December 2017 | view this story as a .pdf
High upon a Cape Elizabeth cliff, you’ll find romance and shelter from all storms in this cozy castle.
By Colin W. Sargent
Built on a soaring bluff for reporter, editor, poet, publisher, and lawyer Sylvester Blackmore Beckett (1812-1882), Beckett’s Castle is a storybook retreat, stone by quarried stone. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, this one-acre estate with Norman tower and 350 feet of oceanfront is being offered for $3.35M.
Maine State Historian Earle Shettleworth Jr. has identified this Gothic whimsy as one of the first summer residences built strictly for vacation purposes on the Maine coast. To see it, head south along Shore Road, pass Fort Williams and Delano Park, then turn left on Singles Road until you reach No. 7.
The most recent resident is the late Nancy Brill Harvey (1930-2016), who adored her role as keeper of Beckett’s Castle. Her daughter, Abby Harvey, is overseeing the sale.
Deal of the Century
“My mother bought the house in 1982, at a real auction and not before the auction, as I’ve read somewhere on the internet,” Nancy’s daughter says by telephone from Cambridge, Massachusetts. “She paid $100,000.”
By then, the castle was endangered and up on the block for back taxes. After Sylvester Beckett died in 1882, the property passed to his daughter, Augusta Beckett Verrill. Sometime before 1963, it was bought by an Army officer who’d served at Fort Williams. Lt. Col Walter Singles left the castle “to his daughter,” Edna Singles Thomas, but life dealt her an unlucky hand and she was unable to live the fairy tale.
In the end, a number of “squatters lived in the house,” Abby says, doing what they could to stay warm in the dark winters. “Because the fireplace was no longer usable, they’d have fires in the middle of the [living] room,” having dragged in “a fire pit.” There was a lot of “drinking and supposedly nudity.”
A social worker with a 1981 Master’s Degree from Boston University, Nancy Brill Harvey saw beyond the mountains of beer cans as she cleared and lovingly restored the house and launched a private practice in downtown Portland “which she ran for 15 years,” Abby says.
Galaxies of Roses
In her mind’s eye, Nancy also saw world-class seaside rose gardens shooting up between the savage granite outcroppings of the castle’s spectacular vantage.
So successful was she in creating these surf gardens with landscaper Lynn Shafer that word of her castle’s beautiful mantle crossed the Atlantic. World-renowned rosarian Peter Beales came from London to visit Nancy and see the wonders of Beckett’s Castle’s gardens for himself “a few years before his book The Vision of Roses, came out in 1996,” her daughter says.
Of this coffee-table book, realtor Tish Whipple says, “If you flip to the garden before Nancy’s, you’ll see it was the Queen Mother’s.”
So it was Nancy Harvey herself, in a duet across more than century with the original Beckett, who discovered a way to divine and interpret the genius loci of Beckett’s Castle.
“My mother had this sort of contagious character,” Abby says. “Her favorite spots were the kitchen and her rose gardens. She loved to cook. She really adored the people who helped her restore and keep the house. She loved her children and grandchildren first, but she loved her house, too, and everyone who understood it. So she’d have people over to celebrate–everyone from architect Stockley Holmes to the painters to contractors to those who worked with her–or just appreciated her–gardens.” Who’d refuse an invitation to a place like this?
Another drawing card was the magic of looking out and seeing four lighthouses: “Portland Head Light, Ram Island Light, Seguin Island Light, and [the East Tower of] Two Lights.”
Say it’s an icy day on Shore Road. What did Nancy like to serve in her romantic castle? “Chicken cassoulet. Deep, rich stews. Of course, she’d have lobster. But the memories I have of what she served often came in a soup bowl.”
Nancy Harvey was what used to be called an original: “She liked to make up words. A ‘drooly’ day by the ocean on an overcast day.” If ever someone offered help when she didn’t wish it, Nancy would laugh and say, “‘No need. I’m Miss Tuffington. I can take care of this all by myself!”
Who doesn’t adore a castle on the Maine coast? “I love the bay window that’s off the living room and dining room,” says Tish Whipple. “It’s all glass above wood floors. It has this amazing view up and down the coast.” In the pre-dawn darkness and at sunset, “I love the way the light comes off Seguin Island.”
The living room may be “a small space, but it has all those wonderful Gothic windows in it. It pulls the ocean in so you’re on top of it. The house seems to grow right out of the granite rocks. There are wonderful masses of granite stones that the sea rushes over,” so from the first you’re hearing, feeling, experiencing this castle in Sensurround. “You almost feel as though you’re in a ship. It’s so dramatic.”
Outside, “Flowers may look fragile, but among these huge masses of stone and the granite outcroppings, they connect a tender beauty here. But inside, it’s that window that connects the drama of the ocean, windows, rocks.”
Of course, romantics will head straight for the tower. “The tower has its own persona.” It grabs you on sight. “You arrive at the property in a cobblestone circular drive and see a small cottage structure with a 30-foot stone tower. You enter the tower directly. The walls are probably a foot thick. Inside, you look up and you’re aware of the height. It isn’t grim–you feel as though you’ve walked into a miniature baronial estate.”
But there’s a surprise at the top of the tower.
“It goes to the open air,” Abby says. “As you’re going up, some people expect to find a roof over their heads, but they don’t. I’ve seen some people look as if they’re about to throw up!” Halfway up, these guests are in a quandary: “‘I’m afraid of heights, but I have to see what’s up here!’”
For those who don’t choose to head up to the ramparts, “The living room and dining room are lighter spaces and pull you into the body of the house,” Whipple says.
Raise the Portcullis!
According to the Rhode Island Society for the Examination of Unusual Phenomena (riseupparanormal.com), Beckett was born in Portland to “William and Grace (Blackmore) Beckett,” who sailed here from England. As a young man, “he took a voyage to the West Indies in the Bud, a sailing vessel; was shipwrecked; and his narrative of the event proved a thrilling experience.” Writing suited him. As a reporter, he filed stories for the Portland Advertiser and Portland Bulletin; as a visionary, he promoted the Grand Trunk Railroad and Portland as a freight destination and was “one of the original projectors of Evergreen Cemetery.” As a successful publisher, his enduring gift to researchers is his annual Portland Directory, an indispensable street-by-street chest x-ray of life as it’s shifted and changed across the years in the Forest City.
In 1842, Sylvester “married Louisa Mills Davis, daughter of James and Elizabeth Davis, of Maine,” according to the site. “His wife left him a widower in 1857 and he never remarried. She bore him three children, two of whom, George Waller and Lizzie Grace, died in childhood. The eldest daughter, Augusta, married George W. Verrill, an attorney in Portland.
“Mr. Beckett died at his home in Portland on December 2, 1882, aged seventy years, six months, and seventeen days.”
Sylvester died in Portland in his winter palace at 15 Gray Street. This elegant brick townhouse (pictured above), sadly demolished, was the equal of the well-known houses on Park Street Row. Beckett’s Castle was his summer retreat.
Taxes for Beckett’s Castle are $12,546.