By Dan the Traveling Man
If you happen to be at Ipswich’s Crane Beach, chances are you see a luxurious house perched on top of Castle Hill. It is known as the Crane Estate. During the early twentieth century, it was the summer home of Richard T. Crane and his wife and children. They owned the nearby beaches as well. An industrialist family from Chicago who specialized in constructing bathrooms, Crane originally built the home as an Italian villa in 1912 but by 1928, it was restored as an English manor. With 59 rooms, various gardens, livestock, a casino complex, and a cottage, the mansion remained a summer residence for the Crane family until 1949, when Richard’s wife, Florence passed away. She bequeathed the estate, its land, and the beaches to The Trustees of Reservation, a member-supported nonprofit conservation organization that preserves land, nature, and historic places in Massachusetts. The organization still works to preserve the house and its landscapes. Their son, Cornelius and his wife, Miné continued to spend summers in the area, vacationing in the nearby Brown Cottage and Choate Island. Like the Crane Estate, both Brown Cottage and Choate Island were donated to The Trustees of Reservation. Since then, the Crane Estate and its surrounding area have become popular with tourists, who love to check out the mansion’s grand interior, exterior, and gardens and see its beautiful views of the beaches and marshlands. It is also a popular venue for weddings, parties, and outdoor concerts.
I recently went on a private tour of the house and enjoying seeing its beauty and learning more about its past. Although I had already seen the exterior of the mansion beforehand, I had never been inside. I was excited yet curious to see what it was like. The rooms were magnificent and decorative with portraits, chandeliers, tall bookcases, and satin curtains. The interior’s architecture included Gothic-style vaulting, Baroque carvings, and Georgian woodwork. I felt as if I were in Downton Abbey! Most of the Crane family’s bedrooms had picturesque views of the ocean. I could imagine how lovely it must have been for them to wake up and see the ocean. Their rooms also had a nautical theme because the family enjoyed sailing. Throughout the house, there were wind indicators that would tell them which direction the wind is coming from. One of the bathrooms was decorated with tiles displaying sail ships and there was a room called the Ship’s Room, where Cornelius and his friends planned their sailing expeditions. According to my guide, Trina, they traveled to as far as the South Seas! The room even had a staircase that went to the rooftop. Not only did it have spectacular views of Crane Beach and Choate Island, but also the nearby towns of Essex and Plum Island in Newbury. I was told by Trina that the rooftop recently hosted a summer solstice party and that it was dazzling to watch the sunset. I would probably feel the same way if I went to the event.
Visiting the Crane Estate felt like going back to the 1920s. If you go on a tour, you would be led by either a lady wearing a maid’s uniform (a black dress with a white cap and apron) or a man wearing a footman’s suit. They would serve you alcohol-free cider since the 1920s was the Prohibition era, when alcohol was illegal. The estate has rooms and things you do not see in contemporary homes, such as the servant’s quarters and a dumbwaiter in the kitchen. You would also notice how both Richard and Florence slept in separate rooms. During the 1920s, it was common for men and women from upper class backgrounds to not sleep together. Even male and female guests slept in different quarters. Women would sleep in the main house while men slept in the casino complex elsewhere on the estate. Despite that, the house was pretty modern for its time. Both Richard’s and Cornelius’ bathrooms had showers and electric towel warmers. I had no idea electric towel warmers existed in the 1920s. The family were also ahead of their time by paying their servants’ medical bills and inviting local children to parties at the beach. Even today, the Crane Estate hosts beach parties for the kids.
Later on, Trina showed me parts of the estate’s grounds. We first saw the beautiful Italian Garden. It was embellished with colorful flowers and Roman columns and domes. Trina informed me that the gardens hosted Shakespeare plays in the past, which was clever because many of them take place in Italy. After that, we visited the Casino Complex. During the estate’s heyday, the casino was not technically a place to gamble. It was more of an area for the Crane family and their guests to relax and unwind. It also had a four bedroom guest house for the male guests and a swimming pool. However decades later, the guest house and pool fell into disrepair and they were both demolished. Today, the casino complex has a cafe and is used for the estate’s Roaring Twenties parties. Like the gardens, the area is very Italianesque with its lion statues, alcoves, and hedges. It seemed as if I were in Rome!
Toward the end of the tour, we went to a mazed structure on Castle Hill called the Tunnel Teller. Created by Polish artist, Alicja Kwade, the temporary art installation pays homage to the hedged maze that used to be at the estate. The structure, which had tunnels for people to crawl through, was small so it was easy to navigate. I thought it was interesting it had tunnels for people to crawl through. Because I am 6’2” and get claustrophobic in tiny spaces, I decided not to crawl through them. However, the Tunnel Teller is a great place for little kids who have a blast exploring those tunnels.
The Crane Estate is undoubtedly a wonderful attraction to see in the North Shore. It has rooms filled with history and glamor, along with spectacular scenery and gardens. You feel as if you stepped back in time. For those looking for venues to get married in the North Shore, the Crane Estate is definitely the place to hold your special day – I guarantee it! For more information about the mansion, click here.