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Header TitleOur Castle Story
During my time at Nobles, I’ve been lucky enough to call the Castle home–twice, actually. My first experience as a Castle resident was about discovery, while my second stint was very much about recovery.
Truth be told, when I moved to the Castle in August 2006, it was the first time I had ever lived alone; I had always shared a space with siblings or roommates. I was thrilled to live on campus, in my own studio apartment, but I was also nervous. It was impossibly hot that moving day; my father took one look at the winding staircase leading up to my second-floor apartment, and announced that next time, he would chip in to hire movers. It was a long day, and then I spent most of the evening unpacking. With the newness and excitement of it all, I was hard-pressed to fall asleep that night.
I laid in bed, listening to the sounds of my new home, the Castle, thinking about this adventure I was starting. It was close to 3 a.m. and I knew I needed to sleep. I was fighting a summer cold and thought some cough medicine might help, so I got out of bed. I was mid-pour when I heard an odd noise. It didn’t take long to figure it out. Out of the corners of the bathroom, a bat swooped down at me. I screamed, threw the cough syrup in the air, and dove into the main room. The bat followed me, circling above me and my dog, who just looked curiously at the creature. I dropped to the ground and Army-crawled to the door, lifting myself up just enough to reach the handle and pull it open. The bat eventually made its way into the corridor (In retrospect, it would have made more sense to open the door to the balcony. Hindsight is 20/20). I was frazzled and terrified. After a sweep of the apartment, my puppy and I took refuge under the covers for the night despite the heat. I don’t think I slept a wink.
I lived in that space for a year–and, bat attacks aside–loved it. This is a wonderful community and I discovered a lot about Nobles, the Castle and, most importantly, myself.
I moved off campus into a small, one bedroom apartment in Newton. It was one of the first times post-college when I felt like a “real adult.” Over the year and half I lived there, I shed my hand-me-down furniture and invested in well-made pieces that fit my style. I loved the neighborhood, and the dog seemed impressed with the big backyard. It was a good fit for us both.
One April morning, I returned from Assembly to see emails and messages from my Newton neighbor, urgently asking me to call him back. When he answered, he sounded out of breath and the background noises made it almost impossible to hear him. He told me I needed to come home–there had been a fire, and although the dog was safe, everything was gone. I didn’t really understand what he meant until I got there. Sure enough, almost everything I owned was burnt, charred or had just simply turned to ash. I was so very thankful that no one was hurt, but it was a hard reality to swallow. I needed to start over.
This community rallied behind me and helped me pull it together. I couldn’t have done it without them–there is no doubt in my mind. Thankfully, there was a vacant apartment in the Castle and Bob Henderson said it was mine. With a crooked smile, I told my father he was off the hook; I didn’t have anything to move this time. But, with the generosity of friends and colleagues, I started to rebuild and recover. Again, I spent time learning a lot about myself. Even now, years later, I am so grateful to this community. I hope they know what it meant to have such love and support when I most needed it.
My old Castle apartment(s) look very different post-renovation. The space is beautiful and I am so happy to see so many faculty and staff call the building home. It will always have a very special place in my heart.
The “Riverdale” pamphlet, prepared as a selling brochure in the 1920s, described in such terms the room that is commonly known as the “Lower Dining Room.”
Since I discovered that it was originally a music room I feel differently, every time I walk through it.
With my mind’s eyes, gone are the utilitarian railings that make safer going up and down stairs. What might have happened to the sculpture than once graced the top of the stairs leading down to the Stone Room? The Nickerson family sold the property with the furnishing, but was that one a particularly loved piece that they kept?
The room looks different now, often filled with the chatter of students and adults.
In this picture from the late 1970s, a passage had been opened to the left of the fireplace, a pair of sconce was added, and long refectory-style tables took the place of elegant carpets. Following the most recent renovation, the room has changed once again.
However, what is never lost is the sense of continuity and the subtle magic that is so much part of the Castle.
