Thursday, May 15, 2014

Outside Castle Hill

Do lawn signs really sell houses? Apparently so. But what if the sign said, "For Sale, Ipswich Beach Farm, 1380 acres, 5 miles of beach," would you knock on the front door? A vacationing Chicagoan named Richard T. Crane Jr. (1873-1931), visiting the Massachusetts shore with his family in 1910, not only knocked, he bought.

By 1910 the Brown family had been in possession of the Brown Farm for almost 70 years. During the previous decade, John Burnham Brown, the most prosperous of the Browns up to that date, had tranformed the old farmhouse into gentleman's summer place and hired Ernest Bowditch to beautify the grounds. This was nothing compared to improvements to come, however, including the glamorous gate complex in these images, designed for Mr. Crane in 1926 by Chicago architect, David Adler.

Richard Teller Crane Jr. was the son of a very rich man. Poverty had driven his father, R. T. Crane Sr. (1832-1912), to go to work in a cotton mill at age 9. By 15 he was worilng at a Brooklyn foundry where he learned the metal and brass-finishing trades. Laid off in 1854 from a locomotive plant job, the 22-year old Crane went west to Chicago where, with a brother, he started his own foundry in the corner of an uncle's lumber yard. In 1857, R.T. Crane and Brother landed a contract to install steam heat in the Cook County Courthouse. By 1861 they had become major contractors to the wartime government in Washington, providing brass fittings, knobs, spurs, wagon equipment, etc., etc. During the postwar boom, Crane began manufacturing everything from fire hydrants to machine tools, water pumps to steam engines and, by 1872, even elevators. The 20th century arrival of the skyscraper meant huge new markets for pipes, valves and fittings. By 1910, the year R.T. Jr. bought the Brown Farm, Crane's original Chicago plant employed over 5000 people.

The Crane estate, called Castle Hill, looms over vast salt marshes, sometimes covered by water, seen beyond the gate complex below. Typical of big country places, this one has elaborate barns and cottages, gardens and stables, garages and, in this case, a separate casino and bachelors' annex. The barns are quite close to the gate.

David Adler was the last of several architects to work for the Cranes at Castle Hill. A pre-Adler version of the estate was completed in 1916 by the Boston firm of Shepley, Rutan (pronounced roo-TAN) and Coolidge. SRC's provenance was more distinguished, at least in my opinion, that its opus. The principals were working for Henry Hobson Richardson (1839-1886) when the great man dropped dead at the untimely age of 47. ('Richardsonian Romanesque,' if I am correctly informed, is the only style of architecture that is actually named after an architect). SRC finished off two dozen pending Richardson projects, then continued his office under their own names. Most of their work was civic, collegiate, institutional or religious, as opposed to residential. Did the Chicago based Crane hire them out of admiration for their Chicago Public Library? or their World's Congress Auxiliary Building at the Chicago Columbian Exposition? or maybe the hulking Chicago townhouse they designed for former U.S. Attorney General Franklin McVeagh? I have no idea.

Castle Hill's farm complex, built between 1914 and 1916, is attributed in part to a man named Edward Burnett (1849-1925), "An Agricultural Designer on Gentlemen's Estates," per the title of a 1998 Master's thesis in Historic Preservation by a U. of Pennsylvania student named Taya Shoshona Dixon. Burnett's contribution focussed on the care and treatment of the animals inside; the design of the outer envelope was mainly SRC's.

The smooth stucco walls and Mediterranean tile roofs of the farm complex speak to Castle Hill's original Italian villa theme.

Behind the gardener's cottage, seen below, are a (still intact) greenhouse and a very large, stone-walled vegetable garden.

Here's Brown Cottage, the late 1890s vernacular shingled beach retreat built by the last of the Browns, seen before and after transformation to an Inn. Somewhere in the middle of it is what's left of an early 19th century farmhouse. Brown Cottage was a temporary residence during construction of the Cranes' mansion on the hill, then a guest house, then subject to a life tenancy by the last Crane to live on the property. It's now a stylish Bed and Breakfast called the Inn at Castle Hill.

The drive winds uphill past Brown Cottage.

It overlooks the marshes and the barns. The bright green lawn was the vegetable garden, the roof of an arbored pergola visible in the foreground.

At the top of the hill is - or used to be - an Italian villa of the "American millionaire persuasion," completed to the designs of Shepley Rutan and Coolidge in 1914. Note the smooth stucco walls, the glazed tile roof, the ornate recessed porch, themes hinted at in humbler structures below. I think it's a pretty great house. Ten years after it was built, they tore it down.

