In The Magazine

3BR Castle For Sale, Tall Tales Included

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

In some towns, it is traditional for home buyers to be welcomed to the neighborhood with freshly baked pies or garden-grown vegetables. But in the seaside village of Southampton, New York, where designer William Sofield bought a charmingly eccentric, 2,900-square-foot Gothic castle in 1998, people more often presented themselves at his doorstep bearing stories: recollections and lore about the turreted brick oddity on the corner of Herrick and Little Plains Roads.

“What happens is the doorbell rings and it’s some nice old lady who says, ‘I grew up down the street,’” explained Sofield, who has designed stores for Gucci, Tom Ford and  Harry Winston. “And before you know it, you’re having a cup of coffee or a cocktail and they stay an hour and you get a story.”

The Castle, as it is often called by locals, was constructed around 1910 by J. Edward Elliston, a self-taught builder, architect and master carver who was born in Southampton Village in 1870 and grew up on North Main Street. An imposing man—probably around six-foot-six, though legend has at times inflated his height to seven-foot-four—Elliston had hands so large that each resembled “a bunch of bananas,” as one of his nephews once put it.   

Elliston’s parents were Irish immigrants, and it is believed that the robust Gothic confection he built on Herrick Road is modeled after an Irish castle. “I think he just wanted to do the Castle in recognition of his heritage,” said John Griffin, a grandnephew of Elliston who knew the builder well when Griffin was a child in the 1940s. “With his drive and personality, if he wanted to do something, it generally got done.”

Resting on a high foundation on its half-acre lot, the Castle is a one-story, five-bay residence dominated on its eastern end by a two-story square tower, which in turn is surmounted by a narrower, octagonal tower. Both these towers, as well as a small octagonal one on the house’s western end, are cloaked picturesquely with ivy. All feature castellated parapets in the fashion of medieval battlements.

The original intended purpose of the Castle, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and is listed with Sotheby’s International Realty for $4.3 million, is unclear. One neighbor who showed up at Sofield’s door with an intriguing story was the artist Larry Rivers, who said that while doing an exhibit nearby in the 1970s he had learned that Elliston’s castle was planned as an Arts and Crafts school but that Elliston and his partner in the venture fell out.

This account dovetails with two others gathered by Mary Cummings, who manages the research center of the Southampton Historical Museum. Most notably, Ansley Elliston, a niece of the builder, told Cummings of the planned school for a 1984 Southampton Press article.

“It would make sense that it was intended as a school,” Sofield suggested, “because it has two sets of stairs going up to two front doors.”

Whatever its origins, the Castle was never completed. As Cummings reported, Ansley Elliston recalled that the enormous, intricately carved window frames intended for the unbuilt half of the structure were instead repurposed to create a striking, glass-walled woodworking studio on the grounds. (The octagonal studio, now reenvisioned as a poolside gazebo illuminated by Chinese lanterns, was completely rebuilt last year “peg by peg, joint by joint,” Sofield said.)

The Castle seems to have enjoyed a rich and varied life. In the 1920s, it was rented out as a dress shop, a tea room and an antiques shop, according to a 1979 survey performed for the historic preservation division of the New York State parks department. And a period postcard of the building, obtained by Sofield from a local collector, is printed with the words “Simmions Vocal Studio.”

Over the past century, legends have attached themselves to the Castle with as much tenacity as the ivy that clings to its battlements. After World War II, German spies were rumored to be hiding inside. Today, the scuttlebutt is that the structure was once a jail.

One of the more persistent tales concerns a Bulova watch heiress who is said to have lived in the house during the Depression and to have kept bear cubs in the gazebo. Sofield was told the story by multiple sources, and Cummings, the museum research center manager, said that when she was growing up in Southampton in the 1940s, she too heard that bears had been kept on the property. (“The stories get better with age, don’t they?” said Griffin, the grandnephew, with a wry laugh. “He probably told people that to keep them off his property, knowing Ed.”) By the time Griffin knew Elliston in the 1940s, the builder was living in the nearby community of North Sea in an old family homestead inherited by his wife, Emma Rose, whom Elliston had married in 1910. Her surname notwithstanding, Rose was no delicate flower. Her father, Jetur Rose, was a whaling captain, and her mother, Caroline, gave birth to her in 1856 in the port of Honolulu, in what were then called the Sandwich Islands. When the infant was five weeks old, she, her parents and the crew sailed out of port and north to the Arctic Ocean. Emma Rose was raised on whaling ships, logging thousands of miles at sea before her 13th birthday.

