Inspired by H.H. and F.L.O.

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.”

Olmsted Landscape Sketch

Frederick Law Olmsted designed the landscape of the 600-acre estate on which the Castle is situated. Noble and Greenough School retains 187 acres of the original property. 

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.

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