Will Picket Post Remodel Capture the Spirit of Its Creator?

After his stroke, a personal assistant would roll an invalid William Boyce Thompson to the window in his bathtub on wheels so that he could watch the sun come up over Apache Leap from his beloved Picket Post house near Superior, Ariz. 

This is just one of several wonderful stories surrounding the Magnate’s Castle on the Hill, which was recently repurchased by the nearby Boyce Thompson Arboretum. After renovations, ironically complicated by handicap access requirements, the mansion will be re-opened for tours. But will the remodeling efforts, which may take several years, capture the soul of the place and its original occupant?  

Probably not. According to press reports, the tub on wheels remains in the house, along with some furnishings and art work left behind by the Magnate, who died in 1930. At last report, volunteers were making an inventory of things that belonged to the Colonel, who collected art and furnishings for the house when he sailed around the Mediterranean on his private yacht, the Alder. An August 25, 1960 article in the Arizona Republic, however, said that few furnishings remained in the house. 

One can only hope that subsequent owners didn’t walk off with the oversized armchair from which Thompson tried to avert the stock market collapse of 1929. They should put a reverential, museum-like rope around the otherwise undistinguished chair, like the kind you see at Monticello, so that no one can ever sully it. 

Dr. Franklin, the second owner of Picket Post, sits in the Magnate's legendary chair

Thompson reportedly spent $50 million from this perch on “Black Thursday,” October 24, 1929. He was on a through line to Los Angeles and New York with other captains of finance and industry trying to avert the stock market’s eventual collapse. When the group finally decided it couldn’t stem the tide, Thompson told the telephone operator to “Let ‘er go,” referring to the phone line, and hung up.

One reason why it will be difficult to capture Thompson’s spirit in the remodel is that by 1960  fire had destroyed half the 26-room, 7,012-square-foot estate. Built for $1 million between 1924 and 1928, the Castle on the Hill originally consisted of four buildings–a square mansion and three towers, each built on a crag. The towers, which were lost in a fire, included personal retreats for Mrs. and Mr. Thompson, along with a tower for water and an elevator. 

Carved out of a crag, the Cliff House unfortunately is no more

Thompson spent most of his time in one of these towers, the Cliff House. According to a letter left behind by his nephew, Joseph Thompson, Jr., who helped design the house gardens and the Arboretum grounds, the Magnate only decided to build the Cliff House in 1927, after a stroke confined him to a wheelchair.  He picked the spot so that his third-story bedroom would look down 200 feet into picturesque Queens Canyon.   

Joe Thompson remembers that the cliff beside the Cliff House was blasted out to make room for second- story rooms that were occupied by Thompson’s nurses. The ground floor housed what was reportedly Westinghouse’s first electric furnace. Designed to keep the invalid Colonel’s suite at a constant 72 degrees, it was powered by Thompson’s Magma Copper Co. mine in Superior.

In the afternoon, Thompson’s French valet, Rochia, would lift him into his wheel chair and the pair would take an Otis elevator down to the Cliff Walk. As Rochia wheeled the chair along the one-eighth-mile, stone-walled trail, one can imagine Thompson checking the progress of his saguaro, inspecting a new plant, or watching Queen Creek jerk along its rocky bed.  

Another common destination was a settler’s cave that Thompson had expanded into a three-bedroom playhouse for his grandchildren. On special occasions, the Colonel’s entire 14-member entourage would descend into the Arboretum or Rose Garden to sing hymns. Thompson traveled to Picket Post in a private railcar–a spur was built from his mine to the house. While in residence, his railroad servants became his house staff. 

Thompson spent weeks working with engineers from his mining company trying to find the ideal site for his house. “Day after day he led his Magma engineers on scrambles over ledges and thorny desert slopes,” writes his biographer Hermann Hagedorn, “seeking, out of a plethora of building sites the one and only which should perfectly combine utility and romantic beauty.”   

Though Thompson at one time boasted that he owned the land here as far as the eye can see, he actually built Picket Post on land owned by the U.S. Forest Service that was originally part of Crook National Forest. He obtained the 400 acres through a land swap, purchasing land in Northern Arizona coveted by the Forest Service.  

Thompson is credited with designing the estate based on a monastery he once saw on a crag in Greece. But the working drawings were drawn by draftsmen at his mine. That’s was probably a good thing, because several detonations were involved. The top of the great rock pinnacle was blasted away to make room for the first story of the mansion. One can only imagine the regulatory hurdles for doing that today. 

Thompson also had a hole blasted through a crag to create the tunnel that connected his tower door to the Cliff Walk, which began fifty feet below the castle, near the gate to the Aboretum. He saw to it that one of his favorite plants, Job’s Tears, was planted next to the tower door. He could touch its berry-shaped petals from his wheelchair before he ascended to his bedroom.   

The walls along Cliff Walk were built by an independent-minded stone mason named Tom Doby. According to Joe Thompson, the Magnate developed a great affection for the Slovakian, who had sailed ships in a previous life. This fondness would manifest itself in merciless teasing that bordered on cruelty, a seemingly genetic Thompson trait. 

