The Crane Estate: A Chronology of the Castle on the Coast

The Crane Estate: A Chronology of the Castle on the Coast

Jaclyn Dziadose, Journalist

Massachusetts is home to many small coastal villages, one of them being Ipswich. A traditional New England town, Ipswich shares many qualities with neighboring communities, like Newburyport and Gloucester: clamming and fishing, of course, historic houses dating back to colonial times, and scenic landscapes, whether it be walking through tranquil forests, or overlooking a rich, green marsh leading to beaches bordering glimmering waters. The towns of eastern Massachusetts certainly attract lots of well-deserved attention and tourism; but is there a landmark, an eye-catching, magnificent marker on the Bay State coast, that receives umpteen camera clicks and oohs and aahs? A large, 2,100 acre English manor sitting atop a hill with a gorgeous view of the Atlantic might just be it. Although the enormous property seems out of place in little Ipswich, the town residents, along with practically anyone that comes to explore the grounds, know its name at the drop of a hat: the Crane Estate.

Castle Hill, which is the land that the outstanding house sits upon, has hosted various concerts, weddings, corporate events, tours, and wondrous venues that can’t be seen anywhere else. Originally, the owners of The Great House (another name for the Crane Estate itself) also possessed Castle Hill in its entirety. Obviously, what else is situated on top of Castle Hill than a manor that looks like a dream to live in? Anna Vincze is no stranger to the wonders that the notable estate holds. As a worker at the Crane Castle, she has heard her fair share of “stories, such as how the original mansion that was built was not to Crane’s [Richard T. Crane Jr. ‘s] wife, Florence’s, satisfaction, so it was torn down and rebuilt.” She also details how “the actual building itself has many smaller hidden rooms and staircases within” that were intended for servants. In addition to the events and enchanting elegance of the Estate, Anna explains that “the gardens…made up of the Rose Garden and the Italian Garden…are a major tourist attraction and a location for weddings and fancy parties.” But, going back in time, the story of how the incredibly beautiful, well-known Crane Estate came to be is a long, winding one, one that dates back to early colonial times, and the beginnings of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1634, English settlers bestowed the name “Ipswich” to the surrounding Agawam area; this is approximately when “Castle Hill” was found in old town records. Then, four years later, John Winthrop Jr., or John Winthrop the Younger (the eldest son of John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony) was given ownership of Ipswich land, Castle Hill, and the nearby meadow and marshes, by Chief Masconomet. In 1644, Samuel Symonds, a brother-in-law to John Winthrop Jr., was given the large amount of land and was in possession of it for the next sixteen years. After Symonds was Captain Daniel Eppes, who was Samuel’s stepson, taking Castle Hill in 1660. At this point, houses were already built on the land, specifically one on Castle Hill and one on Wigwam Hill. Following the Captain’s death, in 1693, his two sons, Daniel Jr. and Major Symonds Eppes, split up the property; Daniel Jr. took the homestead on Castle Hill, and Symonds received the islands, Castle Neck and Wigwam Hill. Then, in 1759, the Eppes bequeathed their ownership, specifically Samuel Eppes, the son of Symonds Eppes, to John Patch III. From there, Castle Hill and the other parts of the vast amount of land were then passed to the Lakeman family, then the Burnham-Brown family, then the Woodbury family, and finally, the most important and significant family out of all of their predecessors, the Cranes. 

