The fascinating story of Fernbrook
Historic Centerville inn has ties to Hollywood, the Oval Office and more!
Built in 1881, the Fernbrook estate in Centerville has had its share of noteworthy owners and guests over the years. Famous visitors to the stunning property on Main Street have included Walt Disney, Gloria Swanson, Audrey Hepburn, JFK and Jackie Kennedy, and many others, and to this day Fernbrook—which is open during the summer as a bed and breakfast—remains a historic Cape Cod icon.
The inn’s current proprietor and innkeeper Mary Ann English has owned Fernbrook since 1997, and has renovated and refurbished the home in grand fashion, adding modern touches here and there while retaining the opulent look and feel of bygone eras.
“I had the entire house re-shingled,” English says. “Then I had it painted as close to the original colors as possible. The ballroom, in which I had the floor and ceiling redone, had already been added in 1951.” English also restored wood flooring, painted walls, added vintage furniture and upholstery to blend with the history of the home, meticulously decorated each of the six guest rooms and the studio cottage, added new windows—including some stained glass—and had a new tent installed to cover the outdoor dancing pavilion. A 50-foot lap pool, a more recent addition, sits discreetly next to the home and is surrounded by flowers, fountains and terraces.
“This home has seen a time when people didn’t use their yards just for cookouts,” English says. “People literally entertained their guests. Here, they could have cocktails on the veranda, play cards, enjoy the gardens, or they could go out to the tent for music and dancing. There was no need to go anywhere else. Everything they wanted was right here.”
Howard Marston was Fernbrook’s first owner. His father, Russell Marston, was a successful ship captain from Centerville and later the owner of several Boston establishments, including Marston’s Restaurant. An abolitionist like his father, Howard also worked alongside him in the restaurant business during the mid-1800s before retiring to Centerville. In 1881 he built Fernbrook on a large parcel of land a stone’s throw from his father’s house at 454 Main Street. Howard Marston had married neighbor Ella Kelley, and they lived together in the new home, which he called the Marston Estate.
Known as a wonderful example of a Queen Anne, shingle-style home, Fernbrook was designed by Boston architect Henry Hobson Richardson and the Stanford, Mead and White architectural firms. The expansive property also boasts elegant country landscaping originally designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, a celebrated parks architect from New York who is known to some as the “Father of American Landscape.”
Olmstead is famous for his design of Boston’s Franklin Park and Arnold Arboretum, and it is said that anyone who had work done by the architect was considered of some importance at the time. Today, guests and visitors can still enjoy Olmstead’s ponds and specimen trees as well as the sunken rose gardens he planted, one of which is shaped like a heart. The Marstons had wanted a sweetheart garden they could see from their bedroom window.
“The Marstons were outdoor people,” English says. “They enjoyed going berry picking and wore loose, comfortable clothing and sun bonnets. It was the time when being outdoors was understood to be good for one’s health, you see. They owned Holly Point on Lake Wequaquet as well. They liked to be outside for their good health.”
The Marstons were ahead of their time in other areas as well. According to English, the couple had a private telephone-style system built into their home, allowing easy communication between the main house, the carriage house, and the other outbuildings that existed at the time.
After both Howard and Ella Marston died, Dr. Herbert Kalmus (1881-1963) purchased the estate and gave it the name “Fernbrook.” Kalmus was the inventor of Technicolor, a coloring process for motion pictures that was used widely in Hollywood filmmaking from 1922 to 1952. Originally from Chelsea, and a graduate of MIT, Kalmus was both a scientist and an engineer, and he collaborated with Walt Disney on the Technicolor process and the possibility of its use in Disney’s films.
Kalmus was known to have a celebrity contingent coming and going at any given time at Fernbrook; in fact, when Disney’s Fantasia opened in theaters in 1941, Kalmus and his first wife, Natalie, hosted a number of celebrities at the estate including Clark Gable and Cecil B. DeMille.
Although they divorced in 1922 after 20 years of marriage, Kalmus and Natalie continued to live at Fernbrook together until 1944. In 1949 Kalmus married Eleanore King, a fashion writer for the Los Angeles Examiner. Kalmus’ step-daughter, Cammie King, played the part of Bonnie Blue Butler in the classic 1939 film Gone With the Wind.
According to Nancy Viall Shoemaker, director of the Barnstable Historic Society, Kalmus donated four large parcels of land to the Town of Barnstable between 1947 and 1950. “These were in Hyannis at Dunbar’s Point and totaled 40 acres,” Shoemaker says. Today, the area is called Kalmus Beach.
Dr. Kalmus would also donate land in Centerville for the construction of Our Lady of Victory Church. He even donated the estate itself, transferrring ownership of Fernbrook to the Archdiocese of New York.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York used the property often as a summer retreat. A powerful political figure after whom the parochial high school in Brockton is named, Spellman served as Archbishop of the Diocese of New York from 1939 until his death in 1967.
According to English, Spellman had rules for the children of extended family who would visit him at the estate: for example, no breakfast was served until all beds were made, and each child was expected to do some small work around the house or gardens during their stay.
Spellman had connections with several members of the Kennedy family. He was a friend of Joseph Kennedy, Sr.; he presided over Ted Kennedy’s first wedding in 1958; and when Spellman died, Robert Kennedy attended his funeral. At Fernbrook, Spellman also hosted President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, on several occasions.
A native of Milton, English has done a lot of research since she purchased Fernbrook, and has heard a number of anecdotes, one of which involves a regular lively debate between Spellman and the President. “JFK’s car used to pull up to the side of the house when he stayed here,” English says, retelling one story she has heard. “From the second he would walk in the door, Cardinal Spellman would immediately start arguing with him about providing federal funding for parochial schools, to which Kennedy allegedly replied that he had barely gotten elected President as a Catholic.” The implication, it seemed, was that such a feat would be impossible. But as the story goes, at cocktail hour the two men would go out onto the porch, the drink cart was rolled out and all between them would be well again.
It is said Kennedy would sometimes pray in the chapel Spellman had built in Fernbrook. Though there was a Catholic church nearby, Kennedy is said to have preferred the chapel’s privacy and quiet. Today, the chapel room is a lavishly decorated guest room and is called The Cardinal’s Room.
Since then, Fernbrook changed hands a few times before English purchased the property in the late 1990s. In recent years, The Fernbrook Inn has continued to attract interesting visitors. Actor Bill Murray, for one, has been a return guest, staying at the inn when visiting for golf tournaments on the Vineyard.
Fernbrook’s charm is something to be experienced. Touring the interior, one discovers beautiful rooms and libraries—and halls leading to more rooms that lead to other halls, pantries and secret nooks. Standing where Gable and DeMille, Disney and JFK once stood—not to mention other guests including Gloria Swanson and Audrey Hepburn—one can almost feel the presence of old Hollywood, of powerful political figures, and even Camelot. Who knows? Perhaps their imprints never left..
The Fernbrook Inn is located at 481 Main Street in Centerville. For more information, including photos of the various guest rooms, rates, or to request a tour, visit tripadvisor.