Fortunately, Doby learned to play along. Thompson would sometimes bait Doby by asking him to redo wall sections three or four times. After Doby, who was known for the artistry of his stone work, would threaten to quit and walk away, Thompson would say, “Come back here you dumb Pollack.”  Doby would return. This delightfully insensitive play “went on all day,” Joe remembers. 

Joe remembers another incident, which is chronicled in William Boyce Thompson’s biography, when the Magnate made Doby pan for gold in Queen Creek. The sight apparently reminded Thompson–whose health was failing, maybe his mind as well–of his childhood in Montana. “Doby would complain that there was no gold, but he kept him panning for days and would sit and watch from his wheelchair. In his will, he left Doby $80 a month for his lifetime.” 

Joe Thompson, who was charged with designing the gardens, had his work cut out for him, too. Uncle Will, he said, “wanted trees and shrubs and as it was all on rock it was necessary to build a series of walls to hold dirt. It took three months to build the walls and haul in dirt….We had three freight car loads of plants shipped from California.”   

After the Colonel died in 1930, the Castle on the Hill was locked up, art treasures and all. Owned by the Aboretum, it sat unoccupied along the highway for 16 years. Locals invented stories to explain it origins. According to one, it was owned by a king and queen. According to another, it was owned by a tramp who one day wandered into Superior, discovered the Magma mine, and made millions. In 1946, the estate was sold to the Franklin family, which opened it as a bed and breakfast and offered occasional tours.  

Ida Louisa Franklin, a writer, left behind a self-published book, “A Copper King’s Castle and Aboretum” that was still available for sale when I visited the house in April 1999. Franklin, who had a strong imagination, thought the 26-room estate might be haunted when she first moved in. She wrote that her husband turned the front door key to the “ghost castle” for the first time with great trepidation. She later discovered “secret” rooms in the house. She thought she heard animals or ghosts at night, only to find out that the popping and snapping was caused by the building’s copper roof contracting in the evening.  

The castle did contain hidden treasures and priceless architectural features, though. It had been left largely untouched. The Colonel’s clothing still hung in the closets. Italian paintings that Thompson had collected on Mediterranean cruises adorned the walls. The rooms still contained Renaissance furniture, including a set of Boulle furniture suite made for a Cardinal living in Naples. 

The Franklins also discovered a lava cave that was used to store linens; a wood-encased, walk-in refrigerator as big as a small kitchen; and a dumb-waiter to take meals from the first-story kitchen to the second floor. Above the entrance doors they confronted a circular wall plaque with a great knight riding on a horse.   

But that was nothing compared to the art collection in the library. In a study of the Rape of the Sabine Woman, a magnificently helmeted Roman carried a limp woman across his shoulder. In a long horizontal painting, an angel overshadowed by a great black wing bent low to awaken a sleeping bearded man. On another wall hung a small battered painting of the Annunciation, with the virgin receiving news from an angel that she would become the mother of Chris.  Near the sunroom hung a sensual portrait called Lady of the Tear. 

In the sunroom, there was a handsome table which the Colonel was said to have purchased after he watched a young girl dance on its top for bread and red wine for her family’s supper. When the Franklins moved in, the sunroom was empty. But it had once been planted with drifts of white petunias. When the Colonel’s daughter came for her first and only visit, the petunia garden became a ballroom with the finest dance floor in the Southwest.    

The home was filled with curiosities. On the wall above the Colonel’s bed was a bank of electrical call bells, each for a different purpose. The table in the west end of the library was a single slab of lignum-vitaie almost a yard wide and over seven feet long formed with the hardness and brilliance of marble. It was suspended by strong, simple stretchers of wrought iron. 

Joe Thompson, Jr., later told the Arizona Republic that the value of the furnishings in Picket Post was overblown. But William Boyce procured many of them in Italian antique shops, “taking a delight in beating down the dealers,” wrote  Hagedorn. He sent home three hundred tons of Renaissance garden sculpture, a church facade, a small temple, and countless pillars, and stone fragments.  

The Franklins appreciated the estate’s irrigation scheme. Overflow from the water tower would slip into the foundation plantings along Mrs. Thompson’s house. Each garden or terrace drained into a lower one, and the last cleft drained back into the creek, which was crossed by well tunnels.   

As the house looked in 1999

The Franklins sold The Castle on the Rock in 1948 to Willaim and Mabel Steinegger of Phoenix. In January 1963, the 32-acre property was bought by Richard Rose. The Roses kept their costs down by doing the upkeep themselves and allowing resident hosts to park mobile homes on the property, if they paid fees that went to insurance, taxes, and upkeep. 

When we visited the house in 1999, it housed an incredibly tacky personal curio collection. On tours, stories about miniature carousels and brass ducks inexplicably received equal billing with the Colonel’s dumb-waiter. Who knows, maybe the Colonel would have appreciated the lawn jockey in the front yard.

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