During the winter of 1945, I was a Sixth Classman housed in the long dorm, atop the Castle, which housed various Sixth and Fifth Classmen, Steve Glidden in charge. One dark night the fire alarm suddenly awakened us, and under Steve’s guidance, we rolled out of bed, grabbed bath robes to cover our pajamas, and stumbled down three flights of stairs to the Commons between the then dining room and library to await our fate. For the next fifteen minutes or so El Putnam and Steve searched the basement for smoke and flame.
As we were awaiting their verdict there suddenly appeared on the circular staircase an apparition clad in shiny loafers, gray flannels, blue button down shirt, striped tie, and blue blazer, carrying a suitcase and with a coat draped over its right arm as if prepared to head for the office. It was Bill Bliss ’48, a Fourth Classman at the time, displaying for our eyes calm in the midst of calamity, true cool, or, as Hemingway would have put it, grace under fire. There was no fire, however, and we, led by Bill, returned to our safe sacks.
-Sid Eaton ’50 -
“Before the Castle Project was built, it was fully imagined, its form and details constructed in a three dimensional digital model.” We’ve explained this countless times, yet the colored rendering depicting the view from home plate is still often mistaken for a photograph.
This rendering illustrates one of the most extensively debated aspects of the project—the roof color for the new addition. “Slate Gray” was chosen, leaving the Castle’s traditional silhouette distinctly red.
This rendering also depicts the central design challenge—creating a sympathetic yet courageous addition. It’s not easy adding onto a 25,000 square foot Castle. If too assertive, the addition will clash. If too tame, the addition will look puny and unfitting.
The hipped roof addition takes its cues from the Castle. An estimated 2,400 granite blocks were used for the new addition, fireplace, and chimney, replicating the Castle granite’s unusual tawny color, wide size variation, and battered pitch (the exterior stone walls are not plumb so as to appear taller). The original stone came from Quincy quarries, now closed. Therefore, granite stockpiles throughout New England had to be culled and mixed for the best possible match.
Natural slate shingles of seven colors were mixed to give a richly colored yet distinctly heathery appearance to the new dining wing. The slate was quarried in Vermont and the exact mix of colors proved to be another one of the most intensely debated aspects of the design. Greens and purples, subdued with grays and browns, coordinate with dark green and dark red window trim.
The heavy timber colonnade and porch are the continuance of the main roof structure—comprised of over 600 wood columns, beams, purlins, and haunches. The porch is deliberate visual reference to the stone arcade of the Castle. Like the original Castle balcony, the new terrace is defined by red stone caps.
The first day we stood on the concrete slab for the terrace, we were transfixed. The views were stunning. Behind us, against a bright blue sky, the hip rafters were being raised, revealing the full size and shape of the wood framing for the new addition. The digital model had confirmed every decision but the reality was much more intense and very memorable.
Inside, the interior space now flows freely around a former exterior stone wall which was erected during the 1931 addition to the Castle. A narrow skylight joins the new and the old. For us, this was one of the most exciting and technically challenging details of the project. We were elated the day the slot in the roof was uncovered, restoring sunlight washing over the natural cleft of the granite.
“Don’t get too near the edge,” we said to one another, peering down into the abyss that was to become the elevator pit. We felt very anxious that day. The single hardest thing to design—and ultimately to construct—was the new elevator. Its shaft rises from a stone pit, excavated by hand beneath the original slab of the Castle, slides between two brick bearing walls, and extends past complex structural headers supporting multiple fireplaces. Two inches less on either side would have rendered the addition of the elevator impossible.
The Castle Project’s design required a total of 667 drawings—more than three times the typical number for a project of this size. The complexity of the project, due to the functional requirements, site challenges, code issues, and the quirkiness of the Castle itself, was exacerbated by the lack of original construction drawings. More than 250 design drawings were issued during construction to address unexpected field conditions.
Last week, the Castle Project earned a temporary Certificate of Occupancy, enabling residents to move in and preparations to be made for the first day of school. The reality of achieving that milestone, 17,000 hours after starting first sketches, is one of those things that the digital model can’t capture.
By Joyce Leffler Eldridge, author of the sesquicentennial history “In Their Voices”
In researching the history of Nobles in time for the sesquicentennial, I have unearthed a considerable number of Castle “factoids” not included in Richard T. Flood’s 1966 centennial history. Because the Castle has always been considered the “jewel in the crown” of Nobles’ 187-acre setting, I have taken the liberty of including them in the new book, “In Their Voices”due out in 2016, the sesquicentennial anniversary.
