I’m constantly transporting my mind to far-off places…whether I’m plotting my next trip abroad, or I’m reviewing photos taken and books gathered on past journeys, as I compose my Diaries for Armchair Travelers. But occasionally, I stop all of that distant-lands musing, and instead remind myself to dig for the treasures in my own back yard. And if I forget to open my eyes to what’s local…or at least to what’s in my same time zone…someone else will rap me on the skull, and suggest a destination that’s a day’s drive from my New Hampshire home. And so ensued my three August visits to the Crane Estate, on Castle Hill, in the seaside village of Ipswich, Massachusetts.
Settle yourself into a comfortable chair and I’ll tell you a meandering tale about how and why my fascination with the Crane Estate began. In October of 2013, I published a Diary about Fletcher Steele’s hugely influential gardens at Naumkeag, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
( If you’ve got an ounce of stamina to spare, once you’re done with our Ipswich visit, follow this link to the Stockbridge article: GRAND GARDENS OF THE BERKSHIRE HILLS. )
My Fletcher Steele piece drew the attention of the Trustees of Reservations, who own Naumkeag, and their Public Relations Director Kristi Perry asked if I’d consider visiting the Crane Estate, one of the finest homes from America’s Country Place Era, and another of the Trustees’ cherished properties. The holdings of The Trustees of Reservations are considerable, and include over 100 estates, gardens, and tracts of land across Massachusetts. The Trustees ( http://www.thetrustees.org ) have been at their business of saving properties of scenic, historic and ecological value for quite a while: established in 1890, they’re the oldest land preservation organization in America.
Per usual, life intervened, my much-farther-afield wanderings continued, and nearly a year passed after Kristi’s overture to me. I confess I also did a bit of foot-dragging about scheduling a visit to Ipswich as I began to fuzzily recall my last visit to the Crane Estate…made well over 30 years ago, when I had attended a wedding dinner, on the oceanside terrace, at twilight. [Note: the Crane Estate has long been a venue for weddings.] My memory from that ancient visit was of a somnolent and indefinably spooky hilltop manor whose dimly lit ballroom and romantic but crumbling gardens were only temporarily enlivened by the music and dancing and chatter at my friends’ celebration.
BUT…excited by the prospect of inspecting the recent improvements to the Crane Estate’s spectacular grounds (which, after much neglect, are being restored), and intrigued by an invitation for a private look at the Great House, which would be led by Castle Hill’s charming and erudite Engagement Manager Pilar Garro, I finally carved out time for a visit. On August 12th, as I drove toward the North Shore of Massachusetts, I had no inkling that the day’s explorations would merely whet my appetite; that I’d soon become a frequent commuter to Castle Hill, instead of a one-time visitor…
I first passed through the village of Ipswich, which was settled in 1633, and where, to this day, more than 55 houses built between 1625 and 1725 (a stretch of time known as the First Period) are still occupied. [Note: Worry not. Modern amenities HAVE been added to those antique structures. Writing about the Cranes–whose name is synonymous with bathrooms–does make one begin to obsess about proper facilities, as you’ll soon see…] Prior to the American Revolution, Ipswich was one of the major Atlantic seaports in the northeast, but, as ships became larger, its shallow river, which empties into Ipswich Bay and Plum Island Sound, could no longer accommodate those vessels. The better, deeper ports of nearby Salem and Boston prospered, while Ipswich’s economy stagnated.
Not until 1828, when the buildings of Ipswich Mills were erected along the banks of the river (where the water power of the Falls could be harnessed), did the Industrial Revolution roll into town.
Here are some photos taken in the Village, during my August 25th visit.
Thus, for a time, Ipswich had the distinction of being America’s foremost producer of lace, and later on, of hosiery. But even that burst of vitality was eventually siphoned off by Lawrence and Lowell: nearby cities where the factories along the Merrimack River were larger, and more numerous. Once again, while the rest of Massachusetts boomed, Ipswich slept.
These prolonged, unintentional slumbers have proven to be Ipswich’s greatest gifts to posterity. Because, at critical junctures, development bypassed the village, great expanses of forest and farmland and wetlands remained intact, and so now, 380 years later, today’s visitors can marvel at many of the same beautiful landscapes and animal habitats that first enticed the British settlers who established their homesteads on the fertile hillocks and lowlands that hugged the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.
Apart from the local excitement generated by the lavish Houses-That-Crane-Built-Upon-Castle-Hill (which I’ll soon describe), the other major disturbance in Ipswich’s 20th century social history was caused by John Updike. As recounted by William M.Varrell for the Ipswich Historical Society, “John Updike, Ipswich’s Pulitzer Prize winning author, lived in town from 1957 to 1974. He often wrote about the town…and many consider his finest local contribution to be the best-selling novel COUPLES. It stood the town on its ear, as many speculated on which local inhabitants were represented by his most colorful characters.”
It seems fitting that when Updike’s 1984 novel THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK was transformed into the 1987 film of the same name, the primary exterior location shots were done on the grounds of the Crane Estate (a smidgen more about this too, in a while…).
Until the Crane family built their summer retreat in Ipswich, the standard for excellence in residential housing in the Village was measured against the High Federal elegance of the Heard House, which was completed in 1800. Now the headquarters of the Ipswich Historical Society
( http://www.ipswichmuseum.org ) , the Heard House was the rambling home of John T.Heard, and his baker’s dozen of 13 children (Mr.Heard exhausted two wives, both of whom died before the House was occupied).
