The Crosby Mansion’s past and present are rooted in love
Once the grandest home in Brewster, the historic Crosby Mansion survived stints as a restaurant and inn, a music school and a camp before falling victim to disrepair and neglect, but the landmark has been saved by a group of local residents determined to restore it to its former glory. The successful, grassroots restoration has been a labor of love, a fitting tribute to a home inspired by love.
The mansion was built in 1888 by Cape Cod native Albert Crosby upon his return from Chicago, where he had made his fortune and then lost more than any other individual in the 1871 Chicago fire. He brought with him his second wife, Matilda, who had been a burlesque performer, was 23 years younger, and had by all accounts stolen his heart. It was for Matilda that Albert built the mansion, incorporating an art gallery to house his collection and a ballroom suitable for the lavish entertaining she loved.
“He was madly in love with her,” says Brian Locke, president and founder of the Friends of Crosby Mansion, the all-volunteer group that restored the mansion and supports its ongoing work by hosting weddings and events there, in addition to offering regular open houses.
The smitten Albert was fond of giving his younger bride gifts, Locke says, citing one charming example: “She was always late, so he gave her a ‘Hurry Up’ pin with diamonds and rubies.”
His devotion was no doubt salve to Matilda, who had been married before but discovered after the fact that her husband was already married. “She was devastated,” Locke says.
The couple took a year to honeymoon on a grand tour of Europe, and incorporated their experiences into designing the 35-room mansion overlooking Cape Cod Bay. Built by John Hinckley and Sons, the mansion has 13 fireplaces, many of them done with imported English tile, each in a different color. The fireplace in the parlor is topped with intricate woodwork and a beveled mirror tinted green to match a fireplace Matilda saw at Versailles and fancied. Likewise, she had the main foyer modeled after one at Buckingham Palace. Off the foyer is an elegant library that the Crosbys had paneled in carved mahogany. The upper portions of the walls were done in Japanese leather paper imported from Japan and washed in gold leaf.
The second floor master bedroom enjoys a view of Cape Cod Bay that must have been spectacular in the late 1880s, when there were few trees to block it (at that point, most of the trees had been cut for building and fuel). Off the bedroom is a dressing room featuring his-and-her walk-in closets with built-in dressers, and a marble bathroom that had running water and a flush toilet—a rarity in those days.
Down the hall is a large guest room, also with a bay view, closets and a bathroom, that was reserved for important guests, including Mark Twain and Prince Albert.
Although he no doubt wanted to please Matilda and impress visitors, Albert maintained a fondness for his humble upbringing, for he designed the mansion to wrap around the modest 1830s Cape-style home in which he had grown up. Legend has it that he would often retreat there when Matilda’s entertaining became too much for him.
Albert Crosby was born in Chatham on January 14, 1823 to parents Nathan Crosby and Catherine Nickerson Crosby. His father was a native of Brewster but moved to Chatham as a young man to apprentice at a tannery, eventually launching his own business there and returning to Brewster in 1835. It was in Brewster where Albert was raised as one of five children.
As a young man, Albert Crosby first joined the Merchant Marine Service, but soon the west began to beckon. “He could see that Chicago was the next big thing,” Locke says, so in 1849 he borrowed money to start a dry goods business there, moving his family with him.
Unfortunately his first wife, Margaret—with whom he had four children—disliked Chicago from the start, but Albert flourished, launching a successful distillery in addition to his dry goods store. He persuaded a younger cousin, Uranus Crosby, to come to Chicago, and with him opened an opera house that was “state of the art for its time,” Locke notes.
A book by Crosby descendant Eugene Cropsey, “Crosby’s Opera House: Symbol of Chicago’s Cultural Awakening,” details the ups and downs of the opera house, for which the young, rough city of Chicago may not have been quite ready. At one point, the opera house was failing, and the Crosbys held a lottery in which the winner would become its owner. “That’s when the Crosby name got kind of a black eye,” Locke says, for the lottery was won by a farmer from whom the Crosby cousins promptly bought it back. “People said the lottery was rigged,” Locke says.
Albert Crosby’s distillery suffered no such problems, however, and Crosby did quite well selling alcohol to the government during the Civil War. In addition to alcohol, he produced kerosene and “patented the first kerosene oil that was smokeless,” Locke notes.
Albert’s father, Nathan, and two uncles—Rowland Crosby, father of Uranus, and Samuel Nickerson, from his mother’s side of the family—also came out to Chicago to join in Albert’s success.
The “Great Chicago Fire” in October of 1871 was the end of the Crosby Opera House, which burned down in spite of having a fire suppression system. “That turned out to be useless when the water mains failed,” Locke explains. In the end Crosby’s losses totaled $1.5 million.
He nevertheless had enough money to spare no expense in building his mansion upon returning to the Cape with Matilda, and it was the talk of the town upon its completion in 1888. Ever the collector, Albert had a large art gallery built in his new home, complete with skylights. He named the mansion Tawasentha, for a reference in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “Song of Hiawatha.”
Albert Crosby died in 1906, but Matilda kept the mansion and opened the art gallery to the public once a week, apparently in exchange for the town not raising her taxes. After her death in 1928, the mansion passed to her grandnieces, who eventually sold it. In 1938 opera singer Martha Atwood bought the property and opened a music school that was quite successful. “Kirk Douglas studied there for acting,” Locke says. “It was really the place to go.” But when World War II broke out, the school went out of business.
The mansion sat vacant until 1950, when the Horgan family—who ran the Southward Inn in Orleans—bought it and opened the Gold Coast Restaurant and Inn. Crosby’s beloved art gallery became the main dining room, and the original billiards room became a cocktail lounge. It was during this period that the art gallery burned down.
In 1959 the mansion was sold to Dr. John Spargo and five others, and Spargo, a nutritionist, ran it as a weight-loss camp for adolescent girls. In 1965 he added a dining hall, which still stands today.
In 1978 Spargo, who had bought out his partners, closed the camp and had plans drawn up to develop condominiums on the property. “I have the plans; it was going to be horrible,” Locke says. The town would not approve the plans, so Spargo sold the mansion and remaining land to the state, under the management of Nickerson State Park, across Route 6A from Crosby Lane.
Over the years the building fell into disrepair and was damaged by vandals, who set fire to a grand tower that was once part of the building. When Brewster residents Brian Locke and his mother, Ginny Locke, discovered the mansion and saw its condition, they spearheaded a grassroots effort to save it. Over the course of 25 years, the Friends of Crosby Mansion has done much to restore the mansion to its former glory, although it still has more to do. With income provided by tours and weddings, the group can continue its maintenance and restoration.
Albert and Matilda would be proud.