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Touring the Crane Estate in Ipswich

The Great House was inspired by 17th-century English country houses.

The Great House was inspired by 17th-century English country houses.

Back in 1925, when F. Scott Fitzgerald was putting the finishing touches on his novel “The Great Gatsby,” Chicago plumbing magnate Richard T. Crane Jr. was living the dream. On a hilltop surrounded by the ocean in Ipswich Crane oversaw the construction of a fabulous English-style summer house, where he would host lavish parties with his wife, Florence, and throw birthday parties for their son, Cornelius, inviting every child in town.

Whether or not you’re a fan of the novel or Baz Luhrman’s new 3-D “Gatsby” film, a visit to the Crane Estate is an intriguing look at how the 1 percent lived in the Roaring Twenties, North Shore-style. If you have wandered along Crane Beach and admired the landscape, you might have caught a glimpse of the mansion on the hill and wondered about its provenance. As the story goes, Crane sailed past this spot in 1910 and was struck by its beauty and seclusion, deeming it the perfect spot for his summer home. He bought all the land he could see, ultimately accumulating 3,500 acres and six islands.

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The first thing he did was build an Italianate villa on the hilltop. Alas, Florence hated the place. So Crane tore it down, leaving the discarded bits by the road, to the delight of townspeople who used them to spruce up their own homes. “There are probably still houses in town that have those original Crane bathroom fixtures,” says Susan Goodall, who gives tours of the estate for The Trustees of Reservations, which maintain the now 2,100-acre property.

On the same footprint, architect David Adler designed an English-style country house for the Crane family. Inspired by two 17th-century English Baroque houses, the 59-room Great House showcased European furnishings and even
whole rooms that Crane purchased in Europe and reinstalled here. Completed in 1928, the mansion was the most opulent property in town. “The Cranes had a lot of money, and they spared no expense on this house,” Goodall says. (One feature that sailors will appreciate: Five rooms in the home were outfitted with wind indicators, so that the family could make informed decisions about sailing each day.)

For eight idyllic weeks in summertime, the Cranes enjoyed their paradise, complete with gardens designed by the Olmsted brothers and a pair of Art Deco griffins created by Gloucester artist Paul Manship, whose work includes the Prometheus statue at New York’s Rockefeller Center. Looking much the same now as it did in the Cranes’ time is the Grand Alée, a majestic grassy lawn that slopes to the bay. Measuring nearly 2,060 feet long — that’s 5 ½ football fields — and 160 feet wide, the allée is lined with spruce trees and classical statuary reminiscent of Rome’s Borghese Gardens or the Boboli Gardens in Florence. Recently, the Trustees planted 700 trees to replace old and storm-damaged ones, part of a continual effort to restore and preserve the estate.

“Crane is considered the crown jewel of Trustees of Reservations properties, because it is basically intact,” says Bill Effner, who gives landscape tours of the estate and recalls seeing Duke Ellington play a concert here in 1968. “The house looks much the same as it did when the Cranes were here.”

The best way to get a sense of the place is on a guided tour. If you’re a fan of “Downton Abbey,” sign up for the “Hot & Cold” tour and get a look at the mansion behind the scenes, spiced with stories about the people who lived here. There’s also a Great House tour, a landscape tour, and a children’s treasure hunt tour for families with kids ages 4 to 8.

Formal though the house might be, the estate was designed for fun. Original features of the property, now a National Historic Landmark, included a maze, a log cabin playhouse, a bowling green, a tennis court, a saltwater swimming pool, a billiard room, walking paths, a deer park, a golf course, and, of course, Steep Hill beach. Then there’s the casino, which wasn’t a casino the way we think of it, but the Italian version (“small house”) where single gentlemen stayed when they visited, since “it wasn’t considered proper in those times for the men to stay in the main house with the ladies,” as Effner explains. The casino area is earmarked for restoration as soon as fund-raising is completed. Other features are merely hinted at now, like the stone chimney that remains where the log cabin playhouse once stood, and the pillars that mark the Italian garden. Where once were pergolas and a profusion of English plantings (larkspur, Canterbury bells, Madonna lilies), there are now hauntingly beautiful ruins.

Playful elements still remain, like the 100-year-old footprints of the Crane children, Florence and Cornelius, and their dog, embedded in the concrete on the bottom stair of the formal garden, and something that Effner calls “the great gotcha,” a prank Crane pulled on his visitors. He would lead guests down a woodsy footpath that seemed to be blocked by a pile of boulders. He’d touch one and, voila! It would move, allowing access, “due to a secret mechanism that made it swivel around.” It still operates today. Nearby is another interesting feature, an overhead car wash installed in 1912, one of the earliest automatic car washes ever built, a sign that Crane was ahead of his time.

On the practical side, the estate was quite self-sufficient, Effner says, noting that the Cranes raised livestock and maintained root cellars, vegetable gardens, and orchards with the help of 60 or so gardeners out of a staff of 100. They raised nearly all of their own food, had on-site water supplies, and also generated their own electricity with a coal-fired power plant on property. There’s even a fire engine, and fire hoses on every floor of the house, since Crane was terrified of fire. For that reason, the house was built of steel, concrete, and brick; the only things that would have burned were the furnishings. Speaking of furniture, many of the home’s original furnishings and artworks were sold at an on-site auction in 1950 to benefit the Art Institute of Chicago, at the bequest of Mrs. Crane. Some pieces have since been restored to Castle Hill, and the interior furnishings on exhibit have been collected to re-create the appearance of the rooms as they were during the Cranes’ residence.

Given that the Crane fortune was built on plumbing products and bathroom fixtures, “Everybody wants to know what the bathrooms are like,” Goodall says. In a word, they’re fabulous, with heated towel racks (in Crane’s bathroom), marble floors and tub surrounds, the works — although only the mens’ bathrooms had showers; in those days, women took scented baths. We especially like daughter Florence’s bathroom, with tiles featuring silver paintings of sailboats on glass. “If you look closely, you can see hidden pictures of faces and horses in the sails,” Goodall points out. Sure enough — just another example of the unique details of one of the North Shore’s most storied properties.

Sadly, the story was more novella than novel. Crane died of a heart attack in 1931, so he enjoyed his house for a very short time. In 1945, the family gave 1,000 acres of beach and dune to The Trustees of Reservations in his memory. Crane’s wife summered at Castle Hill until 1949, the year of her death. She bequeathed an additional 350 acres to The Trustees, including the Great House. Two granddaughters reside in Ipswich and are involved with the property.

For more, take a tour of the Crane Estate, and have lunch at the new Castle Hill Cafe (open during tour days). Or show up for one of the Thursday night picnic concerts, held July 11-Aug. 29 this year on the Grand Allée. And if you want to do it up Gatsby style, attend the “Roaring Twenties Lawn Party” July 21, where guests are urged to dress in ’20s style and dance to live music on the allée.

CRANE ESTATE  290 Argilla Road, Ipswich, 978-356-4351, www.thetrustees.org. Great House Revealed ($12; $7 for Trustees members), Hot & Cold Tour ($20, members $15), and The Designed Landscape tours ($10, members $5) offered through October. See website for schedule. Children’s Treasure Hunt ($10 for one adult and one child, $8 members) offered from June-August.

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com.

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