After I’d acquainted myself with the discreet charms of Ipswich Village, I followed Argilla Road, a winding country lane which led me past a tree-lined river, and then across rolling farmlands, and finally through marshlands abloom with goldenrod and purple loosestrife (a beautiful but thuggish wildflower). I lowered my car windows and breathed deeply: of air that was perfumed with the mixed scents of pine trees and field grasses and ocean salt. On each of those three August visits, the weather was the stuff of which summer postcards are made : sunny, dry, warm and breezy. Inhabiting that landscape, on those days, made me certain that, just then, nowhere else on Earth could be more perfect. I understood why, a bit more than 100 years ago, the Crane family, who hailed from Chicago, had chosen to build their summer retreat here, amid this quintessentially New England scenery.
I turned off Argilla Road, by the property’s gates, and looked upwards, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Great House, but, from roadside, the House remains hidden.
A circuitous driveway led me away from the salt marshes, and up onto a pine and oak covered drumlin. Since 1637, when Maskonomett, Chief of the Agawam tribe, sold his ”woods, meadowes, pastures and broken up grounds” to John Winthrop Jr (son of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first governor), the hillock upon which the Crane Estate now rests has been called Castle Hill. Maskonomett parted with this prime bit of real estate for the sum of twenty pounds (I hear you groan—as do I—at this criminally meagre payment).
On two of my three August visits, I brought along guests. Neither of my companions had ever been to Castle Hill, and I eagerly awaited their first impressions of the place. On August 16th, my nephew Leo Quick accompanied me, and on August 25th my design-colleague Holly Alderman rode shotgun.
This first glimpse of the Great House caused both to exclaim something on the order of “we’re not in New England anymore, “ to which I replied, “Nope….more like we’ve gotten to England Proper, somehow…”
But wait! Before we pass through the front door and into the Great House, you may recall my mention of the local excitement generated by the HOUSES that Crane built. Yes, the English country manor that greets today’s visitors is the Crane-House, Beta-Edition. The Alpha-Edition, built in 1910, was, while equally grand, utterly different in character. In 1909, when Chicago industrialist Richard T. Crane Jr. decided that a couple thousand acres of Ipswich waterfront would be the perfect place for his family to linger during six weeks of every summer, he engaged Boston architects Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge to build him a villa, in the Italian style. A Renaissance Revival vision appeared, its 60-plus rooms enclosed within stuccoed walls, and sheltered under red-tiled roofs. Terraces and balustrades with complementary, Palladian lines were erected to surround the Great House. Similarly-styled outbuildings were designed—the most impressive of which formed the Casino Complex: with a Ballroom, Bachelor’s Quarters (single, male guests were NOT allowed to sleep in the main house), courtyard, and saltwater swimming pool.
Boston’s Olmsted Brothers were simultaneously engaged to plan gardens which would harmonize with the Italian Villa, and, in 1912, an Italian Formal Garden was completed, to the west of the House.
When Richard T.Crane Jr. first brought his wife Florence, and their two young children, Cornelius and little Florence, to their new seaside abode, Florence Sr. declared an intense dislike for the building. After a couple of summers there, and still unable to mollify her, Richard promised his wife that if, after 10 MORE summers, she still loathed her Italian Villa (her claim that the building was cold and drafty seems strange, given the perfect climate of Ipswich in the summertime), he would duly tear down the offending house and begin again. Florence, with the persistence of a bulldog, prevailed, and in 1924, the Italian Villa was dismantled, right down to its foundations. Pilar Garro explained: “From what I understand, some of the building material debris was deposited on the property in an area called Cedar Point. “ And “some of the fixtures like sinks and tiles from the first house were made available to the community. A few Argilla Road neighbors have these items in their homes.”
My oh MY! WHO were these people who possessed enough sheer brass to knock down such a solidly-constructed and palatial house, or—more to the point—where did they get the money that allowed them to take such drastic actions? Granted, architectural misadventures among America’s very-rich were not unknown. As I reported in my Armchair Diary about Kykuit (John D. Rockefeller’s home), in 1908, after a six-year-long construction ordeal, the mansion that architects Delano and Aldrich had designed was deemed unsuitable by Mrs. Rockefeller. Ogden Codman Junior was then assigned the task of remodeling the unsatisfactory house. But even the Rockefellers had shown some restraint as they altered Kykuit: far from being a total knock-down, their home-improvements refashioned the existing rooms while interior bearing walls were maintained, and the exterior walls were extended and then camouflaged with new stone cladding. But now… back to those extravagant Cranes, who dismantled every timber and discarded every tile of their Italian Villa, as they cleared the deck for their new, English Country House. Actually, sheer brass had more than a little to do with R.T.Crane Junior’s ability to take such draconian measures…which leads us to this necessary pause for a history lesson.
On July 4, 1855, 23-year-old Richard Teller Crane opened a little business in Chicago, which he named the R.T.Crane Brass & Bell Foundry. Crane, who’d been born poor, and in New Jersey, had gone west to make his fortune. Using wood salvaged from the lumber mill that an uncle owned, Crane set up shop in a 14 by 24 foot shack he himself had hammered together. That the rest of his life would unfold in Horatio-Alger-ish, rags-to-riches fashion, was beyond improbable.
Following now are tidbits gleaned from The Crane Company’s extensive history of the origins and development of their business: CRANE–150 YEARS TOGETHER.
