Friday, July 25, 2014

"Searles' Folly" : The story behind Block Island's Mansion House

Vincent P. de Luise MD

".... A stately pile of oriental splendor....whose noble dome glistens in the sunlight on the southern slope of the Corrugated Bluffs of the Neck...." (1) 

Block Island's magnificent Crescent Beach is a destination for many Rhode Island vacationers. Those who travel to its northern border and the lovely Mansion Beach may wonder about thoe brick pediments and stone foundations in the parking area. Why were they constructed? What building stood atop them? What is the actual backstory of the so-called "Mansion House"?

It is a fascinating tale, with a colorful character at its center. Conjure, if you will, an interior designer, who was also an architect and at the same time the inheritor of one of America's greatest fortunes, and you have Mr. Edward Searles, dreamer, visionary, centimillionaire, and builder of the Mansion House, one of Block Island's most singular and unusual edifices.

Edward Frances Searles (1841-1920)

Edward Frances Searles was born in Methuen, Massachusetts on the Fourth of July, 1841, the most auspicious birthdate an American can possibly have. From a young age, Searles was drawn to the arts. He was highly musical and became an accomplished organist and pianist. His aesthetic talents led to a position in 1869 with the prestigious Boston firm, Paul, Camp Company, where he quickly rose to being one of their leading interior designers. 

In 1871, Searles was asked to join the nationally recognized New York City design firm Herter Brothers. The Herters were at that time advising the Vanderbilts on the outfitting of their newly built Fifth Avenue mansions, and Searles soon found himself working on furnishing homes of other Gotham plutocrats. 

In 1881, Searles was sent by Herter's executives to San Francisco to assist a certain Mrs. Mary Francis (nee Sherwood) Hopkins in the decoration of a new home that she recently  had built for herself. 

Mary Francis Hopkins just happened to be THE Mrs. Hopkins,  the widow of the San Francisco railroad magnate, Mark Hopkins (1813-1878), who was one of  the founders (with Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington and Charles Crocker) of the Central Pacific Railroad.

As one of the "Big Four" railroad czars, Mark Hopkins had was among the wealthiest individuals in the United States, and his wife, Mrs. Mary Frances Sherwood Hopkins was often referred to as "the richest woman in America."  It turns out that Mark Hopkins and Mary Frances Sherwood were also first cousins, he a Congregationalist, she a Presbyterian. Evidently, she got her way from the start: they married in a Presbyterian church.
Mark Hopkins
Mr. Hopkins was famous for his thriftiness. It was said that he could "squeeze 106 cents out of every dollar." Hopkins was happy to live modestly, in a cottage, while building the railroad company.

Despite his reluctance, Mrs. Hopkins again got her way, convincing Mr. Hopkins to build an enormous, ornate mansion with sweeping views of the bridges and the Bay on Nob Hill, to this day a patrician and rarefied location in San Francisco. The mansion actually survived the 1906 Earthquake, but was destroyed in the Great Fire that immediately succeeded. It was reborn into what is now the elegant Mark Hopkins Hotel.
The Mark Hopkins Mansion, c. 1880, on the
 southeast corner of Nob Hill, San Francisco

Mr. Hopkins died in 1878 and never saw the Nob Hill mansion completed. He and Mary Hopkins did not have any children of their own, but along the way, Mary had adopted her housekeeper's son, Timothy Nolan, who took the surname Hopkins.

So it came to pass that Mrs. Hopkins had this magnificent new manse atop Nob Hill and needed help in furnishing it. Enter the young, talented and handsome Edward Searles, with whom she found a kindred spirit in the the arts and design.

Evidently, Mrs. Hopkins soon became quite pleased with Mr. Searles' work in San Francisco, because shortly thereafter she helped him secure a second commission, for building and overseeing the interior design of what would become another of her baronial homes, a monumental stone palace in her birthplace of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Begun in April 1885, and completed in October, 1887, the magnificent stone mansion was christened  "Kellogg Terrace" (today, it has been reincarnated as the Dewey Academy for Boys). 