The world’s most eminent landscape architect, perhaps of all times–Frederic Law Olmsted–is responsible for determining the exact site of the Castle. He also decided where roads would be built, always keeping in mind the sanctity of natural life…even changing a road’s direction rather than cutting down a tree in its path.
For the children of faculty occupying these spaces years ago, their childhood not surprisingly has been sprinkled with magical memories. Caroline Coggeshall ’76, daughter of former history teacher Tim Coggeshall, remembers life on campus as constituting “our own personal Shangri-La, where we explored acres of woods, played in the lower stone rooms of the Castle, snipped out delinquent wires and braided them into bracelets…Over New Years our entire extended family came to visit, staying in the Castle and skating on the Charles and Motley Pond.”
Early explorations into the lower recesses of the Castle revealed that the original owner, Albert W. Nickerson, requested some unusual features to protect him from outside forces and/or provide him with added, unseen entertainment. Henry Hobson Richardson, the preeminent American architect of the 19th century (and arguably of all time), complied:
Twenty feet below the Castle study was the entryway to a wading pool, a rifle range and a dungeon. The entire Castle, in fact, was designed with several secret hiding places and escape routes, presumably because Nickerson was concerned that people “would try to murder him for his abundant wealth.” Nickerson was, after all, president of the Arlington Woolen Mills and director of the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe Railroad.
As the architect of the project, Richardson simply accommodated the requests of its quirky owner. A rumored subterranean element of the Castle is a tunnel that runs under the Charles River and exits on one of the islands. During his tenure as Head, Dick Baker offered any student who could find the tunnel free tuition. Suffice it to say, no record has been located, in any ledger, of any disbursements to that end.
At the time the sesquicentennial history opens in 1966, sit-down Castle dinners were in vogue. Kit Hayden ’55 described maids who served the young male students meals, not to mention “cleaned our rooms…The maids wore black dresses with starched white aprons, really sensible black shoes, and a little cap.” The dining room consisted of about four very long tables, at the head and foot of which sat the masters who lived on campus. These tables and chairs were replaced in 1985 by furniture hand-made by inmates from the Massachusetts Correctional Institute in Walpole.Next to the Masters sat the First Classmen who were, presumably, the students most capable of intelligent conversation. The seating progressed with increasingly lower status… faculty wives were expected to sit with and keep order among the youngest set.
As for lunches, Timothy Mansfield ’79, son of former faculty member Peter Mansfield, remembers his served, family-style lunches with a Master at every table. “One to two kids brought food out. Once, one of my classmates was fooling around at the table and spilled a plate of spaghetti all over another classmate. Grandin Wise, who was very stern and highly respected, almost exploded. He instructed the entire table to leave the dining hall, run down to the athletic facility, touch the wall and return after having burnt off some energy.”
By Ellen Watts, Dan Arons, Daniel Bernstein, Principals of Architerra Inc. (architects for the Castle Project)
“Can you come take a look at our Castle? We’re not sure what to do with it. It needs fixing and a dining addition of some sort.”
Seeing it for the first time in the spring of 2008, we can still remember how the north façade magically materialized through the overgrown trees. The magnificent yet welcoming edifice stopped us dead in our tracks. We dubbed it a “friendly” Castle and loved it immediately.
When we first explored the Castle, from its soaring attics to its basement labyrinth, we felt perpetually disoriented. The place was a maze. Every corridor twisted; every stair corkscrewed. Each floor had multiple floor levels. Massive stone walls, three feet thick, permitted only slim glimpses of the outside world. Other salient features: charred beams, dripping water, clanking radiators, crazy piping, bizarre secret hiding places, a weird partial mezzanine level… One rich man’s dream was an architect’s nightmare.