Using the skills he’d gained as a machinist in a foundry, Crane began by taking orders for castings of the metal containers which were used to hold the lubricating material that lessened axle friction on railroad cars. After being joined by his brother Charles, Richard Crane decided to expand their product line to include a wide array of brass goods that they’d manufacture: locomotive parts, wrought iron pipe, fittings, valves, and steam-warming equipment.
The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 proved to be another major turning point for the business, which was now named R.T.Crane & Brother. The U.S. government awarded large contracts for infantry and cavalry equipment to saddlery makers in Chicago, which required the Cranes to manufacture a wide variety of brass fittings. As the 1860s progressed, and the nation’s population grew, the company, now called the Northwest Manufacturing Company, developed an important new line of business with the fabrication and installation of steam-heating equipment in private homes. Diversification followed, as the Crane Elevator Company began making hoists, elevators and steam engines. By the 1870s, Richard Teller Crane had invented multi-purpose machines and conveyor systems for moving molds and pouring metal, which facilitated the birth of line production in foundries. Up until the moment he died in 1912, Richard Teller Crane had worked incessantly, and he’d trained his two sons—Charles Richard, his eldest; and Richard Teller Junior, his youngest—to succeed him.
Per the Crane Company History:
“ ‘It is my hope,’ R.T.Crane wrote to his sons in a letter that accompanied his will ‘that they will continue the work I have started.’ He urged his oldest son,
Charles Richard Crane, and his youngest, Richard Teller Crane Junior, to keep a firm grasp on the family’s far-flung and thriving industrial empire. Both sons, however, were eager to take control of the family business, and a controversy over the terms of their father’s will erupted between the two. The firstborn, Charles, believed it was his natural right of succession to take over the leadership of the Company, while R.T.Crane Junior believed he was better able to manage it.”
“Although the Crane brothers had succeeded in building one of the most modern factories in the U.S” which was known as the Great Works…
“…controversy over their father’s will continued to split the two apart. To settle the matter, their lawyers asked them to submit a closed bid to each other that named a price for buying the other out of the family business. R.T.Junior made the higher bid, Charles accepted it, and agreed to step down in the summer of 1914.”
That the name of CRANE became known to most Americans can be attributed to R.T.Crane Junior, who “pioneered his Company into a promising new direction during the 1920s, “ as he made homeowners desirous of more luxurious bathrooms. “With their factories at Trenton, NJ, and Chattanooga, TN, the Crane Company began manufacturing their own line of ‘sanitary ware.’ Designers were brought in to create custom-made, colorful, innovative, and distinctive bathroom ensembles that were completely different from the drab, uniformly-designed models currently on the market. There was only one thing missing: demand. But R.T.Crane Junior believed that the Company could create a demand for the new, luxury bathroom through an aggressive, national advertising campaign. “ Because of those campaigns, the manner in which products were thereafter marketed in America was revolutionized. And until the 1970s (when The Crane Company got out of the “sanitary ware” business), the CRANE logo appeared upon the bathroom fixtures of many well-appointed American homes.
Richard Teller Crane Junior worked hard, so hard that he exhausted himself into a early grave. He died in 1931, on his 58th birthday, and was much mourned by the Company he’d nurtured and expanded. Upon his death, his eldest brother Charles, over whom he’d once prevailed, published this tribute:
R.T. Junior was a creative thinker, a skilled engineer, and a fiercely devoted boss and father-figure to his thousands of employees. This son was clearly a worthy successor to his father.
Only after one learns about the ambitions and achievements of R.T.Crane Junior can one make sense of the intense manner in which he approached the creation, and then the re-creation, of his vacation retreat at Castle Hill. This was a man who instinctively synthesized information, and did nothing in half-measures. His home, like his businesses, had to reflect the best: of engineering, and of design. And so Florence’s plea that her husband give her a summer house that she could love—however wasteful destroying the unwanted Italian Villa might be—became just one more challenge in R.T. Junior’s eventful life. Remember, this was a man who had overseen the construction of an innovative factory complex which covered 160 acres; merely replacing one manor house could hardly be daunting, compared to the magnitude and complexity of expanding the Crane-industrial-empire.
Now, history detour over, our tour of the Crane Estate can begin:
Every visit to Castle Hill ought to start with a guided tour of the Great House.
Tours are given seasonally, so visitors should check with the Crane Estate beforehand, for details about open days, and tour times. [Note: Crane Estate contact information is listed at the conclusion of this Diary.]
For their second attempt at summer-home-making, the Cranes hired Chicago architect David Adler.
Per the Trustees of Reservations’ design notes about the Great House, Adler’s “eclectic sense of design drew from different architectural styles, and for the Crane’s Ipswich residence we see the inspirations of 17th century English country houses, 18th century Georgian interior woodwork, Baroque carvings, Gothic-style vaulting and even an Art Deco feel to the bathrooms.”
Much of the interior woodwork in the Great House came from grand English homes that were being dismantled… then to be sold to the highest bidder.
Continuing with the Trustees’ notes: “With carefully achieved symmetry throughout, Adler refitted, on both floors, interior woodwork removed from an 18th century London townhouse [Note: the townhouse was located at 75 Dean Street, Soho, but demolished in 1921] which Mr.Crane purchased through W.& J. Sloane in New York. Also on the first floor is the library, which was purchased in part from Cassiobury Park, Hertfordshire, England.”
