Legend has it that a French assistant, Rocha, used to wheel an invalid William Boyce Thompson to the window of his remote Picket Post house in a bathtub on wheels just so he could watch the sun rise. Turns out that story is an urban legend — or should we say “rural legend” — invented by subsequent owners of the mansion to sell tour tickets.
Local historian Sylvia Lee, who is writing a book about the Boyce Thompson Arboretum and lives in nearby Phoenix, burst this blogger’s bubble this summer. We caught up with Lee when the Arboretum opened Picket Post for some long-overdue public tours.
Lee has it on good authority — her source is a member of the family that used to own the mansion — that Colonel Thompson never owned the bathtub on wheels that visitors used to see on tours of the desert mansion. Previous owners, the Rose family, bought it in an antique store. Today, the suspect cauldron sits by the side of the driveway, identified by a corny bowed sign, like the kind you see at an amateurish wild west exhibit.
The mobile vat wasn’t part of the official script read by volunteers during the tour this summer. Instead, tour guides focused on more reliable details about what the house was like during Thompson’s time. They demonstrated how a dumb waiter was used to lift the honorary Colonel’s meals from the kitchen to a second floor dining room. They pointed out the few features that remain from the Thompson days, most of them built-in — a warming over, built-in shelving, fireplaces, and lighted servant’s buttons in the butler’s pantry.
Much of the original hardscaping around the house remains, including masonry steps and steps carved out of rhyolite bedrock.
Wood doors from second-floor bedrooms were also part of the original structure. They open to a veranda that wraps the house. Each of the second-story bedrooms in the main building can be entered from the central portion of the house, and from the veranda. So, presumably you could sneak from one bedroom to another without going through the main hallway. Very interesting.
Unfortunately, virtually no furnishings from the Thompson era remain in the house. Nearly all the carpeting, window, wall, and ceiling treatments in the current house, along with the current furnishings, date from when Walter and Ida Franklin bought the home in 1946.
The 6,402-square-foot main house holds many secrets yet to be revealed. It’s not completely clear how the Colonel’s wing on the south side, dubbed The Cliff House and lost to fire in the early 1950s, was accessed from the main house. The ballroom looks like it may have been created by closing in and enlarging one side of the veranda. Photos of a 1929 renovation show the addition of what looks like a chimney to one side of the ballroom. That could indicated the veranda was closed in. Or not.
Construction at Picket Post began in 1923 and was completed in 1924 at an estimated cost of $200,000. The main building, which still stands, was constructed with two layers of red brick manufactured in nearby Superior. It’s coated with a seemingly smooth plaster that, upon closer inspection, reveals fan-shaped ornamentation.
The original house included three separate buildings — the main building, and separate wood-framed structures for William Boyce and his wife Gertrude Hickman. A water tower connected to the Cliff House was also lost in the fire.
Gertrude’s house, still standing but in pretty bad shape, is located on the east side of the main building, to the left as you approach the front door of Picket Post. It sits beside what used to be an large pool created by blasting out rock. Environmental authorities at some point asked the Thompsons to close down the pool, which was depositing chlorine into the creek below.
After his stroke in 1926, Thompson decided to renovate the mansion. He replaced his wing of the home with a three-story structure that included an elevator. Thompson’s suite was on the third floor, where it commanded killer views of the arboretum. A three-and-a-half story elevator gave him access to his roof on one side and on the other a rock viewing area he called Eagle’s Nest.
The elevator carried Thompson down three stories to a path along the west side of the house that leads to the arboretum gate. The path was formed and supported by a large rock wall clearly visible from the arboretum below. The wall was built by Doby Tom, a Slovakian stone mason employed by the Colonel. Thompson used to mercilessly tease Doby.