See the new home of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum

Cape Cod Life  /  June 2019 /

Writer: Chris White

Beacon of History

Photos courtesy of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum

The Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s greatest relic is also its new home

One of the most ubiquitous pop culture events of the past decade is, without doubt, “Game of Thrones,” the HBO drama adapted from George R. R. Martin’s series of novels called “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Of the show’s many characters, the youngest daughter of the Stark family, Arya, has captivated the imaginations and hearts of both television and book audiences because she’s a survivor who learns many of Death’s secrets in her quest for revenge and to save her family from annihilation. Early in her hero’s journey, Arya studies with swordmaster Syrio Forel, who teaches her not only “water dancing” techniques and how to handle a blade but also an essential philosophy that serves her well in a climactic moment for both her character development and for the fate of mankind. Forel, who hails from the ancient city of Braavos, tells her, “There is only one god, and His name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to Death: ‘Not Today.’”

Although Martha’s Vineyard is worlds apart from the fictional realms in “Game of Thrones,” at times in the island’s past, it too tapped into the nation’s zeitgeist, especially in the early days of the whaling industry and throughout the age of commercial sailing ships, which ended with the completion of the Cape Cod Canal. Located along the old shipping lanes between New York and Boston, the culture—and popular culture in the form of stories, songs and art—of sailing and the sea permeated many facets of life for Vineyard residents. Some of the island’s architectural features and iconic landmarks, such as widow’s walks, inns, the Old Whaling Church and lighthouses, were created to serve this culture; many of them explicitly or implicitly address the inherent risks of a life at sea. One important institution that proved essential to both residents and sailors alike was the U.S. Marine Hospital, which operated on a bluff in Vineyard Haven from 1895 to 1952. The building has recently undergone an extensive restoration, and in March 2019, it opened its doors in its latest incarnation as the new home for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, which, in addition to using the structure for exhibits and events, showcases the hospital itself along with its historical significance to the island. 

Photo courtesy of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum

Like Syrio Forel’s lesson to Arya Stark, a chief purpose of the Marine Hospital was to defy death. While the goal of any hospital is to restore health to its patients, marine hospitals of the early 20th century possessed some unique characteristics that made them more intense than a typical town clinic. As the Vineyard Gazette noted in 1930, “These vessels and ships came from all points along the American coast and very frequently carried a case or two of some disease picked up in the West Indies or southern ports.” Marine hospitals were, essentially, the emergency rooms and infectious disease wards of the sea. It therefore stands to reason that, in 1938, the Vineyard Gazette reported: “By day and by night, this quiet, pleasing looking building on the hilltop is the scene of many a conflict with death, wherein the grim destroyer is usually defeated, and the array of instruments and equipment installed there is well worthwhile, as many a man can testify after having been brought to port aboard a Coast Guard cutter that leaped and plunged through a wild sea for hours on her way in as she battled a gale, and who has been lowered, wrapped and lashed to a cot, into a waiting small-boat and finally landed in the hospital where calm efficiency has taken charge and skillfully treated crushed limbs or serious illness.”

By breathing new life into the old Marine Hospital, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum has, like Arya Stark and Syrio Forel before her, said “Not today” to death, albeit in a different guise.

The location of the Marine Hospital was chosen in large part for its proximity to Vineyard Haven Harbor and the wharf. The Vineyard Gazette described it as “A rather imposing structure, located upon one of the most sightly hills in Vineyard Haven. Designed primarily for the reception and treatment of seamen, a more suitable spot could scarcely be imagined, for a boat may land at the foot of the hill on which the hospital sits, and all movements of shipping may be observed from its wide, shady verandas or the windows in the wards.” While one is more likely to associate the importance of a building’s view with a hotel or resort than with a hospital, it seems considerate of the planners to provide patients with this panoramic vista. It also seems appropriate that the facility was built in a converted lighthouse. This literal beacon of safety evolved into a figurative one—one of hope, of the possibility of survival in a harsh world. As the Gazette stated, “The sufferings of these men were frightful indeed in many instances.”

