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Inside the manor: A new book explores Castle Hill on the Crane Estate

The Grand Allee leads up to the Great House, which looks out over the 165-acre historic site in Ipswich.
The Grand Allee leads up to the Great House, which looks out over the 165-acre historic site in Ipswich.Trustees of Reservations

Every year, Castle Hill on the Crane Estate in Ipswich attracts thousands of visitors drawn to its sweeping seaside vistas, designer gardens, grand Casino complex, and iconic half-mile Grand Allée cascading to the Atlantic Ocean.

While interior tours of the 59-room Great House are currently paused (though the grounds are open) due to COVID-19 restrictions, the new book, “Castle Hill on the Crane Estate,” provides insight into the history, architecture, interior design, gardens, and dramatic natural landscapes surrounding the Stuart-style mansion.

Written by Manchester-by-the-Sea author Anna Kasabian, the 64-page semi-soft cover book is an illustrated and practical guide. The 165-acre historic site is among 120 properties owned and maintained by The Trustees of Reservations throughout the state.

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“All of the Trustees’ properties are beautiful, but this one is special,” said Kasabian, who has been visiting the Crane Estate — comprising Castle Hill, Crane Beach, and Crane Wildlife Refuge — for 35 years. “Like Downton Abbey, each aspect is a story: the Crane family, the support staff, the architecture, gardens, and all of the restoration projects. People don’t live like this anymore, and it is rare to see homes built at this size with this level of craftsmanship and spirit.”

Anna Kasabian is the author of "Castle Hill on the Crane Estate."
Anna Kasabian is the author of "Castle Hill on the Crane Estate."David Kasabian

The book features a wealth of historical photos from the Trustees’ Archives and Research Center, as well as selections by institutions and photographers including Kasabian’s husband, David. Additional text and research were provided by Trustees Ipswich Properties curator Susan Hill Dolan and Director of Visitor Interpretation Danielle Steinmann, with further contributions from Castle Hill and Trustees staff members.

“The book has been a great team effort,” said Dolan, an Ipswich resident and Castle Hill’s curator for the last 24 years, “with Anna as the perfect partner.”

According to Dolan, the impetus for “Castle Hill on the Crane Estate” came from repeated requests at the gift shop for a souvenir guidebook showcasing the property.

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Even before indoor tours resume at the Great House, “at least people can get a sense from this book of all the restoration and conservation work,” Dolan said. “Not to mention the history of the property and family through photos that bring the Cranes to life.”

The land that is now the Crane Estate was originally occupied by the Agawam tribe of Native Americans, who lived off plentiful supplies of fish, shellfish, and game. English settlers farmed for salt marsh hay in the 1600s, and the property was developed into a saltwater farm that passed from Manasseh Brown to his son, businessman John Burnham Brown, in the 1880s. Brown then transformed the agricultural Castle Hill Farm into a summer estate, complete with a shingle-style cottage that is now the Inn at Castle Hill.

In 1910, the land was purchased by Chicago plumbing magnate Richard T. Crane Jr. and his wife, Florence Higinbotham Crane. Their first home, an Italian Renaissance Revival villa designed by the Boston architectural firm of Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge, was razed in 1924 — reportedly at the direction of Mrs. Crane, who felt it was cold and drafty.

Renowned architect David Adler was hired to design the new seaside summer mansion that took its place and was completed in 1929, with the famous Olmsted Brothers mapping its siting and the approach from the street. The Cranes’ neighbor, noted Boston landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff, is credited with designing the Grand Allée, along with a romantic rose garden, vegetable garden, and hedge maze. A formal Italian garden was created with Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge and the Olmsted Brothers in 1912.

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Richard Crane’s professional mantra to “Make America a Better Bathroom” included equipping his own with the highest quality valves, fittings, and pipes to complement lavish designs. Other technological advancements that distinguished the property consisted of a trunk elevator; an internal private automatic exchange (PAX) telephone and call button system; a 135,000-gallon underground cistern used to irrigate the grounds with rainwater from the roof; and a system of wind indicators to alert sailors to direction and velocity.

To complement Adler’s final design, which recalled that of an old English manor house, the Cranes embraced English art and furnishings. They additionally purchased wood paneling and other architectural salvage from a former home of the Earls of Essex and a 1732 London townhouse.

The Great House, which became a museum in 1949 and a National Historic Landmark in 1998, has hosted tours, concerts, weddings, and a myriad of other special events over the years. Regardless of the circumstance that introduces guests to Castle Hill, Dolan said she hopes the book helps raise awareness of the national significance of the property.

“Sometimes we don’t realize what we have in our own backyard, and in fact, people come from all over the world to visit Castle Hill,” she said. “Maybe you can’t travel to Europe during the pandemic, but you can take tours here ... and see the closest thing to a grand English country house this side of the pond.”

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Castle Hill is open seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with advance passes suggested (since admission is guaranteed for the specified day and time, even if passes sell out). Beginning May 1, admission passes will change from per car to per person with Trustees members free and nonmembers charged $10 per adult; $5 for children 6 to 14 years old; and free for children 5 and under.

While the Great House is currently closed, Highlights on the Hill and Cupola with a View tours (each $30/member family; $65/nonmember family) will be offered on weekends and Monday holidays beginning May 1, and from Tuesday through Sunday effective June 22. Visitors may take self-guided tours of the Great House ground floor on weekends and Monday holidays beginning June 5, expanding to Tuesday through Sunday on June 22.

A variety of other activities are available at thetrustees.org/events. Register online or call 978-356-4351.

Crane Beach is open daily from 8 a.m. to sunset, with admission rates (payable via credit card) available at thetrustees.org/content/crane-beach-admissions. Starting May 1, advanced entry passes are required for weekends at Crane Beach. They are encouraged, but not required, on weekdays since all visitors and permit holders except those with an advance entry pass will be turned away any time the beach reaches its safe operating capacity. Only Crane Beach permit holders are allowed to exit and reenter on the same day.

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The book “Castle Hill on the Crane Estate” is available for $18 at shopthetrustees.org. For more information on visiting the property, go to thetrustees.org/place/castle-hill-on-the-crane-estate.

Cindy Cantrell may be reached at cindycantrell20@gmail.com.

The book "Castle Hill on the Crane Estate."
The book "Castle Hill on the Crane Estate."Trustees of Reservations