Postscripts: Gilded Age Wealth, a Dream House on Block Island…What Could Go Wrong? | Guest columns



To complete a trilogy of plays on island buildings that I started over the summer, here is the story of Edward Searles and his “Dream House” on Block Island, courtesy of Westerly’s MaryEllen Tunsky.

“Our family took summer vacations on Block Island in the 1950s and 1960s,” she wrote to me recently. “While spending our days at Crescent Beach, our grandmother told us that the mansion on the beach was built by a groom, Edward Searles, who was madly in love with his new bride. There is more to the story though. by Edward Searles than what our grandmother knew….

Plus there’s: Extraordinary wealth of robber baron proportions, September (male)/December (female) marriage, California Gold Rush profits, mansions built on both coasts , arduous pursuits and trials to break the will of a woman considered one of the wealthiest widows in the land and the exhumation of a body to find out if poisoning was the cause of death.

Like the previous two stories, one about Simmons Castle, or “White Caps”, a medieval-style castle on the eastern end of Fishers Island, and the gargantuan (and defunct) Ocean View Hotel on Block Island, in over 300 feet long with some 200 rooms, these structures are all outsized excesses of the Victorian era/Gilded Age, much like the wealth of the people who built them, but the latter also has the winning elements improbable marriage, mystery and melodrama.

MaryEllen Tunsky sent an account she composed for her family from two sources: a New England Historical Society article, “The Many Mansions of Edward Searles,” and a study by Dr. Vincent P. de Luise, “ Searles’ Folly: The Story Behind the Block Island Mansion.

As she wrote, Edward Searles, born in Methuen, Mass., in 1841, began working in a Methuen cotton mill when he was 12 years old. and after losing his fiancée to his brother, he went to Boston and worked for a furniture company, Paul & Company.

“When Paul & Company went bankrupt, Edward took his accumulated savings and traveled to Europe to study palaces,” she wrote. “At the age of 33, he moved to New York and went to work at Herter Brothers, a high-end interior design firm there. Herter Brothers had a reputation as the favorite design firm of the Vanderbilt family. Over the years, Edward (known as Frank) — had many occupations. How these occupations were characterized varied depending on who described Edward. People who loved him called him interior decorator, architect and financier.According to ‘The Many Mansions of Edward Searles’, his enemies called him a bric-a-brac, salesman or paper-holder.

On the West Coast during this period, Mark Hopkins, an accountant from New York, followed the lure of the gold rush, and although he was unsuccessful as a prospector, he built a base loyal among other miners by selling them shovels, pickaxes, clothing and equipment at low prices or credit or, smarter, shares of their debts. Basically, they did the mining for him, and when they succeeded, so did he.

He then turned his fortune in gold into a railroad bonanza with three other men – Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker and Corliss Huntington – by founding the Central Pacific Railroad, the nation’s first transcontinental railroad.

In 1854, 41-year-old Mark Hopkins married Mary Sherwood, his 35-year-old first cousin.

“Mark was known to be very thrifty, but after their marriage Mary persuaded Mark to build a lavish mansion in Nob Hill, San Francisco, and she wanted the interior to be designed by none other than the Herter Brothers of New York” , wrote Tunsky.

“In 1881, at the age of 40, Edward moved to San Francisco. Armed with a letter of introduction from Herter Brothers, Edward began introducing himself to the California elite. In 1883, Edward approaches the house of Mark Hopkins, a multimillionaire who died in 1878, five years earlier… This visit leads to an invitation to dinner. Soon, Hopkins’ widow, Mary, asked him if he wanted to accompany her on a trip to Massachusetts. She said she was traveling east to take care of family matters in Great Barrington, Mass. Edward agreed to go.

“In 1887 Edward married Mary Hopkins, the wealthy widow. He was 46 years old. Mary was 68 and considered one of the wealthiest women in the United States. Edward didn’t earn his fortune, he got married there.

Back east, the couple built a mansion, Kellogg Terrace, in Great Barrington, and Searles expanded his childhood home in Methuen to a winding estate called Pine Lodge.

His account continues: “Whenever Edward needed more money, he would simply send a request to San Francisco and the funds would be sent. In San Francisco, Mary’s adopted son, Timothy, managed the Hopkins’ fortune, and Timothy disliked Edward.

“In 1887, Edward heard from a friend about a charming, undeveloped island off the coast of Rhode Island called Block Island. Edward and Mary visited the island in the summer of 1887 and purchased on the spot several large parcels of land in the northern Corn Neck portion of Block Island, totaling 65 acres, stretching from the Great Salt Pond to the Atlantic.

“It was here, at the end of Crescent Beach, that Edward Searles built their ‘summer cottage’, a place he would later call his ‘dream house’. He named the opulent mansion “White Hall”.

“When Edward returned to Block Island in 1888, he enlisted a colleague from earlier projects, the famous architect Henry Vaughn…Searles spent over a million dollars on the project (about $25 million today). The mansion boasted a grand staircase that bisected the building and climbed up to a gazebo on the third floor. Searles also had Vaughn build a miniature version of the mansion on the beach, which functioned as a bath house.

However, there were rumors of trouble in paradise. The couple had separate wings and neither lived there long. The place has earned the nickname “Mansion House”. The part of Crescent Beach it overlooked was called “Mansion Beach”.

“In 1891, about a year after the Mansion House was completed, Mary died,” the story continues. “Mary’s will left her fortune split between her son Timothy and her husband, Edward. After his death, Timothy learned that a codicil had been added to the will, leaving most of his money to Edward. The Hopkins’ fortune was then estimated at $30 million, including real estate.

Timothy swore to void the will and a trial and gruesome trial ensued between Timothy and Edward, with charges of philanthropy, gold panning (sprinkling, not occupation), private detectives and untold secrets. The judge ruled in favor of Edward Searles, although Timothy received cash, stocks and land worth over $3.2 million.

“Edward had one last obsession and in 1905 he purchased 1,400 acres of land in Windham, NH,” she wrote. “His plan called for a one-quarter replica of Stanton-Harcourt Castle in Oxfordshire, England, complete with battlements. His masterpiece castle was completed in 1915 and still stands today.

“Edward died in 1920 and the events surrounding the writing of his will led to another controversial trial. In short, Edward left some money to a nephew, but most of his fortune ($35 million) was left to his personal secretary, Arthur Walker.Edward’s body was exhumed a year after his death to determine if Walker had poisoned him with arsenic, but it was determined that he died of causes natural.

Back on Block Island, and after Edward’s death, the Mansion House lay abandoned, serving as a place for… drinking and dancing during and after Prohibition. On April 23, 1963, the Mansion House mysteriously burned down. Arson was suspected, but no one was ever involved.

“Today,” the account concludes, “all that remains of the imposing Mansion House, known to Searles as White Hall, are parts of two brick pillars where the entrance was, and a little of the foundation.”

Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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