According to historian Dr. Charles Banks, the hospital actually continued to help guide ships, for “A red lantern, suspended nightly from a flag staff of the hospital, acted as a substitute range light for entering the harbor.” Upon arrival in port, a horse-drawn ambulance carried patients up the hill for the first decade or so of the hospital’s operations. By 1930, however, the system had grown more efficient. The Gazette describes a typical situation involving a fisherman with a broken leg and lacerations sustained from an accident with machinery aboard his vessel, 100 miles out to sea. After communicating with the hospital, “All was put in readiness to receive the patient, and as the hour drew near a watch was kept for the lights of the cutter entering the harbor. When the boat drew alongside the wharf, the motor ambulance was waiting, its engine running, and with blankets and all necessities inside. Five minutes after landing, the man was in the hospital.”

Chief Surgeon Dr. Ralph Mitchell (front row, center) poses with other members of the Marine Hospital staff in the summer of 1941. The hospital officially treated only professional sailors and Navy and Coast Guard personnel, but Mitchell had a reputation for bending the rules to care for sick and injured residents of the town.

Photo courtesy of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum

By breathing new life into the old Marine Hospital, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum has, like Arya Stark and Syrio Forel before her, said “Not today” to death, albeit in a different guise. The hospital closed in 1952, at which point the building’s future seemed tenuous. The town agreed to set a security watch, a rotating staff of three guards, to keep an eye on the place for at least a year following its close of operations. For seven years, the buildings and grounds stood vacant, a looming inspiration for ghost stories, until the St. Pierre School of Sport took possession in 1959. This organization functioned as a summer camp, best-remembered for its sailing program, until 2007, at which point the St. Pierre family used one wing of the building as their residence. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum purchased the property in 2011, but its doors would remain closed for another eight years, until its soft opening in March of 2019. Operations Director Katy Fuller explains, “It was important to us that we open first in the winter; because it’s the island’s museum, we wanted to open first for the islanders.”

For six years, the museum has worked with the Public Archaeology Laboratory, Inc. under a permit from the Massachusetts Historical Commission and in consultation with the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). While many of the findings remain confidential, Fuller notes, “We conducted archaeological surveys of every square inch of the property,” known as the “Lagoon Pond Bluffs Site.” The team discovered chipped-stone tools, pottery sherds, shells and bone fragments, among other artifacts from pre-contact times, dating back before the 1600s. More recent items include building materials such as nails, glass bottles and clay smoking pipes. During this historical discovery process and in the midst of moving the museum’s exhibits to their new home, a historical expert made an observation that would shift Fuller’s perspective. She recalls, “He suggested that we should stop thinking of any of our pieces as the biggest item in our collection; it’s the Marine Hospital itself, now.”

Photo courtesy of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum

On June 28, 2019, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum will kick off a weekend of events, including its Grand Opening Gala, a special variation of its annual “Evening of Discovery.” This celebration will include drinks, dinner and an auction, along with speakers and entertainers whose names will remain surprises. The new facility in the Marine Hospital has allowed the museum to expand not only in square feet of exhibition space but also in terms of opportunities. For example, the newly constructed Linneman Pavillion houses the fully restored lens of the Gay Head Light, surrounded—perhaps ironically—by an exhibit about shipwrecks. Fuller says that this piece was one of the critical challenges in the move. She explains: “It’s an 1854 original, first-order Fresnel lens made up of 1,008 glass prisms. With the help of a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, we commissioned lampist James Woodward to restore it for us; it was pretty badly corroded.” This incredibly complex and fragile item, as the centerpiece of the pavillion, “is the jewel of our collection,” says Fuller. 

New climate control and security systems set the stage for this summer’s flagship exhibit, “Benton’s Martha’s Vineyard,” which will feature Thomas Hart Benton paintings on loan from other institutions and private collectors. Benton, at the forefront of the Regionalist art movement, often painted local subjects during his more than 50 summers on the Vineyard. “Martha’s Vineyard has never done such an exhibition,” Fuller says. “It allows us to thank the island and showcase what’s never been seen here before.”

Chris White

Chris White is a frequent writer for Cape Cod Life Publications and has written on topics ranging from the history of Smith’s Tavern on Wellfleet Island to the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria off Nantucket. Chris also teaches English at Tabor Academy in Marion.