Kellogg Terrace remains one of America's great masterpieces of Gothic and Neo-Renaissance architecture. Notice the strong similarity in architectural style between the Mark Hopkins Mansion (above) and Kellogg Terrace (below ). One major difference is inthe building materials: the Hopkins mansion in San Francisco was of rusticated wood (wood that was beveled, painted and then sandblasted to resemble stone; wood - which is why it burned down), while Kellogg Terrace was hewn from stone.

Kellogg Terrace, Great Barrington, MA,
completed in 1910.
(Now the Dewey Academy for Boys)
The close companionship between Mr Searles and Mrs Hopkins in San Francisco and on the Kellogg Terrace project led to a more intimate friendship, which blossomed into a May-September romance (Mrs. Hopkins was twenty-two years Searles' elder, and thus one of the earlier cougars on record). There ensued the usual gossip on both coasts about their unusual relationship and the ulterior motives of each.

While Searles was finishing the interiors of the Kellogg Terrace, he heard from a friend about a lovely and underdeveloped island off the coast of Rhode Island called Block Island.  Searles and Mary Hopkins visited the Island in the summer of 1887, and, on the spot, bought several large parcels of land on the northern part of Block Island's Corn Neck, totaling sixty-five acres, extending from the Great Salt Pond to the Atlantic. It was there, at the far end of Crescent Beach, that Searles planned to build what he would call his "dream house," the opulent mansion that he would later christen "White Hall."

Back on the mainland, in Great Barrington, on November 7, 1887, more magic occurred: the perpetual bachelor Edward Francis Searles, 47, married the wealthy widow, the 68-year old Mary Frances Sherwood Hopkins. The newlyweds then took a six-month honeymoon, a veritable  "Grand Tour: of Europe, ensconced in the highest levels of luxury. 

Upon their return, Mary executed a codicil to her will, excluding her adopted son Timothy from any and all claims, and leaving all her earthly possessions upon her death to her new husband, Edward Frances Searles. Her exact words in the codicil were: “The omission to provide in this will for my adopted son, Timothy Hopkins, is intentional, and not occasioned by accident or mistake.” (1)

Searles went to work on Kellogg Terrace, adding ornate additions to the baroque palazzo, including a giant nave on its west side which was planned as a music hall, outfitting it with one of the largest pipe organs ever built in a private residence in the United States. 

Searles went back to Block Island in 1888 and enlisted a colleague from prior projects, the supremely talented and prolific church architect Henry Vaughn, to design and build his Block Island dream house, which he christened "White Hall."

It was Vaughn who had brought English Gothic style to the United States, popularizing it on these shores as the Gothic Revival ecclesiastical architectural style. Vaughn's reputation was already burnished: he was the principal architect of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and drew the plans for parts of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, and Christ Church in New Haven.

The architect Henry Vaughn (1845-1917) in 1907

Vaughn's concept was to construct Searles' White Hall in the English Mannerist tradition, with two identical, gigantic, bilaterally symmetrical wings, mirror images separated from each other by a massive three-story central hall. The home boasted a grand staircase that bisected the building and ran up to a third floor belvedere. Rumor began to circulate that Mr. and Mrs. Searles, besides having very different tastes, were perhaps growing apart, because of the very obvious "His and Hers" wings in their Island home.

Several custom-made features of White Hall were among the newest inventions of the day, designed for every creature comfort. Beyond the mahogany railings and cedar closets for the valet rooms, and along with individual bathrooms, perhaps the most elegant touch were the capitals of the exterior columns. Vaughn fancifully chose to use all three canonical orders of classical architectural style in their design: Doric on the first floor, Ionian on the second, and Corinthian on the third. It was a brilliant conceit and another example of Vaughn's exquisite taste and exceptional talent, which Searles would utilize again in later projects.

"White Hall,"  the Searles Mansion on Block Island.
It was nicknamed the "Mansion House" shortly after 
its completion in 1890. Note the cupola on top.

White Hall was begun in the summer of 1888 and finished in 1890. Seales spent over one million dollars on the project (about 24 million dollars today).  As it arose, it appeared as this majestic jewel of an edifice, topped by a magnificent cupola, gazing down on one of the most spectacular stretches of pristine beachfront on the east coast of the United States.