To my eyes, one of the impressive aspects of the interiors of the Crane home is the graceful way in which Adler reused what had to have been ship-loads of superb and sometimes irreplaceable pieces of British woodcarving and paneling and stonework. In none of the Great House’s rooms do those decorative elements feel as if they’ve been tacked on, or forcibly squeezed into place. Instead, all of the antique ornamentation melds seamlessly with Adler’s architecture. As we inspect the most significant areas of the 59-room home that Adler designed for the Crane family, you’ll see that, despite its grandeur, the house is actually quite welcoming and comfortable, something my nephew Leo Quick immediately sensed: upon entering Mrs. Florence Crane’s bedroom, he grinned and exclaimed, “this room is COZY!”
The exterior elevations of Adler’s Great House also reference English country homes. The cupola which dominates the roofline of the house is a replica of the cupola at Belton House, in Lincolnshire, England….
…and for the ocean-facing elevation of the Crane’s house, with its two protruding wings, terrace, and double loggias, Adler took his design-cues from the façade at Ham House, in Surrey, England.
Inside and out, Adler’s masterfully-disciplined demonstrations of material- recycling and architectural-homage stand surely on their own, two design-feet; never does his work devolve into pastiche.
Time now to enter the Great House:
The ceiling and walls in the Rotunda were painted by Abram Poole, whose inspiration for the decoration of this space was the Camera degli Sposi—in the Palazzo Ducale, at Mantua, Italy—which was painted by Andrea Mantegna, in 1470.
Per the Trustees’ design notes about the Crane House: “As an affectionate reference to Mantegna’s work, many of Poole’s details are directly alike, as well as the mural’s overall effect of a classical pavilion. The oculus is faithful in concept, geometry and perspective, but the figures here are members of the Crane family and staff, along with their Siamese cat. Poole continues to reference Mantegna by including a peacock: a traditional symbol for Juno, the goddess who presides over marriage and childbirth. The mural is executed in oil on canvas, which has been glued to a gesso wall preparation. A light surface cleaning was completed in Apirl 1997. The mural colors remain dark due to the tinted original varnish, giving it an intentionally aged appearance.”
Having once had the great privilege standing nose-close to Mantegna’s murals in Mantua, I must say that Poole’s paintings suffer in comparison. Poole’s efforts are those of a raw student, as he strives to emulate a Master. On August 16th, when Leo and I joined a small group tour of the Great House, none of our fellow visitors had ever heard of Mantegna. Thus, the features of the Rotunda serve dual purposes: they reveal the Cranes’ desire to be recognized as knowledgeable about cultural touchstones of the Western World; and, more importantly, they might induce Americans who’ve never been to Italy to begin to investigate the works of Andrea Mantegna.
If only one room of the Great House had to be preserved for posterity, that room would certainly be the Library, by virtue of its decorative wood carvings, which were done in the 1670s by the English Baroque sculptor Grinling Gibbons.
Let’s take a closer look at the Gibbons carvings in the Library. Per the Trustees, the Crane Library’s “overmantle carving is one of Gibbons’ earliest surviving decorative works. It is one of only two known documented sources of Gibbons’ work [in America]. He is known especially for his high-relief, delicately carved limewood festoons of accurately rendered flowers, leaves and fruit. These limewood carvings were originally bone white in color, giving a cameo-like appearance against the darker ground. However, in keeping with Victorian fashion, these carvings were darkened with varnish in the 19th century.”
We’ll next walk the length of the The Gallery, toward the western end of the Great House. Our first stop: the Dining Room. The Dining Room, like the Living Room, is kept largely empty, so as accommodate the weddings and other events which are regularly held at the Castle Hill.
Once inside the main area of the Dining Room, I became more aware of the delicate hues of the House’s color schemes. So that her new, improved summer home would feel in harmony with its beautiful setting, Mrs. Crane and David Adler worked out a disciplined decorative palette. Every unpaneled wall in the house is painted or glazed in custom-mixed colors: with blues, tans, creams, greens, or yellows. Because of these gentle, natural colors, which mimic the colors of the landscape outside, the Great House never seems stiff, or overwhelming, despite the opulence of its detailing.
Leaving the nuts-and-bolts rooms of the Great House, we return to the public spaces, and enter the Great House’s Stair Hall. More now, from the Trustees’
notes about the Crane home:
“The stair hall outside the Dining Room is modeled after one from an 18th century London townhouse. The house, at 75 Dean Street in Soho, was demolished (circa 1921) and its grand wood-paneled interiors were being sold by New York department store W&J Sloane. Upon Adler’s recommendation, Mr. Crane purchased these interior fittings for his new mansion at Castle Hill. They have been divided up and used here among seven bedrooms, the dining room and the upstairs sitting room. These period rooms fit in with Mr.Adler’s
English country house design scheme and served as an elegant setting for the Cranes’ growing collection of 18th century English and American furnishings.”
“The original circa-1732 painted oak and pine staircase did not fit the larger scale of the Adler house, so this reproduction [of the Soho townhouse’s staircase] was made incorporating all the same intricate carvings, twisted shafts and Corinthian column newels at each landing. In turn, the original London ‘Grand Staircase,’ and other unused townhouse rooms were donated to the Art Institute of Chicago by Mr.Crane in 1925. As museum items, these attest to the high quality of woodwork installed in fashionable early 18th century houses in London’s Soho district.”