“Father shot a white bear yesterday. and we have got another whale,” she wrote to her grandparents from the “Polar Sea” in 1864, when she was eight years old. “Our second mate gave me two rats he said to make a pot-pie, one I gave to my dog and he ate it all up.”

In 1910, the year Rose married Elliston at the age of 54 (he was 40), she gave an interview to a newspaperman from Westchester, New York. Recalling her childhood seafaring days, she said: “I will always remember Honolulu for the lesson Mother gave a missionary and for the only mutiny Father ever had. A missionary woman came on board our ship, she told mother it was time she began to educate me as no one on a whaler ever knew anything. Mother just looked at the woman, called out to me, playing: ‘Child, come here and tell this lady what you know.’ I ran up and with a little bow told her: ‘I know the Ten Commandments and multiplication table, and that is enough for any little girl to know.’”

As for the mutiny, Rose recalled that the crew refused to unload or repair the ship after returning from shore leave because they felt their time off was too short and the sea too rough. Then, Rose remembered, “Cook came along with butter, and a great big fellow threw it overboard, saying they wanted MEAT. Father was at his side in an instant and before the man knew what struck him, he had followed the butter.” Captain Rose eventually fought the remaining mutineers, his daughter recalled, and placed them in irons until they begged for their release. “After that,” she concluded, “they were loyal to a man.”

In the years after Emma Rose died in 1933, Elliston, in what amounted to an enduring act of reverence, left her sewing and other possessions more or less untouched in their North Sea homestead.

“He was kind of a hermit, especially after his wife passed away,” said Griffin, the grandnephew, noting that for the most part Elliston lived in just two rooms of the house, which had neither electricity nor plumbing.

Elliston regularly drove a Model T coupe from his home to the Castle, where he designed and executed decorative wood carvings and other carpentry projects for area churches as well as secular clients. Most of the Castle’s interior was “very crude, very stark,” Griffin recalled. The basement had a cot for Elliston’s occasional use.

“That basement was like a dungeon,” Griffin added. “I remember going down there as a kid and seeing how dark and dreary and a little scary it was.”

Then, as now, a spiral staircase corkscrewed up from the basement to the main floor and then up to a second-floor room in the square tower. There, warmed by a wood-burning stove, Elliston did his design work on a drafting table so enormous that he may have constructed it on-site.

Although the windows on the main floor of the square tower are adorned with intricately carved Gothic tracery, the windows on the top floor, oddly enough, resemble large ones on the Taj Mahal. Sofield observed that in 1911, around the time Elliston built the Castle, King George V and Queen Mary of England visited India, generating tremendous press coverage and perhaps influencing the Southampton builder.

After completing his design work in his tower drafting room, Elliston generally carved and assembled his works in his octagonal glass studio, where he had rigged an overhead electric belt-drive system to power his lathe and other equipment. Among his many noteworthy creations were the display cases and cabinetry that his friend Samuel Longstreth Parrish, founder of the Art Museum at Southampton, commissioned for the institution, later renamed the Parrish Art Museum. And three of his carvings, two exquisitely intricate panels and a portrait of Elliston himself, hang in Southampton Town Hall today.

In a sense, the Castle serves as an unofficial museum of Elliston’s work, as many of the carved details on the property are echoes of carvings Elliston made around Southampton.

“Basically he would carve one or two for the project and one for himself,” Sofield said, “so that most of the architectural detail is a twin to some detail in town.”

The square windows at the front of the gazebo facing Herrick Road, for example, have doppelgängers at the former Parrish Art Museum on Jobs Lane, Sofield noted. And the arched side windows of what once served as the Herrick Road entry corridor to the gazebo are cousins of windows at St. Andrew’s Dune Church.

More subtly, Elliston often included a rose in his carvings as an homage to his wife, much the way Al Hirschfeld, in a different time and medium, tucked the name of his daughter into his illustrations.

Elliston’s devotion to his wife endured after her death. He carved a design out of wood that was then incised into her gravestone in the North Sea cemetery. And after he joined her there in 1951, his will conveyed some 130 acres in North Sea to the Town of Southampton. The land was used to create the Emma Rose Elliston Memorial Park, a lush reminder of the gifted carver’s feelings for his wife, which are also inscribed on her tombstone: “Beneath this stone rests a sweet, kindly and unselfish soul.” Φ


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