The Mansion House in late 1889, as seen from the entry pillars.
(Parts of the pillars still exist as you bear right off of
Mansion Road to enter the parking area).

Block Island resident and historian Martha Ball elegiacally relates what an author of an 1890s guidebook of the Island had gushed  about White Hall:

“The most magnificent of these (summer cottages), and indeed, one of the finest in the world, is the elegant mansion of Mr. Edward F. Searles of Methuen, Mass., who has here exhausted all the resources at command of almost fabulous wealth in the erection of a stately pile of oriental splendor. Every stranger approaching the Island asks about the imposing structure, whose noble dome glistens in the sunlight on the southern slope of the Corrugated Bluffs of the Neck.” (2)

The structure, comprised of "18 identical rooms" was so big and of such a bright white color (of rusticated wood resembling stone), that it could be seen from miles away by ships passing across the mouth of Long Island Sound, as well as from the Rhode Island mainland. White Hall soon appeared as a so-called "point of interest" on nautical maps of the time. These maps identified the site as "white ho' flat-top," i.e., "white house with a flat top" (the "flat top" monicker being given it after Searles had removed the cupola, which was damaged in a violent storm during the first winter after it was built).

The Mansion House c. 1895. as seen from the Southwest.
(The cupola was removed after being
hit by lightning in a  severe 1890 thunderstorm).

To the Island's residents, White Hall, with its monumentality and opulence, seemed out of place, surrounded as it was by the simple and natural beauty of Block Island. It soon became an object not only of amazement  but also of ridicule. 

Islanders began calling it "Searles' Folly" (recalling the alliterative "Seward's Folly," although Alaska would prove to be anything but a folly). The enormous edifice, rarely occupied by either Mr. or Mrs. Searle, earned the nickname, the "Mansion House," and the part of Crescent Beach that it overlooked was referred to as  "Mansion Beach."

Not only did Searles have Vaughn build the grand White Hall building to overlook Crescent Beach, he also had Vaughn construct a miniature version of it on the beach as a functioning bath house. KIt was an exact replica of White Hall down to the Corinthian columns of the third floor and the cupola above!

The Bath House below White Hall (The Mansion House), connected to it by a boardwalk.
The Bath Hath was also built for Mr. Searles by Henry Vaughn, as an exact
but smaller replica of White Hall,  on the north end of Crescent Beach ("Mansion Beach").

Mrs. Hopkins Searles' died in 1891, and Mr. Searles inherited her vast real estate holdings in San Francisco and New York City, as well as baronial homes in Great Barrington and Methuen in Massachusetts, and a trove of cash. The real estate alone was valued at that time at about 50 million dollars (almost a billion dollars today). 

Searles rarely visited the Mansion House after his wife's passing, but he did pay to continue its upkeep. And yes, there was a law suit. Timothy Nolan Hopkins, Mary Hopkins' adopted son, sued to get some of her estate. After a legal tussle, Mr. Searles gave Timothy about 4 million dollars (about 80 million today) in settlement.

However, it was the cash inheritance from Mrs. Hopkins Searles, over 20 million dollars (the equivalent today of more than 400 million dollars), that allowed Edward Searles free reign to design and build several other extravagant properties, two fantastic castles he conjured and then actualized with Henry Vaughn:  Pine Lodge, in Searles' birthplace of  Methuen, Massachusetts, in 1910, and Stanton Harcourt Castle, a few miles up the road, in Windham, New Hampshire, in 1915, where Searles found the property taxes and estate tax to be less onerous.

Mr. Searles'  Stanton Harcourt Castle,
Windham, New Hampshire, built by Mr. Searles
and his architect Henry Vaughan  in 1915
Edward Searles passed away on August 6th, 1920. There were no heirs. The Mansion House lay abandoned, serving as the venue for episodic unofficial drinking parties and dances during and after prohibition. The town of New Shoreham, Block Island's official seat, bought the property in 1929, and then sold it a few years later to a certain Oliver P. Rose, who didn't do much with the building.