“Great efforts have been made [by the Trustees] in recent years to restore this area of the house. Paint colors and glaze treatments have been restored; furnishings have been purchased or reproduced to scale; and fabric colors reintroduced. The chandelier is original to the space, as are the Regency sconces with eagles on the second floor landing.”
On the second floor landing, we consult this Room Plan:
The Trustees comment thusly about the enormously long, second floor Hallway: “It is worth noting again David Adler’s eclectic sense of design, incorporating Gothic-style vaulted ceilings with Greek Revival lighting fixtures and Adamesque neo-classical fan lights above the double doors, which are typical of the Georgian era in England and the Federal period in America.”
We’ll first take a look at the three Guest Bedrooms on the second floor, which the Trustees’ design notes introduce: “A series a guest rooms were named for the decoration at the time. These names are noted on keys that lived in the Butler’s key cabinet downstairs. All guest rooms have en suite bathrooms with silver-plated fixtures and, of course, period Crane plumbing fixtures, which reveal the Art Deco style. Creature comforts such as bathrooms, and overstuffed club chairs and sofas were among the few modern features of the house.”
Now, on to the bedrooms of the Crane family. We’ll begin with son Cornelius’ suite, which is at the top of the Great Hall Stairs. By the time the second version of the Great House was constructed, Cornelius was a young man of 23 years old. David Adler gave him a measure of privacy and independence, by locating Cornelius’ rooms apart from those of his sister, and parents, which were placed at the opposite end of the long, second floor hallway. And within the short hallway which serves as the entry to Cornelius’ domain, there’s also a small staircase which leads to the loft-like third floor (which was known as the Billiard Room, or the Chart Room…where the Cranes’ collection of nautical charts were shelved) of the Great House, and further, to a steep, spiral staircase which then leads up through the Cupola, and onto a roof deck, where 360 degree views of the entire estate can be had. We’ll pop up to the roof deck first, to enjoy the same vistas that Cornelius and his visitors enjoyed.
Sadly -–but sensibly, from a safety standpoint– the roof deck isn’t open to folks who take Great House tours. Fortunately, during my first visit to Castle Hill, Pilar Garro DID guide me up to the Great House’s wonderful aerie…
It’s always such a Small World, isn’t it? To see DESIGN NEW ENGLAND’S article about my own, vastly less-grand home in New Hampshire, see their May/June 2009 issue. Here’s the link:
Because the Crane family lived in Ipswich for only 6 weeks of every summer, Cornelius had little opportunity to meet local playmates. His father solved that problem with a typical, grand, Crane-ian flourish. He invited ALL of the elementary and middle-school children in Ipswich to celebrate Cornelius’ June 29th birthday with him. Even after Cornelius outgrew the need for such parent-arranged play-dates, the Crane Beach Summer Picnic continued. Thanks to the generous trust fund left to the Town of Ipswich by Richard T.Crane, Jr., the annual Crane Beach Picnic has now been held for over 100 years.
Pilar and I then carefully made our way down the spiral staircase, and entered the suite of rooms that Cornelius occupied as a young man. The Trustees provide these background notes: “Cornelius Crane (1905—1962), named after Mr.Crane’s friend Cornelius Vanderbilt, was a great lover of the sea. In 1928-1929, he set out on an anthropological expedition to the South Seas with a team of scientists from Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, and his friend Sidney Shurcliff (son of landscape architect and Agilla Road neighbor Arthur Shurcliff). His yacht, built for this adventure, was a 148-foot steel auxiliary brigantine named the ILLYRIA. They followed the trail of Darwin and Wallace, venturing from the American tropics though the Panama Canal to the Galapagos, New Guinea, Borneo and other islands in the South Pacific. Sidney Shurcliff documented the trip with films and his book JUNGLE ISLANDS.”
Per the Trustees’ design notes about his bedroom: “Paint analysis revealed the sky/sea/sand color scheme from the ceiling down, which may have been inspired by just looking out the window. Adler’s penchant for blues and greens is evident throughout the house, with Cornelius’ room displaying the richest blued. The blue-leather tub chair and the desk are original to the room.”
Onward now, to Miss Florence Crane’s bedroom suite. Again, the Trustees’ design notes set the stage: “Like Cornelius, Florence Crane (1909—1969) had a breathtaking view down the Allee to the sea, a sleeping porch connecting bedroom and bath, and a separate dressing area with built-in closets. Her bathroom is covered with eglomise (reverse-painted glass) tiles depicting silver ships at sea, and the door handles of this suite are cobalt-blue glass.”
Florence Crane’s bedroom is being restored. Per the Trustees: “Paint analysis showed this taupe on taupe glazed finish, a complicated treatment on the ornamental woodwork. It has been replicated, giving the room a serene color scheme. Florence, who was nearly 20 when this home was completed, had a room that reflected more of a 1920s Hollywood Deco style with its elaborate sky-blue swags and sheer draperies. Restoration efforts are currently underway on this room. We recently installed the elaborately styled blue poplin draperies, as per the 1931 photo documentation. We plan to raise the bed canopy in order to complete the bed hangings in the same fabric and to the right scale.”
Florence Crane’s first marriage, to William Robinson, produced one son, and ended in divorce. Florence’s second try at matrimony was more successful: in 1943 she wed White Russian Prince Serge Belosselsky-Belozersky, and they had two daughters, both of whom maintain homes in Ipswich. Oh, by the way:
Florence’s brother Cornelius also married twice. His first try didn’t work, but his second marriage, to Japanese artist Mine Crane, was very happy.