Yet we were hooked on the challenge. Like generations of Nobles’ grads and students, we were also enchanted by the Castle’s ungainly beauty and quirky appeal. “We love the nooks and crannies,” said one senior prefect with whom we spoke. “And the ridiculously heavy chairs, creaky floors, and odd smells,” said another. It had been built as a private residence in 1890, and subsequently bought by the school in 1921. Fearing another vote to consider razing it, we were determined to learn everything possible about the Castle.
Smitten by the Castle and full of encouragement, Head of School Bob Henderson gave us a 1920’s article advertising the property for sale prior to its acquisition by the School. We were stunned to read that the original 600-acre estate had been laid out by the great American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and that building design was thought to have originated with the legendary architect H.H. Richardson. These masters and frequent collaborators epitomized 19th century American design. Like many, we regarded them as geniuses.
Our dogged research soon yielded exciting results. In the Richardson archives at Harvard’s Houghton Library, we found several pencil sketches for the Alfred W. Nickerson House from 1886, the year of Richardson’s untimely death (he died of Bright’s disease at the age of 48). These drawings are unmistakably the origins of the Castle design, presumably drawn by Richardson’s assistants under his close direction after the master’s thumbnail sketch. This was how he worked.
One sketch in particular shows asymmetrical turrets, an arched entrance, and a second level loggia (porch) set deep into an arched stone arcade – all Richardson’s trademarks and the spitting image of the Nobles’ Castle.
The Olmsted Archives held similar treasures. Pencil drawings clearly illustrate the design for the original Nickerson estate. The Castle appears as a familiar footprint straddling the precipice between rocky uplands and riverside lowlands. Carefully drawn are the massive granite outcrops and winding carriage roads that still define the Nobles campus. The original approach was a bridge across the Charles River. The ruined stone abutment can be found today not far from Bob’s house. Castle Drive and its spectacular terrace, buttressed by a massive battered stone wall, are still as they were designed then, the culminating landscape features.
Like dozens of projects underway at the time of his death, the Nickerson house was ultimately executed by Richardson’s successor firm, Shepley, Ruttan and Coolidge who were responsible for its detailed design and construction. Unfortunately, it seems that none of the original construction drawings survived. Later drawings of Castle improvements undertaken by the School proved wildly unreliable, differing by as much as five feet and liberally noted “Verify in Field” or just “V.I.F.” – the architectural equivalent of “Beware, There Be Dragons”.
The original contractor was Norcross Brothers, widely regarded as the leading builder of the era. Recently, a Norcross Brothers’ packing slip was discovered under the floor boards. It had been hidden for 122 years. The workman who tossed it there might have been someone who had also labored to build Trinity Church in Boston, Sever Hall at Harvard, or the Ames Memorial Hall and Free Library in Easton, MA. That gave us all goose bumps. Ellen succumbed to welling tears when she saw the legendary Norcross Brothers letterhead.
This architect’s nightmare was also an architect’s dream – a once-in-a-career opportunity to preserve the Castle’s historic importance, advance sustainable design, and honor Nobles’ vision. This herculean task has required both reverence for the past and boldness for the future. While bowing to Richardson’s and Olmsted’s inimitable styles has been humbling, it has also empowered us to know our design convictions and show our courage as architects.
Henry Hobson Richardson and Frederick Law Olmsted were both deeply interested in technological advances of their age, which included electricity, structural steel, and manufactured materials. Both developed a rugged, natural aesthetic that defied stylistic conventions and eschewed Victorian era adornment for independent expressions of structure, mass, materials, color, and texture.
We hope that H.H. and F.L.O. would both admire what they inspired in the design of the current Castle Project.
In 1896, Russell Sturgis, an American architect and art critic of the late 1800s and 1900s described the Castle, at the time still a private home, as “….. one of the best pieces existing of the peculiar Romanesque sculpture of semi-Byzantine character which Mr. Richardson’s work introduced to this community.”
This summer, at Nobles, the Castle has been on everybody’s mind, while we have observed, day by day, the progress of the renovation and addition to the iconic building of our school.
When the students return, in less than two weeks, they will appreciate the beautiful addition to the dining room.
In the last few days, I have walked around the Castle several times, marveling again at its beauty. As always my mind returns to the times when it was a private home: the Riverdale Estate of the Nickerson Family.
