Old Whaling Church
Designed by Fredrick Baylies, Jr., the Old Whaling Church was built by skilled shipwrights for Edgartown’s Methodist whaling captains and is regarded as one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in New England.
Built in the days when Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and New Bedford were known around the world for the success of the fishing and whaling fleets that called these ports home, the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown is an extraordinary testament to the wealth that could come from seafaring. The Old Whaling Church was not only funded by mariners and those dedicated to seafaring trades, it was quite literally built by them, too. Baylies hired a crew of local carpenters who were equally as skilled in building churches as they were in constructing ships.
The Greek Revival style became fashionable in Europe as early as the 1780s when it was popularized after British architect James Stuart visited Greece and published architectural manuals inspired by ancient structures he saw on his travels. In America, the Greek Revival style dominated both domestic and other forms of architecture from 1820 to 1855. The façade of the Old Whaling Church mimics an ancient temple front with six massive tapered Doric columns supporting a cantilevered entablature with a triangular pediment. The whole structure is crowned with a Gothic Revival clock tower which has crenellations, rounded arches, engaged pilasters, dentil cornice moldings and four spires capped with gilded acanthus leaf finials.
The interior of the Old Whaling Church is notable for its elegantly curved ceiling, which is supported from the attic through extensive and complex trusses that are fashioned out of massive timbers – an impressive feat of nineteenth century engineering and craftsmanship. Of particular note in the main hall are the original whale oil lamps that once illuminated the interior.
Originally painted by Swiss artist Carl Wendte, who worked with architect Fredrick Baylies, Jr. in Western Massachusetts, Cape Cod and Nantucket, the interior murals replicate unfurled acanthus leaves, curved vines and leaves, and stylized rosettes. The rear interior wall stops every visitor in his or her tracks for there a full scale trompe l’oeil mural transforms the flat surface into a heavily carved arch leading viewers into a what appears to be a light-filled antechamber. These clever murals were recently reproduced by island artist Margot Datz using months of careful research and a rare photograph from 1865 as a guide.
The Vineyard Preservation Trust acquired the Church from the Methodist congregation in 1980 and now uses the building for community events, special celebrations, and performances throughout the year.