This story, originally appearing in 2007 in the Advocate Weekly newspaper, has been updated in places and enhanced with photos by Amanda Rae Busch.
I have always had a soft spot for the many fine manor houses that dot the Berkshires, those opulent and gargantuan self-memorials that the uber-rich, with surreal modesty, called cottages. Though constructed in a range of different styles and gradients of grandeur, they all somehow bear the very distinct mark of the Gilded Age in which they were midwifed into existence. Throughout that mythic era of vast fortunes, stretching for all practical purposes from the post-Civil War Reconstruction to the dawn of modern income taxes with the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment, wealthy socialites and industrials descended on the Berkshires in waves.
For a variety of factors, ranging from the area’s established cultural pedigree and natural beauty, to the large-scale availability of fine marble and other crucial building materials, they raced to snatch up local land for their summer estates. While the lion’s share of these estates went up in Lenox and Stockbridge, it is Great Barrington that can boast possession of what is perhaps the most colorful and interesting of these palatial domains.
In fact, it is one of the most frequent questions asked by travelers on their first visit to the town: “What’s the deal with that castle?”
Kellogg Terrace, aka Barrington House, aka Searles’ Castle, of late the John Dewey Academy campus, has been enshrouded in legend virtually since the time of its construction.
Rumors of scandal, infidelity, fraud, and murder, have all at one point weaved their way into the castle’s legacy, along with whispers of hidden staircases, secret tunnels and restless ghosts. The castle’s story revolves around Mary Hopkins Searles, born Mary Frances Sherwood in Great Barrington in 1826. As a girl, Mary attended the Kellogg School run by her aunts on the very land where the present mansion now stands. In 1854 she married Mark Hopkins, her first cousin and great grandson of Samuel Hopkins, the first Congregational minister in Great Barrington. Known for his skill at turning a profit, Mark became one of the “Big Four” founding owners of the Central Pacific Railroad. At the time of his death in 1878, he left Mary with a fortune valued at around forty million dollars, equivalent to over 830 million in today’s money. Following his death, Mary kept herself busy overseeing the completion of their mansion atop Nob Hill in San Francisco, begun in 1875 (destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel is built on the spot it occupied).
In 1881, her last remaining Kellogg aunt died, leaving her the Great Barrington property. The widow Hopkins quickly set about preparations for the palatial chateau seen today, engaging the help of decorator Edward F. Searles, who had worked for her on the Nob Hill home. In the course of the four year, multi-million dollar construction of Kellogg Terrace, Mrs. Hopkins and Searles found themselves more and more in each other’s company, and in 1887 they married. He was 46, a comparatively modest decorator with a known taste for massive estate houses. She was 68, and the wealthiest woman in America at the time.
Naturally, people talked.
One of the most amusing stories that circulated was that Searles had in fact been pursuing the marital mother lode for some time, but continued to be gently rebuffed by the Mrs. Hopkins (it was even rumored that the widow favored a different suitor entirely). Finally, while seeing her off for the train to New York, he slung an arm around her waist and kissed her full on the mouth. The widow found herself faced with scandal, with half of Stockbridge society looking on. Without missing a beat, so the story goes, she loudly introduced her nearest companions to her fiancé, Edward Searles. Such stories earned Searles the nickname “the Napoleon of love.”
As for the house itself, it has been called the finest example of the French chateau period in America. The exterior was designed by the firm of McKim, Mead & White, and built from blue dolomite quarried on the property. The final structure measured 180 feet across and 100 deep, varying from four to six stories in height, with a total of 68,000 square feet. The interior, with its many rooms and halls, was overseen by Searles, and outfitted lavishly in a dizzying variety of styles. Coming through the huge, German-made bronze doors that used to adorn the front entry, the early visitor came through the vestibule and into the great hall, paneled in English oak. This opens into the atrium, a vivid example of Greek Ionic architecture recreating the Erechtheum in Athens. The atrium is surrounded by 16 matched marble columns, with walls of rose ivory marble quarried in the Atlas Mountains of Africa.