Unlike John Winthrop, Samuel Symonds, or Capt. Daniel Eppes, the Crane family did not live in Ipswich nor the region of New England; rather, they resided in Chicago, Illinois. On July 4, 1855, the Richard T. Crane Brass & Bell Foundry was established in the “Windy City”, obviously named after Richard T. Crane, the founder of the business, which quickly became a heavily profitable empire. In the 1860s, the company entered the steam heating business and began to manufacture hoists, elevators and steam engines. Twenty years later, the booming empire was renamed to Crane Co., and Crane’s sons, Charles and Richard Crane Jr., started to help run the company with him. In 1912, Richard T. Crane Sr. passed, and his second eldest son, Richard Crane Jr., eventually assumed leadership as head of Crane Co., and took the initiative to have the entire company rely on electricity for power, making Crane Co. the most modern factory in Chicago at the time. Throughout the 1920s, Crane Co. began making its first decorative bathroom ensembles and plumbing fixtures, which were greatly praised and celebrated for their innovative designs. Richard T. Crane Jr., the president of the company, wanted to extend the business even further, adding projects and the government; for instance, Crane Co. supplied the railing materials for the Golden Gate Bridge, produced 25,000 tons of steel valves annually to go towards the United States’ and the Allies’ efforts in World War Two, supplied flow control products for aircraft, and, in 1961, became a multinational operation. Eight years later, Crane Co. became involved with another highly significant turning point in world history, when the company’s Hydro-Aire and Chempump pumps were used in both the Gemini and Apollo space programs, and Crane Co. products had reached the Moon. The thriving business still provided supplies and materials for further aeronautical developments; in 1981, the braking system used for the first NASA space shuttle was from Crane Company. Ms. Manos, one of the many teachers at Ipswich High School, as well as one of the numerous Ipswich residents appreciative of the Crane Estate, was amazed by Crane Co.’s dedication towards and collaboration with space programs; “Whoa! I didn’t know that at all,” she exclaimed. “…I didn’t realize that the company was big enough to expand its business past plumbing and into engineering and technology…and that they [Crane Co.] were involved with the leading edge of space exploration.” 

As an incredibly successful Chicago businessman, thanks to the immense profit he made as head of Crane Co., Richard T. Crane Jr. purchased Castle Hill for his wife, Florence Higinbotham Crane, and two children, Cornelius Crane and Florence Crane, to enjoy as a summer residence in 1910. Richard had a house built, and it was completed in 1912, modeled after a traditional Italian Renaissance villa. However, Mrs. Crane did not appreciate the look nor the feel of the house at all, and wanted the summer home to be rebuilt into something less cold and drafty. After more than a decade of trying to warm up to the villa, Mrs. Crane still desired different architecture and styles. So, in 1925, an English mansion, more specifically a Stuart-style manor, was designed and built in place of the Renaissance villa, being completed in 1928; this is the grand house that we currently see sitting upon Castle Hill today. Following the death of Richard T. Crane Jr. in 1931, Mrs. Crane decided that, when she died, which would be eighteen years later, in 1949, their beautiful summer residence would be bequeathed to the Trustees of Reservation, for all of Ipswich to share and use for their pleasure. The Crane children, Cornelius and Florence, made their own history too. A recognized explorer and traveler, Cornelius Crane went on The Crane Pacific Expedition, which lasted a year, beginning in 1928 and ending in 1929; he funded the entire trip, and he sailed aboard the tremendous yacht Illyria. Florence, after divorcing her first husband, explorer and shipbuilder William Albert Robinson, ended up marrying Prince Sergei Belosselsky-Belozersky in 1943, who was forty-two years her senior; Sergei was one of the largest landowners in Russia, a Lieutenant General in the Imperial Russian Army, and a member of the International Olympic Committee in the early 1900s. Not to mention, he was quite rich, being a high-ranking aristocrat, making him a perfect match for Florence!

Well, the Crane Estate, along with the Crane family, certainly has made a long lasting impact, not only throughout Ipswich, but at a national level, and even around the world. With the Crane family’s wealth and personal endeavors, our town’s tourism and spot on the map has expanded far beyond what it would be if Richard and Florence didn’t decide on spending their summers on the Massachusetts coast. The Crane Castle is nationally recognized for its prized location, as we’ve seen it being used for extravagant venues, parties, concerts, celebrations, and even entertainment (parts of the 2019 film Little Women and the 1987 film The Witches of Eastwick were filmed at the Estate or on the grounds). Hopefully, Ipswich residents will recognize the true history of the Castle Hill area as well as the accomplishments and gifts of the Crane family, even more than they already do. That way, we can fully understand how special it is to call The Great House ours, and as we walk along Cranes Beach, we can look ahead and smile at the stunning mansion standing tall in the distance: the Crane Estate.