PITTSBURGH — The Methodists had the uncanny ability to pitch their summer revival camp tents on what would someday become prized real estate. Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, Ocean City, New Jersey, and the Chautauqua Institution in western New York are just a few locations the Methodists chose.
The Martha's Vineyard Campmeeting Association, a National Historic Landmark, is considered the first. Before the Civil War, the camps were just tents surrounding a large open-air tabernacle used for services. After the war, small Victorian cottages sprang up in place of the tents, and the rest of the country discovered its beauty.
Another group of Methodists did the same thing in a wooded glen in Natrona Heights in 1849. Although this group didn't demonstrate the same real estate savvy as some of their brethren, they did have staying power. Now in its 168th year, the Pittsburgh Tarentum Campmeeting Association is a cottage community with a multidenominational Christian demographic.
"We have Catholics, Protestants and others," said Jack Richards, current president of the PTCA who has summered in the community since 2008.
A fire in the mid-1800s destroyed the original campsite on the other side of the gorge. This site is the camp's second coming. Today, 33 charming little summer cottages built circa 1870-1920s are nestled in a clearing in the woods surrounded by tall old oak trees.
They ring the Lindenmuth Tabernacle, an open-air structure, where services are held Wednesdays and Sundays at 7 p.m. in July and August and are open to the public. Occasional concerts are also free and open to anyone seeking a spiritual lift.
The PTCA is active from April 1 through Oct. 31 when it closes for the winter and residents head to warmer spots in Florida and Arizona or just down the Allegheny River to Oakmont.
"The cottages aren't winterized," said Cyndi Nace, chairman of the sales and lease committee.
"The outside wall is the inside wall. There is no insulation," added Debbie Caffacus, another resident.
Tom and Judy Doyle of Penn Hills bought and renovated their cottage nine years ago.
"Our cottage is the only one with a tin ceiling," he said. "My wife calls this her dollhouse.
"People used what was available at the time when they built these. There is one cottage that has shutters as a ceiling. No two are alike."
There are several cottages currently for sale, but potential buyers have to be willing to work in the community doing little jobs such as planting flowers or painting or helping maintain the buildings or community outreach. Because it is a Christian camp, attending services is encouraged.
The average cost of a cottage is approximately $20,000, residents said. The cottages that are for sale come furnished, so new owners can decide what to keep and what to give away.
"There is a yearly fee of $1,300, which covers water, gas, sewage, taxes and ground maintenance. The caretaker and his wife live on the premises all year long," said Nace.
The camp used to have an in-ground pool fed by a spring. Locals who didn't live at the camp paid five cents to swim. Today there is a heated above-ground pool available for anyone wanting a dip. The camp also has a laundry for those who do not have a washer and dryer in their cottages.
Ginny Wellman has been at the camp for 27 years. She calls her cottage Victoria.
Her cottage is lavender and blue with pinkish and purple-red accents.
"When I bought the cottage, all the others were green and white or just green or white," recalled the 88-year-old. "I was the first one to bring color onto the campground."
Her late husband was the Rev. Willard Wellman, pastor at Fox Chapel Presbyterian Church.
"I wanted to stay true to the architectural integrity of the building," she explained.
The dining room, two bedrooms and most of the cottage are decorated in Victorian style. All sorts of antique cooking paraphernalia line the walls in the dining room, and she painted the kitchen floor in a plaid pattern.
Wellman writes the monthly newsletter "The Campgrounder" from the second-floor sleeping porch that she turned into an office. She and other residents agree it's a special place.
"One thing living here did was make me realize how little I really need to be happy," said Doyle.