The Trustees explain: Florence’s “privately printed, limited edition book, IMPRESSIONS OF FOREIGN LANDS, was published in 1927 and captures the journal entries of her 6-month travel through Europe and North Africa to the Middle East to Greece and back to Europe.”
Richard T. Crane Jr.’s bedroom is adjacent to Miss Florence’s. Mr. and Mrs. Crane’s affection for their children is obvious: instead of building themselves the most spacious bedroom suites, the parents gave the largest accommodations over to Cornelius and little Florence. Each child had an entire wing of the house, which contained a series of rooms with outside exposures on three sides; their summers at Castle Hill were clearly meant to be all about enjoying fresh ocean breezes, and drop dead views. Compared to his children’s lairs, their father’s bedroom, which is paneled in dark wood from the Soho townhouse in London, almost seems austere.
Despite the restraint of his bedroom decor, Mr. Crane DID indulge himself, when it came to outfitting his bathroom:
A small hallway connects Mr. Crane’s bedroom with his family’s private sitting room, which is situated on the southeast corner of the Great House. Having been born in Chicago, and thus ever-mindful of the perils of fire (he was weaned on tales of Chicago’s Great Fire), Mr. Crane installed a fire hose in a closet, just outside his bedroom door.
The second floor sitting room allowed the Cranes to escape into the farthest, most-private corner of their house. Sometimes, with 100 servants and groundskeepers swarming over the property, the Cranes needed a room where they could hide for a spell.
The Trustees describe the Sitting Room as an “English-style room which boasts the most elaborate woodwork from the London townhouse. Great efforts have been made to restore this room to its original appearance. Draperies are made from the same fabric pattern and colorway that was originally used in this room, which is a 1924 Hollyhock pattern by English firm Lee Jofa. A 1949 inventory revealed to us that the sofa was blue, the wing chair yellow, and the bench green damask. Some original pieces are currently on loan in this room (mahogany armchair, side tables, andirons), and a very close match to the original English chest on chest was recently purchased for the room. The floral still-life and portrait paintings were also reframed to match the style of original frames in the room. The taupe carpet is original to the room.”
And last but not least, we visit Mrs. Florence Crane’s suite, with its dressing room, bedroom, and—Taa-Daa— bathroom, which is my favorite space in her 59-room summer home. Yes, I have a THING about bathrooms, which makes the Crane manse a place of particular interest to me.
As the Trustees recount, “Mrs. Crane, born Florence Higinbotham, was from a prominent Chicago family. Her father, Harlow Niles Higinbotham, was a founding partner of Marshall Field & Co. and the president of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1892-93.” Mrs. Crane was thus no stranger to grandeur; after all, how could a girl whose father had overseen such a spectacle as the World’s Columbian Exposition NOT have become accustomed to being pampered by positively EXOTIC surroundings?
And so the great surprise upon entering Mrs. Crane’s suite is seeing its modest size, and its sophisticated and nearly-spare decoration. To afford her a degree of privacy, Mrs. Crane’s sleeping area is separated from the second floor hallway by a small dressing room.
The Dressing Room opens on one side to Mrs. Crane’s bedroom: the space that my nephew Leo rightly called “Cozy!” More now, from the Trustees’ design notes: “The English deal (pine) paneling for Mrs.Crane’s bedroom is from the [18th century] London townhouse, and appears to have been glaze-painted to give a ‘pickled pine’ effect. English antiques and crewelwork-on-ivory fabrics originally graced the room. The table next to the bed is original; above which is an oval-framed portrait of the young Mrs. Crane. In the room is also a charcoal of Mrs. Crane done in 1919 by John Singer Sargent.”
Now, onward to Mrs. Crane’s jewel-like private bath, which the Trustees’ design notes describe: this “elegant bathroom features a green marble tub area with matching faux-marble-painted woodwork and a patterned green-marble tiled floor. This is one room in the house where David Adler’s sister, noted interior designer Frances Elkins, may have had an influence, as it reflects some of her French, Art Deco-inspired style. Again we see eye-catching patterns at work. The original silver sconces remain on the walls.”
Whereas the bedrooms of Mr. Crane, and their two children, were equipped with wind indicators, Mrs. Crane’s life was not attuned to sailing conditions, and so no wind indicator was wired into her personal space. Instead, all of her rooms, with windows that overlook the front entry court, allowed Mrs. Crane to keep tabs on visitors’ comings and goings.
On the underside of the sink counter in Mrs.Crane’s bathroom are inscriptions etched into marble by the craftsmen who installed the bowl. They had good reason to be proud of their work. Here’s what they wrote: “This bowl was set Dec. 29, 1927 by James Morton of Beverly; George Landers of Wenham; Wilfred Burns of Ipswich; Chet Bates of Revere. Weather was stormy. South East Gale with rain.” I find this record, left by 4 local men—along with a weather report—to be enormously moving…
And so we complete our tour of the interior of the Cranes’ Great House with this reminder that each and every person who participated in its creation clearly did so with a measure of passion and pride. And those same good qualities have recently been returned to the Estate: embodied now by the Trustees staff members who manage the House and Grounds with energy and enthusiasm.
With their scholarship, vigorous fund-raising, and unabashed love for the Place, the Trustees of Reservations are now supervising a program of massive restoration: they’ve banished the dust– and the ghosts–and are bringing Castle Hill’s House and Gardens back to life.
