As a familiar stretch of Oak Bluffs waterfront continues its winter hibernation, the sand unblemished by human footprints or children's sand castles, plans are underway to breathe new life into what was once one of the busiest beaches on the Island.
Many still call this stretch of sand - which runs from the Inkwell beach to the Steamship Authority terminal - the pay beach, a reference to a bygone era when visitors placed a nickel in the turnstile along Sea View avenue in order to access the sandy haven below. At the time, the beach boasted public rest rooms, lockers, showers, a large concession stand and piers and rafts in the water.
And if you went back in time a little further, the area was known as the Bathing Beach, named for the massive wooden bath houses that were built above its shores.
A 1920 photograph from the Gazette library shows a panoramic view of the bathing beach, with bathers dressed in full body suits walking down a wooden stairwell into the ocean. Several sunbathers can be seen taking shelter from the sun under the shadow of the cavernous bath houses. Another photo from the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society depicts swimmers sitting on Lover's Rock, the giant boulder that stood for years just off the shoreline at the far end of the beach.
The rock, considered a sacred spot where lovers met to watch the moon rise slowly over the ocean, was buried in 1973 when the town moved 85,000 cubic yards of sand from the excavation of a new town dump.
The loss of the rock served as a precursor to the gradual decline of the beach over the next 30 years. In the years since, the stairway leading down to the water has fallen into disrepair and in some places the railing along the beach is literally held together by duct tape. The piers and the showers are now gone, as are the changing rooms and wooden walkways.
The concession stand is still there, although a wall running along the stand is cracked and collapsed.
The beach, with its calm seas and scenic view of Nantucket Sound, still attracts thousands of visitors each summer. But even the biggest proponents of the beach concede it has seen better days.
"It's in terrible condition," said Nancy Phillips, the co-chairman of the new committee charged with revitalizing the beach. "It used to be a showcase for everything great about Oak Bluffs. Now it's just run down."
Called the Oak Bluffs Boardwalk to Beach Task Force, the committee is an offshoot of the Community Development Council (CDC), created two years ago to tackle long-term planning issues in Oak Bluffs. Soon after the CDC was created, it recommended the creation of a task force made up of a wide range of town officials to take a close look at the beach and come up with a plan to return it to its former glory.
The task force now has approximately 23 members, including members of the conservation commission, parks and recreation department, planning board, police department and selectmen.
Ms. Phillips said the group has been meeting for several months and is in the early stages of creating a master plan for the beach. The group will also focus on fixing more immediate problems at the beach, she said.
The group is currently working to secure funding to replace the galvanized pipe railing along the beach and stairs, both an eyesore and a safety hazard to residents and visitors. The group has applied for funding through the Community Preservation Act, and hopes to install a more sturdy and visually appealing Victorian-style railing.
Ms. Phillips said there is no timetable for completing the master plan, although the improvements and new additions to the beach will likely take place over the course of several years.
The group plans to explore the possibility of a federal scenic byway grant and using ferry fees from the Steamship Authority. An $8,000 donation from the Friends of Oak Bluffs will be used to hire landscape architect Thomas Wirth to work on the master plan.
Mr. Wirth did design work on the recent reconstruction of the Norton House overlooking Ocean Park, and also served as landscape architect for the PBS show This Old House and The Victory Garden.
Ms. Phillips said the group will consider a number of options for improving the beach, including replacing the concession stand, adding amenities like volleyball courts or rafts and building new rest rooms and changing areas.
"At this stage it's really wide open. We have a lot of smart people on the [task force] with a lot of good ideas. We need input from as many people as possible - including members of the public," Ms. Phillips said.
Ms. Phillips supports creating a continuous walkway that connects the beach to the town harbor. She said she also supports a less utilitarian vision for the beach that might include a place for bands and a dance floor. "People used to dance there and listen to music under the stars. I don't see why that couldn't happen again," she said.
At the very least, the task force should focus on making the beach more user friendly and attractive to visitors, she said.
"We want to make what was once the gem of Oak Bluffs shine a little brighter," Ms. Phillips said.
Richard Combra Jr., the town highway superintendent and member of the task force, said he hopes the town will make improving the beach a top priority, much as it did with Ocean Park several years ago.
"It's hard to say just when or why the beach started to [fall into disrepair]. But it's pretty clear it's in bad shape and it is our responsibility to fix it. That beach is very important to a lot of people," he said.
Selectman Kerry Scott, also a member of the task force, said she remembers spending summer days at the beach when she was a girl.
"To look at it today it's almost hard to believe what it once was. I'm telling you [pay beach] was the hot spot in the summer, especially for kids and families. Kids from all over the Island would come here because they knew it was the place to be," she said.
Ms. Scott said she recently spoke with state Rep. Eric Turkington about the possibility of securing state funding for improvements to the beach, who was supportive. "This was a special place where people went with their families and their loved ones. I think there is a wide consensus that something needs to be done and something needs to be done now," she said.