A True Family Refuge

The Ark is built on one of the lowest spots in the Camp Ground of Oak Bluffs. When it rains, the whole backyard floods and with all that water around it, the house resembles the stern of Noah’s Ark, says owner Marina Firestone.

The story of the Ark begins in 1868 with William Sprague, textile heir, Civil War hero, U.S. senator from Rhode Island, and once that state’s youngest governor at age twenty-nine, who built the Ark in a grand 
version of the Carpenter Gothic style, 
for the then-astronomical amount of $3,000.
Designed by Charles Worth of Edgartown, it would be the largest house in the Camp Ground at the time, and one of the fanciest. That didn’t make too much of a difference to either the senator or Mrs. Sprague (known as the belle of Washington, D.C., society), who after one season in the new house, departed for good, reportedly in a state of disillusionment. Or maybe embarrassment: in his brief time here, the senator managed to get arrested for public drunkenness at the Sea View Hotel, behavior that was hardly compatible with a Methodist Camp Meeting lifestyle.
Miss Inez S. Phillips and her sister Louise bought the Ark in 1940 and lived there for more than thirty summers. Inez was the grande dame of the Camp Meeting and her house was a mecca for Camp Ground kids. Douglas Thompson was one of those kids (and still lives nearby). “She always kept candies in that little alcove off the sitting room,” he said. “Out front, she kept a birdbath, a windmill, and a gazing ball – very Victorian.” Another neighborhood kid, Peggy Canning Crowell, remembers that the neighborhood children were given the chore of putting out the gazing ball – a spherical mirror and garden decoration – each morning, and bringing it back each night, along with scrubbing out the birdbath. “All the kids in the neighborhood gathered on Miss Phillips’s porch, pretty much every evening, to visit with her,” she said. Doug Thompson recalled that Inez never married, but did have a gentleman caller who came every day on his bicycle, “even though he was rather old and feeble.”
By 1971, Marina Firestone and her family had outgrown her sister’s summer rental in the Camp Ground and needed their own place. The larger the better, since the family was still expanding. So when the Ark became available, they bought it. “At first, we were overwhelmed by the size and the amount of work needed,” Marina said. “When we viewed it, it was dark and full of furniture, all with little price tags from a 
final tag sale.” But they saw that the house was sturdy and strong.
The Phillips sisters had maintained a decidedly Victorian decor in the home; heavy velvet draperies in deep dark 
colors covered windows and even walls. The Ark hadn’t seen much in the way of 
renovation or modernization (not always a bad thing since there’s less to undo). Nathaniel Firestone, an architect, saw this as a chance to use his skills to 
design and adapt the living space for 
family needs – a place where teenage 
children might someday bring their 
own families, a place with insulation 
that would keep them warm in the early or late season – while maintaining the 
integrity of the cottage. He expanded the original kitchen to include part of a side porch, and added some sliders and a deck in the back so they could entertain outside. A former servants’ area with two bedrooms, up a separate staircase in the back, turned into a great space for visiting families, including Marina’s sisters and their children. “They all love to visit,” she said, “and our children grew up summers with all their cousins.” The main part of the house is now used by son John, daughter Louise, and their kids, Katie, Claire, Andrew, and Gregory.
When the Firestones first arrived at the Ark, they found a treasure trove of ancient antique lanterns that had been hung on Illumination Night each year, by all the previous owners over the decades.“They were stored in a trunk,” Mrs. Firestone said. “Some of them were several tiers, and some were in pretty bad shape.” They continue to add new ones, as the grandchildren often attend the lantern-painting sessions the day before Illumination Night, the great lighting-up ceremony held on the Camp Ground, this year on August 18.  
It’s the lack of change, the treasuring of tradition, and the emphasis on a spiritual life that have attracted families such as the Firestones to the Camp Ground. And it’s the gathering together of many generations under one roof – plus a little rainfall --– that makes their home an Ark.