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.”