Here's Mr. & Mrs. Crane and their cat. (Remember that cat). The story is that Mrs. Crane never liked SRC's design for the new house. She called it "the Italian fiasco," inappropriate to the New England coastline, and once it was finished complained about drafts. Why her opinions were disregarded is as odd as Mr. Crane's response to them. According to local gospel, he told her to give it a try for ten years, and if she still didn't like it, he'd tear it down and build her something else. Could this story really be true? According to Susan Hill Dolan, Crane Estate's cultural resources manager, "As crazy as it seems, true to his word, Mr. Crane had the villa razed in 1924."

A new architect was engaged. David Adler (1882-1949) seen below looking young and beautiful in his Princeton days, was advising Crane as early as 1922 on the purchase of salvaged architectural elements. Apparently Crane made up his mind to pull down the Italian fiasco before the ten years was up. The paneling and stairs and fireplace mantels which he bought on Adler's advice - from W. & J. Sloane in New York - would eventually find places in a new Castle Hill. Chicago-born Adler is a legend in suburban Lake Forest (a Lake Forest debutante, incidentally, was the model for Fitzgerald's Daisy Buchanan), but his elegant houses for society folk are not widely recognized outside the Midwest. Most easterners have barely heard of him.

In 1912, after Princeton (Class of 1900), Munich Polytechnic (1904), a stint at the Beaux-Arts in Paris and a year with famous Craftsman architect Howard Van Doren Shaw, Adler opened his own shop. He was 30 years old. By 1924, now married to an Illinois writer and socialite named Katherine Keith, he was 42 and at the height of his popularity. Adler's grand and erudite design for R.T. Crane's Castle Hill is considered one of his best. Architectural labels are slippery, although visitors to historic houses yearn for them. This house is often described as a Stuart-stye mansion. With the exception of Cromwell's interregnum, the Stuarts ruled Britain throughout the 17th century. Typical of many English buildings from that period, Castle Hill incorporates a bit of the baroque, a dash of Palladio, a pinch of Christopher Wren, and miscellaneous details lifted from famous models (like the rooftop lantern from Belton House).

The new Castle Hill sits on the exact footprint - well, almost exact - of the old Castle Hill. The entry court on the south is unchanged.

The east wing houses a grand drawing room on the main floor and a portion of the owners' suite above.

The drawing room lets onto a terrace with broad views of the sea.

Below the balustrade are two descending terraces currently under restoration. The first was a tennis court, the second a maze, now alas completely gone.

The north facade facing the sea also articulates the interior spaces behind it. The protruding wing on the left houses a library at ground level and daughter Florence's suite above. The dining room occupies the complimentary wing on the right, with son Cornelius's suite above. A gallery stretches between the two on the main floor, guest rooms are above it, and a billiard room lurks behind the dormers up top. The balustrade in the foreground survives from the original house.

On this west facing exterior wall is a copy - not to say facsimile - of a deed for a parcel of land stretching from the ominously named "Labour in Vaine Creek" to the less threatening sounding "Chybacko Creek." Dated 1637, it is signed by John Winthrop as grantee and Maskonomett as grantor. Too many easy jokes can be made about this, so we shall simply move on.

Behind the terrace door is a long gallery that extends east and west. The eastern porch (on the left) adjoins the library. The one on the west is outside the dining room.

The view from the terrace to the sea is, to put it mildly, pretty impressive. A turf mall, 165 feet wide and half a mile long, unrolls arrow-straight down an undulating landscape to a bluff overlooking the surf at Steep Hill Beach. Crane originally hired Olmsted Brothers, run by the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, to landscape the Italian villa. A sunken garden, which we'll see in a moment, was the first thing they did. For the landscape in front of the villa, however, the Olmsteds argued strenuously - too strenuously, it would seem - for a naturalistic series of open hay fields. Which got them fired. Enter Arthur Shurcliff, an Argilla Road neighbor who, in years to come, would direct the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg. Shurcliff's uber-formal mall was a natural extension of SRC's Italian villa and, happily, was equally appropriate to Adler's English mansion.

But wait a minute, what's this? It's one of a pair of lead griffins (or gryphons, as I always thought it was spelled) that gaze down the mall from either side of the terrace. Designed by Paul Manship - famous (if you'd call it that) for his statue of Prometheus at Rockefeller Center - they were a 1928 housewarming gift paid for by a subscription from 3600 "Old Crane Company Employees."