In every home, fireplaces have a special place, both practical and symbolic. And so is in the Castle. My favorite one was located “in a small reception room, finished in beautiful satinwood” (as described in the sale brochure of the Riverdale Estate). That room was not as familiar to everybody as most of the public rooms, it was indeed a hidden gem. Modern necessities and building code requirements have turned the room into an elevator lobby.
But the beauty of the fireplace has not been lost. Everybody will be able to admire it in a corner of the new addition where it has been moved: hidden gem no longer.
On a beautiful day this past May, I had some business in the Dedham area, and decided to drive by Nobles and pay my good friend Brooke Earley Asnis ’90 a visit.
“We can take a tour of the Castle renovation; Rounsie, you won’t believe it!”
Having been a four-year resident of the Castle, with one year logged in the infamous “Round Room,” there was no way I could resist.
So I stop at the Development Office to find Brooke and we stroll over to the construction site. We don our hard hats, laughing at how goofy we both look in them.
We walk through the back entrance, by the kitchen, and I look up at the old dwelling. I look for the escape ladder that led up to my Class III year room —you know, the room with the 19th-century radiator that blasted 90-degree steam in the winter and spring? I think the ladder has been taken down, and rightfully so. Many times I had scaled up and down that rickety iron contraption with zero regard for safety. It is also the same room where the first Thunderdome occurred, a massive and vicious 30-man pillow fight that may have been responsible for more concussions than an NFL strong safety.
We walk through the kitchen, and my mind starts to map out the familiar areas. This is where you would grab a roll and munch on it while you waited in the lunch line. This is the staircase that I would slide down in another act of daredevilry, like a pool player leaning back on a billiard table and taking a behind the back shot.
This is the TV room, where we would watch the ends of Bruins games in some of the fuzziest reception allowed by the FCC. It’s the same TV that I watched the first episode of the Simpsons on, and Bird steal the inbound pass from Isaiah. In back of the TV room was another room that looked like a study. Brooke tells me that during a recent meeting in that room, a large hawk flew out of the chimney and started attacking the attendees.
All of these memories start to hit me.
We walk up to the second floor, and my mind continues to draw the familiar map.
As we open the door to my old Class I year room, the aforementioned “Round Room,” I see the old blue tiled and defunct fireplace. This is a room I lived in with my best friends.
Another memory hits me.
It is late November in 1989—that hazy time when the fall sports have ended and the winter sports haven’t really begun. All-League awards have been announced in the fall sports, and all of my roommates except one have been named to their All-League teams.
I’ve known him for a long time, and I can tell this bothers him.
To cheer him up, I decide to doctor up an All-League Award for him. During evening study hall, I hide myself up in the library loft with a hard copy of my certificate. I trace the full design.
This is not as easy as it sounds.
There is a fair amount of calligraphy, and each school’s crest is represented. I remember having the most difficulty duplicating the monk that is a part of the Roxbury Latin insignia. He had very difficult hair and what looked like a headband on.
I showed my roommates (except the intended recipient) my finished work. They loved it and we decided to give it to him in a formal presentation after study hall.
Later that night, we all waited in the room for our friend to come in.
In he walked, still looking miserable.
I said, “We just want to present you with this.” I handed him the certificate, my other roommates giving him a standing ovation.
On the painstaking forgery of the All-League Certificate read “All League Roommate” and his name.
Now, as teenage boys, we were definitely no strangers to a good teasing, but that’s not what it was and not how it was received. He was floored and I swear he had a tear of appreciation in his eyes. All of us were a little choked up.
He took the certificate from me and walked over to the mantle of the blue tiled, dormant fireplace, wanting to put it in a place of honor in our room.
One second, he was placing the piece of paper with two hands on the mantle, and the next second some unseen force sucked it downwards with a “phwump” and it disappeared. He had managed to find a hairline fracture that had developed in the molding between the fireplace and the wall, just wide enough for a piece of paper to slip through. It was as if some Castle poltergeist had snatched it away from him.
We all laughed very hard at that point.
“Imagine when they’re tearing this place down in a hundred years and they come across that. What will they think?” someone said.
-John Rounseville ’90