottage. Le Blanc's rates are typical for Oak Bluffs: $2,000 per week in August and $1,800 per week in July. "August is everyone's favorite," she says. That's when "it's really hot and humid and you want to get into the water."
The Oak Bluffs tabernacle, an open-air church built in 1879, serves as the venue for mostly Protestant Sunday services and secular events like concerts by the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra. The cottages are individually owned, though owners still lease their lots from the Martha's Vineyard Campmeeting Association, as they have since the mid-1800s. Lease costs range from $1,200 to $1,500 yearly, depending on size. Cottage owners also pay property taxes to the town, but only the cottage is valued, not the land, says Bob Clermont, the association's general manager and executive director. Because owners lease the land on which their cottages stand, the cottages are considered personal property, not real estate, explains Alan Schweikert, owner of Ocean Park Realty. That limited bank financing until the 1980s, when an association board member, also a banker, introduced a new program to help buyers obtain mortgages. Purchase prices range from $350,000 (non-winterized) to $500,000 (gutted, insulated, with basement) for the average 1,000-square-foot cottage, Schweikert says.
While pricey, cottages on the campground cost about half as much as houses in town, he says. In better economic times, three or four cottages at a time might be up for sale -- lately, the figure is about twice that. As in Laurel Park, association rules apply: quiet after 11 p.m.; no yard sales; no unsupervised and unleashed dogs; and "no undue disturbance at any time," according to the Oak Bluffs website.
"In the 1970s," Schweikert says, "half the cottages I sold were to Reverend So-and-So." But the population has become more diverse in recent years, and "people who buy property in the campground usually know something about it. To them, its restrictions are a benefit, to maintain the integrity of the community."
Halfway across the state, nestled among tall pines, the hillside cabins of Rustic Ridge perch above the Victorian turrets and rolling green lawns of what was once the Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies. There, starting in 1880, thousands gathered each summer to hear the school's founder, the great evangelist and lay preacher Dwight L. Moody. "Literally thousands of people came to Northfield summer after summer after summer" to participate in Moody's conferences -- part summer camp, part religious retreat, says Alexander Stewart, a retired Methodist minister.
In the summer of 1900, a New Jersey pastor and his wife, having spent the six weeks of the conference living in a tent on campus grounds, inquired about other accommodations: "We have been so well pleased with all that we have seen, heard, and experienced, that we now want to bring our family here every summer but do not feel that a tent is sufficient protection," the pastor wrote. "If it is a question of any large expenditure . . . I, as a poor minister, cannot possibly do it, but I could, I think, manage a bungalow on a leased lot." A year later, the pastor spent $300 to build his bungalow on a lot leased from the Moody family for $10 per year. Rustic Ridge was born, and it is now owned and operated by its homeowners.
Since 1965, David Powell and his wife, Lucia, have spent every June, July, and August there. Powell is the grandson of Moody's only daughter, Emma, and her husband, Arthur P. Fitt, a Dublin lawyer the evangelist brought home from a trip abroad to help him with a campaign at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Moody put the young man in charge of his Chicago-based Bible Institute, "but gramps came back before too long," says Powell with a chuckle. "We have deep roots in Northfield, but we're 'rookies' on Rustic Ridge," he says. "After a while, you serve on enough committees . . . they give us a little more respect now."
A recent posting at rusticridge.org advertised four summer cabins ranging from $90,000 to $121,000 and two summer rentals, one a three-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bath for $600 per week plus deposit, the other a "two bedroom nest with a sleeping room" for $450. The homeowners keep up the roads, take care of waste disposal, and even man a mosquito committee.
Most residents are church-affiliated, but not all with the same church, which is probably how Moody -- known for his "big heart and big-tent views," says Peter H. Weis, archivist of the nearby Northfield Mount Hermon School -- would have wanted it.
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