Richard T. Crane Jr. was a popular employer. The enormous prosperity of the Crane Company during the Roaring Twenties made him a generous one as well. Part of that prosperity stemmed the revolutionary idea, both in marketing and manufacture, of the "beautiful bathroom." Heretofore considered a no-frills extra, Crane set out to convince America that stylishly designed fixtures and coordinated colors were exactly what it wanted. He bought pottery and enamelware plants, ran ads showing bathrooms with easy chairs and fireplaces, built a fleet of buses equipped with traveling exhibits, and opened special showrooms. One on these, on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, cost a million dollars. Crane let America know that Frank Lloyd Wright's new Imperial Hotel in Tokyo had Crane bathrooms, that King Hussein of Saudi Arabia installed them in his palace.

The north facade, overlooking the mall, after and before.

The service/kitchen court is tucked away on the west. The laundry is on the ground level; kitchen, pantries, flower room and butler's suite on the floor above; maids' rooms under the dormers on top. Strangely, access to the kitchen, including deliveries of food, is via those unprotected exterior stairs.

A path leads west from the mall to the Italian garden, begun by the Olmsteds in 1910. The architectural surround is SRC's work, designed to compliment the original house.

Further to the Olmsteds' fall from grace was the 1913 replacement of their "Wild Garden" with Arthur Shurcliff's Rose Garden. In its heyday, it contained 250 different varieties of rose.

Let's return to the mall, pass the north wall of the sunken garden, and continue towards the casino.

Here's SRC's Italian villa in 1915. The trees along the mall are still saplings; beyond the shallow steps is a swimming pool; bachelors' quarters flank it on the right, a casino (used for entertainments) is on the left. The arches in the middle are part of a retaining wall.

Here's what it looks like today, with a different house.

The pool terrace and casino buildings are currently under restoration. If past observations are any measure, I'll bet Castle Hill's present-day stewards won't let ivy grow back on the walls.

This is the view north from the balustrade above the pool. At the end of the mall is a stone marker atop a bluff, beneath which is Steep Hill Beach and the sea.

The mall looks equally dramatic in the other direction.

There's a different view from the top of the house, a view that's changed over the years.

Let's circle back to the entrance court.

In November of 1931, after spending only three summers in his new house, Richard T. Crane had a heart attack and dropped dead. He was 58 years old. Mrs. Crane continued to summer here until her death in 1949. The furniture was sold onsite at a 3-day Parke-Bernet auction in 1950. The Crane family then generously donated the estate to the Trustees of Reservation, the oldest private conservation organization in the world. The link is

Surely my readers don't believe for an instant that I would leave Castle Hill without thoroughly exploring the interior. In the course of my visit, however, I snapped over 400 images, a total that even violent editing couldn't compress into a single post. "Inside Castle Hill" would have appeared next week, but for a promise I made to the Millbrook Historical Society to prepare and deliver a lecture on Mary Flagler Cary. Can't do both at once, I'm afraid. I hope you will bear with me for a blank week, as Castle Hill's interiors are every bit as gratifying as one would expect.


  1. A bit of baroque, a dash of Palladio, a pinch of Wren....and a cat? A recipe for a building housing a fascinating interior! Now we Big Old Houses fans have a treat to anticipate.

  2. Castle Hill is immediately familiar to viewers of the not-very-good 1987 movie "The Witches of Eastwick" (John Updike's novel is infinitely superior to its film incarnation). But, my goodness, this house did photograph well! Can't wait to see the interiors!

  3. This home was also the setting of the movie version of 'Flowers In the Attic', the film that was made in the late 80s or early 90s based on the macabre book by V.C. Andrews.

    Terrific post, Mr. Foreman. I am a huge fan of your blog, thank you!

    Your friend Jenny in Washington, DC

  4. Oooh, a cliffhanger! Can't wait for the next installment and pictures of the famous Crane bathrooms, no detail of which will have escaped your eye. As a Winthrop descendant I admit to being somewhat bemused by the 'easy jokes' crack, but I must say - I like what they've done with the place.

  5. Another wonderful post. Thanks for your work. Hope you enjoyed some Ipswich clams and maybe a little DownRiver ice cream while in the neighborhood

  6. A great post with equally great before and after photos to bring the tale of tearing down an amazing mansion after only 10 years to build yet another one in ti's place. Spectacular contemporary photos of the grounds and equally impressive ruinous formal gardens make me anxious to see the interiors.

  7. Thank for your the amazing photos! It has always been one of my absolute favorite Adler houses. Cant wait to see the interiors.



  8. The north façade bears an uncanny resemblance to the Thames facing façade of Ham House in Richmond, London.

  9. @Anonymous 12:08, Hardly uncanny, being both acknowledged and deliberate. (An homage, if you will). But note the differences, also very carefully thought out: this is not the work of a mere copyist.

  10. Waiting for the next installment on this great old house. BWT I mentioned you and linked in my blog.

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