For students of architecture and interior decoration, time spent in close examination of the Cranes’ Great House is as good as graduate-level instruction. Each room of David Adler’s carefully-considered interior presents a pattern-book of history and ideas, if one knows to look to his walls for guidance.
And for those who simply wish to experience the magical aura created for Castle Hill’s impossibly-affluent former occupants, nothing can beat taking a stroll outside, up and down and along the undulating lawns of the Grand Allee’s half mile path to the Ocean…which we’ll soon do.
Although the Cranes’ Great House is an invaluable resource for the study of design, were it not for the magnificent Grand Allee that links House to Ocean, the mansion that David Adler built for Richard Teller Crane Junior could very well be regarded as just one more entry in the long inventory of gargantuan houses which were erected by the first and second generations of America’s captains of industry and finance. After the Civil War, newly-minted fortunes allowed America’s wealthiest families to build themselves palatial homes and extravagant gardens. In 1873, Mark Twain, who considered such displays of affluence to be ridiculous and wasteful, christened those times with the pejorative and wonderful name: “The Gilded Age.” Newport, Rhode Island boasts the greatest concentration of these gilded summer “cottages;” disingenuously-called as such by their occupants, who paused in their fancy digs for no more than a month or two, during summertime.
By the turn of the century the Gilded Age had morphed into a period that historians have designated the Country Place Era. Exactly when Gilt was replaced by Country is debated; some historians date the Gilded Age from 1870 to 1900, whereas others nitpick that the American Country Place Era began in 1890. But there’s no doubt about when the extended season of great-Estate-making in America finally began to sputter to a halt. In 1930, the onset of the Great Depression saw to that!
In 1910, as the first rendition of their Great House arose, the Cranes hired Frederick Law Olmsted’s sons (who had successfully continued the firm founded by their father) to plan the gardens at Castle Hill. The bowling green and the hedge maze that I’ve already told you about (which were on the east side of the house, adjacent to the Living Room, and the upstairs Sitting Room) along with a large, walled Italian garden for the western slopes below the house, were laid out. But when it came to Olmsted Brothers’ proposal for the area next to the north terrace and lawn, Mrs. Florence Crane balked. Florence knew that the open hayfield favored by the Olmsteds was wrong; she understood that her home (even this version….her despised Italian Villa) needed a landscape feature which would link her house to the sea.
Life, with preposterous serendipity, provided Mrs. Crane with a Solution, in the person of their Argilla Road neighbor, landscape architect Arthur A. Shurcliff.
In 1913, Shurcliff, who’d initially been retained to advise the Cranes about installing drainage and irrigation systems at Castle Hill, was then assigned the task of formalizing a connection between the Great House, and the Atlantic Ocean. His solution: an undulating lawn, measuring 160 feet wide—defined on each long side by double rows of clipped hedging and trees—which would stretch out over the entire half-mile distance from Great House to Ocean.
In 2012, to celebrate the completion of their renovation of Castle Hill’s Grand Allee, the Trustees of Reservations published a booklet: A GRAND UNDERTAKING—THE GRAND ALLEE AT CASTLE HILL ON THE CRANE ESTATE.
Written by Laurie O’Reilly and April Austin, A GRAND UNDERTAKING provides a good summary of Shurcliff’s design. Since I’m loathe to rewrite histories that have already been well-told, here’s an excerpt from O’Reilly and Austin’s report:
“He suggested a Mall—a grassy expanse bordered by trees. Shurcliff’s brilliance shows in the deceptively simple arrangement he devised, a design that took ten years to mature to its ideal height. Shurcliff chose trees that grew well in this part of the country. The inner hedge was Norway spruce, sheared to a height of 12 to 15 feet to provide a green-curtained backdrop to classical sculpture. [Nearest to the House] the hedge was backed by a row of white pine, and the last 500 feet were edged with red cedar. The resulting grand avenue, or greensward, is unique in American landscape design. While other estates of the so-called Country Place Era boasted similar features, none approaches the size or scale of that at the Crane Estate.”
As Shurcliff thought about how to sculpt the rise and fall of slopes along his half-mile Allee , he also found a way to seamlessly incorporate the Casino Complex, which had already been designed by architects Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge. By tucking the Casino’s ballroom and bachelors’ quarters below a cut into the hillside that formed the uppermost portion of the Allee, Shurcliff and the architects preserved the Great House’s uninterrupted line of sight to the Ocean. The Casino’s saltwater swimming pool was then positioned at the center of a large new terrace that was erected slightly above the floor of the first of two little valleys that had been formed, along the course of the Allee.
Shurcliff’s extensive re-grading of the entire stretch of land between the House and the Sea–from the top of the Great House’s terrace and north lawn, down past the “entertainment hub” of the Casino, and
then further along two more carefully-formed hills—allowed him to control the views, from almost every vantage point. The Casino becomes a large, elegant object in a game of Hide and Seek. First you don’t see it. Then you do. Up another hill and then down into another valley, and finally to the Ocean…and the Casino’s gone again. Wherever you are on your Allee-walk, you see only what Arthur Shurcliff wanted you to see. The man was a Land-Sculpting-Magician!
It’s high time now to get to our promised, Grand Allee leg-stretch. My photos of the Allee will correspond to various stops along the way, on the half-mile stroll that Leo and I took, during our August 16th visit, as we headed away from the Great House, and toward the Ocean.
