An Ipswich Idyll
Restorations revive the grand spirit of a North Shore estate.
Photograph by Harvard Magazine/NPB
Photograph by Harvard Magazine/NPB
Behind the “Great House” on the Crane Estate in Ipswich, Massachusetts, a vast lawn rolls out half a mile to a bluff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
Few New England landscapes are as majestic as this “Grand Allée”—and far fewer are open, year-round, to the public. Even better, visitors to the site are encouraged to picnic, read, lounge, and play games on the grassy slopes, and explore easy walking trails, including one leading down to Crane Beach. Or they may tour the 59-room mansion, a rare survivor of America’s early twentieth-century country-estate era.
“We want people to gather here and enjoy this unique place,” says Bob Murray, regional manager of Trustees (previously The Trustees of Reservations), which has owned the property since 1949. “Pictures and words don’t do the landscape justice: people just have to come see it.”
In its heyday, the estate on Castle Hill was an opulent showpiece and summer playtime paradise. An Italianate “Casino Complex” tucked into the allée’s first hillside had a courtyard with a saltwater swimming pool that was bookended by two villas: one housing a ballroom, the other providing “bachelors’ quarters” for the young men who visited Chicago plumbing magnate Richard T. Crane Jr., his wife Florence, and their two children. Nearby were a bowling green, tennis court, maze, log-cabin playhouse, golf course, and deer preserve. The Cranes also ran a self-sustaining farm, with livestock, an orchard, and lush vegetable and rose gardens, along with an on-site 134,000-gallon underground water cistern and a coal-fired power plant to supply electricity.
The Trustees can’t recreate the Cranes’ luxurious utopia. But a three-year, $1.5-million restoration and improvements project has helped foster the estate’s spirit of relaxed sociability and extend aspects of the Cranes’ lifestyle to a much wider audience. The 2,100-acre property (which encompasses the nearby Crane Wildlife Refuge) is among 112 sites owned by the Trustees that exhibit “exceptional scenic, natural, and historic beauty” across the state; these range from vegetable farms, a creamery, and rural woodlands to wildlife sanctuaries and community gardens in Boston. The most recent fundraising campaign, spearheaded by president and CEO Barbara Erickson, has promoted improvements to the nonprofit’s “signature cultural resources”: Naumkeag, a Gilded Age mansion with gardens, in Stockbridge (see “Spring Forward,” March-April 2013, page 24D), and Castle Hill, which are both National Historic Landmarks.
In Ipswich, the restoration focused on the allée and the Casino Complex, designed and planted more than a century ago by landscape architect Arthur A. Shurcliff, B.S. 1896. The Trustees pulled out swaths of unfettered growth within and around the allée that had obscured Shurcliff’s original vision for decades, and replanted his orderly columns with more than 700 new trees that are growing in nicely. The restored Casino Complex now offers a fine-cut lawn for croquet (the pool was filled in long ago by Florence Crane), framed by a new brick terrace and comfortable chairs and tables. A Mediterranean feel persists, with “wonderful ornamentation: the Bacchanalian relief figures and marble statues,” Murray notes. “The whole complex is beautifully integrated within the allée and the house.” The former ballroom now holds a café, along with a billiards table, other games, and coloring kits. The original stone fireplace works and may help warm visitors, if needed, through October 16: the end of the season for the café and Trustees-run events like concerts, outdoor movies, scavenger hunts, and the new guided tours of the Great House. (The grounds themselves are open all year, and two special events are planned: The Crane Estate Art Show and Sale, November 6-8, and Christmas at Castle Hill, December 4-6.)
Those who tour the house as “Guests of the Cranes” are led around by a “maid” or “butler” brimming with tidbits on family history and the eclectic décor. The story is that Richard Crane, a fanatical sailor, was on a yacht in Ipswich Bay when he first saw Castle Hill and decided to buy it. He snapped up the first parcel in 1910 and would amass a total of 3,500 acres before his death in 1931—including what’s now Crane Beach. (Privatizing it earned him no friends in town.)