According to legend, the eccentric Searles also oversaw the construction of a network of secret passageways and staircases throughout the mansion. In one version of the legend which appeared in a recent collection of folklore, Searles used one of these staircases to carry on an affair with one of the servants while Mrs. Searles, then sickly, remained bed-ridden in the master bedroom. In this version, Edward eventually poisoned the ailing Mrs. Hopkins Searles, but within weeks of her death both the maid and Searles died of accidents in the house. It almost goes without saying that “all three are said to haunt the manor to this day.”
In fact, rumors of foul play surrounded the death of Mrs. Searles almost from the moment it occurred. The newlyweds took up residence at the castle (which Searles had renamed Barrington House) in 1887, and from the beginning their life together was shrouded in mystery. Only a very limited number of guests were invited to the few parties which took place there, a strange thing for such a significant estate. On the streets, Mrs. Hopkins Searles was always seen with a black parasol, and holding a black fan which obscured her face. And years later, former servants told of Edward’s habit of constantly moving furniture and making loud noises throughout the house at night, something they believed he’d done to scare her.
According to her obituary, Mary Frances died on July 26, 1891 of complications with “dropsy” (edema) following a long bout with “the grip” (influenza), at Edward’s Pine Lodge estate in Methuen Massachusetts. Her funeral was a small invitation-only affair held in the Methuen house, with no one admitted to the burial at a mausoleum constructed elsewhere on the grounds. In Great Barrington, rumors abounded that she’d actually been buried at night, on the grounds of the castle, with no one but servants present.
Whatever the circumstances of her death, the reading of her will was a very real bombshell. It awarded virtually everything, amounting to more than 50 million dollars and including a substantial part of Central Pacific Railroad, to Searles, specifically disinheriting her adopted son Timothy Hopkins. This lead to a lengthy and heavily publicized legal battle, as Timothy and a variety of other vague relations challenged the nature of her marriage to Searles. Searles spent three full days testifying on the stand. With a candid eloquence that would have made Anna Nicole blush, he declared that he had married for love and for money, but love was the stronger motive. Later, he quietly settled with Timothy for a few million.
Searles spent less and less time in Great Barrington following Mary’s death. In Windham, New Hampshire, he built a medieval castle based on Stanton Harcourt in Oxfordshire. The majority of the best furniture and treasures from the Barrington House were spirited away to his Methuen estate, or to their Fifth Avenue home in New York. Searles died in Methuen in 1920, sparking off another wave of legal claims from potential Hopkins heirs as the fortune changed hands again, the Great Barrington castle going to a business associate of Edward’s named Arthur T. Walker.
In modern times, the existence of such truly excessive monument estates as single family homes –and seasonal ones at that- has become untenable, to some even unthinkable. One by one throughout the 20th century, the vast cottages of the Berkshires became resorts, schools, yoga centers. Barrington House was no exception. In the 1920s it was sold to Barrington School, and once again the Kellogg grounds became host to a girls’ school. Through the fifties, the castle was owned by the Home Insurance Company and became a storage place for records they didn’t want to lose in the event of a nuclear holocaust in New York.
One modern legend has it that in the late 1970s, a boy snuck into yet another secret tunnel, this one running from the basement out beneath the pond behind the castle. The tunnel caved in, killing him and flooding the basement. The tunnel was cemented shut, and the boy became yet another resident ghost.
Since 1984, the estate has been home to the John Dewey Academy, a preparatory school for troubled teens. After more than two decades there, the school has faced some struggles with operating out of castle, and the possibility of relocation has hovered for some years. In recent years, the academy sought to find a buyer for the property, valued in 2006 at 4.5 million dollars (about 2% of its cost to construct, in adjusted dollars). That’s a whole other story, one which, as Thomas Bratter, founder and headmaster at the Academy, once told me, in itself “borders on insanity.” With the long term future of the castle uncertain, what are we to make of the past? Did Edward Searles marry his wife for her money, and then kill her for it? Perhaps. Then again, perhaps us common folk just can’t help but be suspicious of what goes on with the people who live up in the castle.