Leo and I retraced the half-mile, back toward the Great House, and then headed west across a field, where we encountered Other Humans. This knot of people (along with the sudden appearance overhead of an airplane that was beginning its ascent from Boston’s Logan Airport), was a jolt….for a long while, we’d felt that Castle Hill was ours alone.
The Formal Italian Garden was built from 1910 to 1912, while the first version of the Cranes’ Great House was also being constructed. Per the Trustees:
“designed by the Olmsted Brothers, this was the first and most elaborate of the estate’s Formal Garden spaces. One end features a columned balcony above a fountain and pool. Two octagonal tea houses are linked by a pergola at the other end. A central garden included ornamental flower beds. The Olmsteds coordinated with architects Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge on the design of the garden structures.”
Although the Trustees’ design notes don’t mention it, a small, circular “ante-room” was also built, to serve as prelude to the balcony which overlooks the central part of the Italian Garden. This round courtyard, with simple, slightly plump columns which at one point certainly supported pergola beams, feels powerful and primitive. Here’s my first view of that “ante room.”
Onward now, to the Land That Time Almost Forgot, otherwise known as Mrs. Crane’s Rose Garden. Seen from the road that lies just above the Rose Garden,
this shaggy and quite enticing scene presents itself.
But so you can enjoy this final, major garden area of the Crane Estate (which was built during 1913 and 1914), I—wearing my reporter’s hat— did some gentle trespassing. Here’s what the Trustees have to say about the garden: “Designed by Arthur Shurcliff, this sunken garden ‘room’ lies across the road from the gates of the Formal or Italian Garden. The Rose Garden replaced a ‘wild garden’ designed by the Olmsted Brothers. Circular and framed on three sides by a walkway covered with a wooden pergola, the Rose Garden once boasted plantings laid out by Marblehead rosarian Harriett Risley Foote in four beds that encircled a central rose bed, pool and fountain.”
This was a ROSE GARDEN—par excellence—with 600 varieties of roses that were planted by the woman who eventually wrote THE book on rose cultivation.
Here now, are my photos of the interior of the still-enchanting Rose Garden, which, though long rid of its flowers, is yet an exquisite and hushed and spiritual place. Arthur Shurcliff built good bones here: the ruins which remain speak of his sensitivity to the greater landscape, and serve as testimonials to his infallible sense of proportion.
As I prepared to tiptoe out of the Rose Garden, I took one last look at its graceful curves, which are enhanced by the well-mown lawn. I also reminded myself that, during the Crane family’s tenure, the slope below the Rose Garden was bare of undergrowth, which allowed a wide vista of Ipswich Harbor. Although I shouldn’t admit this, I find the strength and simplicity of the Rose Garden as it now is—in all of its crumbling splendor: with its bare columns reaching for blue sky, while casting shadows across grass—far more beautiful than it was, during its rose-filled heyday.
We’ll wander back uphill now, toward the north terrace of the Great House…
…where we’ll see one last thing, before declaring that we’ve had a Fine Day, as we’ve explored the amazing world that Richard Teller Crane Junior created for his family.
Per the Trustees’ design notes: “The most distinctive sculptures associated with the property are the pair of lead griffins that watch over the north terrace. These sculptures were a gift to Mr. Crane from employees, after completion of the house, and bear a dedication with a date of 1928. The sculptures were designed by Paul Manship, a prolific artist in his own time, who is today best known for his Art Deco PROMETHEUS FOUNTAIN (1932) at Rockefeller Center, in New York. Griffins are mythological beasts—
half eagle/half lion—that symbolize the combined properties of watchfulness and courage. As Adler had intended the Crane mansion to resemble a late 17th century English country house, these highly stylized Art Deco sculptures are the only feature of the house exterior that date it to its own time.”
The existence of the Crane Griffins sums up the goodwill that Richard Teller Crane Junior seems to have spread, wherever he went in his life. And because of his wife Florence Higinbotham Crane’s extraordinary bequest of the Estate to the Trustees of Reservations, those of us who are nourished by beauty…and by fresh, ocean air…can return, again and again, to spend long days marveling over, and learning from, the treasures at Castle Hill. Although I’ve (finally) completed what has turned into a Crane-Opus, my treks to Ipswich won’t stop. Next spring, I’m certain that I’ll be back there, eager to see what new renovations the Trustees have planned. But I hope, in their zeal to polish and mend, that some of the time-worn corners of the garden will be allowed to molder with dignity…the Estate has a well-earned patina which we should cherish.
The Crane Estate
290 Argilla Road
Ipswich, Massachusetts 01938
Details about the Crane Estate can be found in the following section of the Trustees’ website:
The GROUNDS are open year-round, and daily, from 8AM to sunset.
Admission fee to the Grounds: FREE to members of the Trustees of Reservations; and $10.00 per car for non-members.
The GREAT HOUSE is open seasonally: from May 20th through October 25th, for guided tours. Specific open days and hours for House Tours are: Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, from 10AM to 3PM.
Friday & Saturday, from 10AM to 1PM.
Fee for Guided Tours of the Great House: $7.00 for members of the Trustees of Reservations; and $12.00 for non-members.
Throughout the year, many special events are open to the Public.
The major galas include: Summer Picnic Concert Series; Roaring Twenties Lawn Party; Annual Crane Estate Art Show; Greening of the Great House.
And many smaller events also occur, all year.
Copyright 2014. Nan Quick—Nan Quick’s Diaries for Armchair Travelers.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express &
written permission from Nan Quick is strictly prohibited.