The imposing, Stuart-style English manor—a patchwork of architectural styles such as Baroque and Palladian—was designed by David Adler and completed in 1928. The side facing the allée features a main building with an inset terrace buttressed by two symmetrical wings. Second-floor porches and bay-windowed bedrooms offer stunning views of the water. The interior has a surprisingly rustic and homey feel for a mansion, perhaps due to the hodgepodge of decorating styles—ornate Georgian (Adler salvaged and installed wood-paneled rooms from a 1732 London townhouse, for example), alongside Greek Revival, Italian Renaissance, and Art Deco.
Most impressive, however, are the bathrooms—befitting a plumbing millionaire. Each of the seven bedrooms has its own, many outfitted with then-cutting edge Art Deco fixtures and one decorated almost entirely in Delft tiles. Richard Crane’s features a large tub with gleaming silver-plated piping and faucets, a shower with 12 nozzles, a white marble floor, and heated towel rack. His wife’s is pale green with delicate glass shelving and loads of gray-veined marble providing an archway over the sink, the tub-surround, and flooring accents.
The Crane Company manufactured iron and steel pipes, valves, and fittings, but starting in 1914, when Richard Cane inherited the top post, he expanded into modern bathroom fixtures; the company’s exhibit at the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair featured the “world’s largest shower.” “We like to joke,” says the butler during one tour, “that this is the house that toilets built.” In fact, it was the second one. The Cranes initially built (between 1910 and 1912) a lavish Italian Renaissance Revival mansion designed by the Boston architecture firm Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, but razed it in 1924; according to family legend, Florence Crane never liked the “Italian fiasco” because it was too “cold and drafty.”
She did, however, keep the matching Casino Complex and her beloved Italian garden, both built between 1913 and 1915. Designed by landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and his brother John Charles Olmsted, the garden is a hidden oasis: a forest of trees was transplanted and arranged to intentionally shroud the walled tea houses, water fountain, and abundant perennial flower beds. (The garden is currently under restoration.) Crane later dismissed the Olmsteds and hired Shurcliff, their former associate, to work on the Casino Complex landscaping and to design the allée. “We can speculate that it was because they had a very different vision for a much more open landscape at the estate,” Murray adds, “and that Crane didn’t want that. But we don’t know for certain what the reasons were.”
Shurcliff (a mentee of Olmsted firm partner Charles Eliot, A.B. 1882, the son of Harvard president Charles William Eliot and the primary founder of The Trustees of Reservations in 1891) lived down the road from the Cranes. He certainly shared the Olmsteds’ naturalist aesthetic. “But one aspect of his genius,” Bob Murray notes of the allée’s meticulous design, “was the way he took this European aesthetic and adapted it to the New England landscape.” Shurcliff enhanced the inherent hilliness and dramatized the approach to the Ipswich Bay and ocean vista: benches on the bluff overlook Ipswich’s Little Neck Harbor, Plum Island, and several beaches as well. He seamlessly tied the landscape to the formidable hilltop home by ensuring that the land was sheared down to a lawn (echoing the aristocratic grounds in English country homes) and installing a rigorously spare and symmetrical planting structure.
Florence Crane reportedly loved her new “English manor” and spent extended summers there until she died in 1949, having previously bequeathed the estate to the Trustees. Parts of the property have been open to the public ever since, according to Murray. Within the last 15 years, about $6 million has been invested in capital improvements, starting in 2000 with the wholesale renovation of a shingle “cottage” on the estate (where the Cranes lived while the “Great House” was being built). The Trustees now run it as The Inn at Castle Hill.
Murray is now overseeing the first phase of the Italian garden restoration. Plans include reviving the water features and replicating the original Rainbow Fountain sculpture by Bela Lyon Pratt, restoring the wooden pergola that links the teahouses, and replanting the flowerbeds. By next spring, the sanctuary is slated to open for walkers, gardeners, and sun-lovers—anyone seeking a quiet and beautiful spot. Florence Crane’s former rose garden, however, will be left as is. “We envision that,” Murray says, “as someplace we can enjoy…as a romantic ruin.”