The Mansion House c. 1954.
Photo courtesy of Mrs. Yvonne C. Pollien

The Mansion House changed hands a few times after that, but no substantive improvements were made by any of its owners, until the summer of 1952, when Ernest F. Pollien of Westport, Connecticut  who had been buying and selling Block Island properties for several years, purchased the Mansion House and its surrounding acreage, and made a credible attempt at rehabilitating and refurbishing it as a holiday retreat. Failing that, Pollien eventually sold it in 1959 to Bridgeport attorney, Anthony P. Costa. (4).

White Hall (The Mansion House) c. 1955,
as seen from the Northeast.
(Image from The Block Island Historical Society)

The Mansion House continued on for a while longer, an aging and forgotten dowager on a magnificent piece of beachfront property. At 9:30 PM, on April 23, 1963, it mysteriously burned to the ground. Arson was suspected, but no one has ever been implicated. It is curiously coincidental that the two palaces that bookend this Searles/Hopkins story burned down - the Nob Hill manse and White Hall, the Mansion House.

After the fire, Costa stopped paying property taxes, and eventually negotiated a deal with the Town of New Shoreham to have the taxes forgiven in exchange for the land. Written into the deed was that the land on which the Mansion House stood be given to the Town of New Shoreham in perpetuity, so that there would be access to the public beach (all of Rhode Island's beaches are public; the access from the Mansion House land has allowed for the present-day parking spaces) (4).

White Hall (The Mansion House) as seen from the Northeast on Crescent Beach.
The building mysteriously burned to the ground on April 23, 1963

Today, all that remains of the once-imposing Mansion House, Searles' White Hall, are parts of the two brick pillars where the entrance had been, and a bit of the foundation. The Mansion House was sited perpendicular to the higher set of brick pediments that remain, so that it faced northeast towards the Ball properties beyond it. 

Over the last fifteen years, a group of hard-working and dedicated Block Islanders and Block Island highway department crew have been meticulously uncovering the foundation, removing masses of brush, briar and trailing ivy, carefully cutting small trees, exposing the beautiful round stone and brickwork beneath, bringing us closer to Mr. Searles' wondrous dreamhouse. (2)

In imagining the once-glorious and imposing Mansion House, White Hall, all that it was and all that is gone, one is reminded of the ending of Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem, Ozymandias:

"....Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
  Of  that colossal wreck, boundless and bare.
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

There is, however, a more lasting legacy. The grounds on which the Mansion House once proudly stood contain enduring meaning to visitors and Island residents, because it is the spot where anyone who arrives early enough on any beautiful day on "The Block" parks their car, bike, or SUV and walks down to, where else, Mansion Beach !  

Edward Searles' White Hall, the Mansion House, may indeed have been his "folly," but it was also his unique vision and dream, and in many ways, it lives on today to grace the beautiful shores of everyone's delight, Mansion Beach, on Rhode Island's jewel, Block Island. (3)   

Sic transit gloria mundi.
Copyright 2014 Vincent P. de Luise, M.D.

Grateful acknowledgment to Mr. Richard Foreman of Eylandt Antiques for allowing me to include his color photos and colorized photos of "White Hall," the Mansion House. I am also grateful to Ellen Costa, Attorney Anthony P. Costa's niece, for the information on the last sale of White Hall, before it burned down.

Further Reading:

1. Cross, John, Whispering Pines: Stranger than Fiction, Bowdoin Daily Sun, Dec. 2011

2. Ball, Martha, Island Notes, Memories of the Mansion House, Block Island Times, February 24, 2014.

3. de Luise, V. ; A Block Island Reverie: Thirty years of journeys, trips and vacations to Rhode Island's Jewel

4. Ellen Costa, personal communication (August 28, 2015) 


  1. Thanks for this, Dr. de Luise. Been going to Mansion Beach my whole life, had no idea that the parking lot had so much history. If you get higher-res images of the mansion, please update the post and add them!

    1. Thanks so much, Mr/Mrs What, for your kind comment. I have been going to BI and its lovely Mansion Beach since the 1980s and had to find out more, so I began researching it and the essay you just read is the result of my efforts. I had asked Lars to publish it in the BI Times, but because I had uploaded it here, he said he could not publish it there. It has gotten over 1,000 page views so there is definitely interest in it.