The House of Her Dreams

Text by Jaci Conry Photography by Courtesy of the Trustees of Reservations

In 1912, Chicago industrialist Richard T. Crane, Jr. built a lavish Italian Renaissance–style villa for his wife, Florence. The summer retreat sat on the highest hill in Ipswich, Massachusetts, overlooking an exquisite beach, an extensive marsh and Ipswich Bay. The Olmstead Brothers designed a landscape of terraced gardens and ornate plantings. Statuary and urns marched alongside the 160-foot-wide tree-lined “Grande Allee,” which led to the water a half-mile away. At the allee’s midpoint sat an opulent casino—one of twenty-one outbuildings on the property—that held a saltwater swimming pool, bathhouse, guest cabanas and a ballroom.

Despite its grandeur, Mrs. Crane didn’t take to the house. It didn’t suit her style (she called it “the Italian fiasco”), and she didn’t think the Mediterranean building with its red-tiled roof fit with the setting. Mr. Crane, who loved the house, persuaded his wife to move in with the promise that if she didn’t like it in ten years, he’d build her another. “A decade later, Mrs. Crane still didn’t like the house,” says Susan Hill Dolan, cultural resources manager for the Crane Estate. “And as crazy as it seems, true to his word, Mr. Crane had the massive villa razed in 1924.”

In its place the Cranes commissioned Chicago architect David Adler to design a new house based on the formal English country houses of the seventeenth century. This time, Mrs. Crane would have the house of her dreams.

The fifty-nine-room brick mansion—known as the Great House—was designed as a five-bay, hip roofed block with a pediment over three central bays. On the northeast side, symmetrical two-story wings jut out to form the north terrace. On the terrace side of each wing sits a one-story porch. Wings and porches are embellished with thirteen stone and cast-concrete busts, believed to represent the Caesars, set in sandstone niches. A pair of large Art Deco griffin sculptures by Paul Manship grace the terrace, gifts from Crane’s employees to guard his home on its completion in 1928. “The figures are the only elements of the mansion’s exterior that help date it to its own time,” says Dolan.

While the house draws directly on several seventeenth-century English houses, it was built more like an industrial building than a residence. As solid as the outside is, though, the interiors hold an eclectic and elegant mix of styles. “Adler paid attention to every detail of the site plan, interior and furnishings. He was very unique in his ability to combine styles,” Dolan explains. “In the house we see Georgian woodwork, Gothic vaulting, Greek Revival lighting fixtures, Italian Renaissance-style murals and Baroque carving all integrated with elegance and taste.”

The first floor of the house is grand in scale, with sixteen-foot ceilings and a gallery that echoes those of English Baroque houses. A floor of eighteenth-century oak in a parquet pattern that mirrors the floors in the Palace of Versailles stretches across the gallery’s sixty-three feet. Sunburst fanlights hang above the double doors at either end of the room. Inlaid on the left wall are a massive wall clock and a wind indicator—one of five the Cranes, who loved sailing, installed throughout the house.

Working with New York City’s posh furniture store, W. and J. Sloan, Adler found a number of wood-paneled rooms that originally sat in a 1732 London townhouse and had them refitted to the Crane’s new house. The early Georgian rooms, some with magnificently carved fireplaces and surrounds, cornices and pilasters, were divided up among seven bedrooms, the dining room and the upstairs sitting room. The townhouse’s original staircase didn’t fit the large scale of the Great House, so Adler designed a reproduction that incorporated the same intricate carvings, twisted shafts and Corinthian column newels at each landing.

The first-floor library displays woodwork bought from Cassiobury House, the English home for generations of Earls of Essex, and boasts seventeenth-century carvings by the renowned Baroque sculptor Grinling Gibbons. The high-relief over-mantel carving with its delicate lime-wood festoons of flowers, leaves and fruit is one of Gibbons’s earliest surviving decorative works, and one of only two known documented sources of his work in the United States.

The more intimately scaled second floor of the Great House holds suites of rooms for the Crane family and their guests. The second-floor hallway features Gothic-style vaulted ceilings with Greek Revival lighting fixtures and Adamesque neoclassical fanlights about the double doors. All of the seven bedrooms have bathrooms outfitted with fixtures in the Art Deco style of the era. At the time the house was built, the Crane Company—manufacturers of valves, pumps and bathroom fixtures—was marketing “the better bathroom,” so naturally the baths are built with state-of-the-art fixtures. Mrs. Crane’s bathroom had a decadent green marble tub area with a patterned marble floor, matching faux-marble painted woodwork and silver sconces that still hang on the walls.

Mr. Crane’s elegant bathroom is dominated by a central tub with silver fixtures and handrails, with a twelve-nozzled shower and a toilet stall set behind glass at either side. The sophisticated white marble floor is complemented by a black marble door surround. A heated towel rack completes the luxury.

Mr. Crane passed away in 1931, a mere three years after the Great House was completed. When Mrs. Crane, who did, indeed, love the second house her husband built for her, passed away in 1949, the 2,100-acre estate was donated to the Trustees of Reservations. Though most of the contents of the house were auctioned off by the family to benefit the Art Institute of Chicago in 1950, the Trustees have acquired many original furnishings on loan and through purchase. Wallcoverings, paint colors and damask draperies have been painstakingly restored and replicated, and the gardens and statuary have been meticulously preserved.

“You really get a sense of what the house was like when the Cranes lived here,” says Dolan. “You can feel their presence, particularly Mrs. Crane—it was her house after all.”

EDITOR’S NOTE The Great House at the Crane Estate is open for tours from late May until mid-October, Wed.–Thurs. 10 a.m.–3 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 10 a.m.–1 p.m. (closed July 4). Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children (the minimum age is 8 years old). 290 Argilla Road, Ipswich, Mass., (978) 356-4351, www.thetrustees.org.

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