The Cottager | Searles Castle: A mysterious castle with a mysterious past

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Upon her death in July 1891, Mary Frances Sherwood Hopkins Searles would be remembered as a philanthropist who shunned ostentation and the notorious social gatherings of America's elite. But by September, her sanity and her second marriage would be called into question as her adopted son, Timothy Hopkins, appealed her will.

In September 1891, Hopkins, along with a few other would-be heirs, appealed the will in the Probate Court of Salem, arguing that the will had been changed and she would not intentionally leave everything to her second husband, Edward F. Searles. At one point it was alleged Searles had spirited his ill wife away to their Metheun estate to seize control of her fortune. It was also alleged that Searles wormed his way into the marriage on false pretenses, even posing as a medium to win both her heart and her fortune.

On Sept. 8, 1891, the son of a former family physician testified in court that during his time as a border of the Widow Hopkins he had once posed as a medium for her (under the best of intentions). A spiritualist, she frequently held mystical circles at the Nob Hill house, which Searles would soon become a devoted attendee of and eventually serve as a medium himself.

The man, identified as Cook, testified that he thought Searles had his eye on the window's estate. He said this became apparent when the widow asked if she should give support to her adopted son in the present or wait until her death to bestow fortune upon him. As recorded in the New York Times, Cook said the answers from the spirits were typically delivered by "table tipping," with the table lifting in one direction for one answer and in another for the other. On this particular evening, he said he struggled with Searles who was trying to tip the table in the opposite direction. It was his opinion that Searles was looking to cut the son out of the will.

Widowed in 1878 after the untimely death of her husband, Central Pacific Railroad magnate Mark Hopkins, Mary Frances (reportedly called Ellen by her parents and Frances by friends) soon found herself the heir to a fortune of about $23 million, much of which was heavily invested in railroad stocks. She owned 40-room Gothic mansion on San Francisco's Nob Hill.

It was there that she became smitten with the decorator sent by the firm she hired to dress the estate. Soon after she would hire Searles, who was 22 years her junior, to furnish the new chapel and parish rooms of the First Congregational Church in Great Barrington, where she owned Kellogg Terrace. She had once attended school on the grounds of the estate at an academy owned by her two aunts.

In 1885, work commenced on the French Chateau-style mansion, designed by the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White. Blue dolomite was quarried off of East Mountain Road for the building, which has seven towers and a total of six stories. Solid bronze doors, cast in Munich, Germany, would be guarded by marble sphinxes. Another set of double doors, leading into the Great Hall were said to have come from Windsor Castle. It was also rumored that the hand-polished English oak walls were taken from two ancient ships that were towed to America for the specific purpose of lining the rooms. The largest home pipe organ in the country was said to grace the home's music hall and marble from around the world made up the floors, walls and pillars on each level. Among its 40-plus rooms were 36 fire places, dozens of bedrooms dressed in silks and satin, a library, an atrium, two secret passages and a Louis XIV drawing room. In the sub-basement, a dungeon-like catacomb was constructed to hold bins of coal for the furnace. A power plant was located in a nearby house for the castle's electrical needs. The house cost $2.5 million to build and even more to decorate.

The Searles, who married in a quiet ceremony in 1887, also owned estates in Methuen, Manhattan, Block Island and Paris.

By March 1892, Timothy Hopkins, dropped the appeal and settled for a few million outside of court. But during this time, rumors had swirled about Searles and his wife's relationship. He would soon abandon their home in Great Barrington and move many of the castle's treasures to his Methuen estate. The great organ was cut out and removed to the Congregational Church in Methuen.

As time passed, the property once again became a school, with the castle first hosting the Barrington School for Girls. In 1950, the property was sold to James J. Joyce and his wife, Margaret, who owned the Berkshire Inn. In 1951, they sold it to the Home Insurance Co. It changed hands several times in the late ''70s, before being purchased in 1984 by the founders of John Dewey Academy, which opened in 1985.

As in the days of the Searles, few are invited inside the castle, now John Dewey Academy, a year-round co-education college preparatory therapeutic school for bright adolescents, ages 15 to 21, who have not been successful in other schools.

"Our students are highly-gifted and bright," Andrea Nathans, executive director, said during a recent tour. "Our academics are well-known for being rigorous and meaningful."

As we enter the castle, a pair of white marble lions stands guard at the main entrance. Ghastly door knockers, straight out of a Dickens novel, stare back from the heavy front doors. Inside, another set of lions rise up in the Great Hall, where English oak still panels the walls.

The atrium, the centerpiece of the over 54,000-square-foot residence, sits behind the doors, where soft light bathes the marble columns. Off of the atrium are a dining hall and offices, including the restored Louis XIV drawing room with its gilded leaf decorations.

We travel through the butler's pantry, where call buttons from the rooms above are still present, to a lower kitchen and servants quarters reminiscent of Downtown Abbey. Two ancient ice boxes remain in a hallway near a non-functional dumbwaiter. On the upper floors, the structure mimics those below. The maze of rooms off of it opens into dorm rooms for the girls, living quarters for the house parent and classrooms. (The boys stay in the nearby carriage house.)

Our visit was brief, as classes were still in session, but as students hurried to their next class, it seemed fitting that the castle is home to school.

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