After his stroke, a personal assistant rolled an invalid William Boyce Thompson in a bathtub on wheels to the window so that he could watch the sunrise over Apache Leap from his beloved Picket Post mansion. The heartwarming story is one of several compelling urban legends told to visitors of the Magnate’s Castle on the Hill near Superior, Arizona when it was open for tours after he died in 1930.
Picket Post sat unoccupied for 16 years after Thompson’s death. The three-tower, 26-room Castle, built into the top of a cliff, became the subject of local folklore. One local legend had it that a king and queen owned the mansion. According to another, it belonged to a tramp who wandered into nearby Superior one day, discovered the Magma Mine, and made millions. Thompson and his partners owned the Magma Mine.
The Arboretum, unable to afford the upkeep of the mansion, sold it in 1946 to Dr. Walter and Ida Franklin of Globe. The Franklins opened it as a bed and breakfast, offering the occasional tour. The house inspired Ida Franklin’s self-published “A Copper King’s Castle and Arboretum,” which was available for sale when I toured the house in April 1999. In fact, I picked up the next-to-last copy that day.
In 1948, the Franklins sold the estate of William and Mabel Steinegger of Phoenix. Then in January 1963, Richard Rose bought the 32-acre property. The Roses not only did the maintenance on the house themselves but allowed people to park mobile homes on the property if they paid fees, which went to insurance, taxes, and upkeep. The Roses offered tours that prominently featured the bathtub on wheels. The rusted tub turned upside down, remains in the Picket Post parking lot to this day, a symbol of the desperate means needed to drum up interest in the Colonel’s abandoned winter residence.
Arizona State Parks, which used to work in conjunction with the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, repurchased the property in July 2008. The Arboretum opened the mansion briefly for tours in 2011, professing plans to remodel the building and open it permanently for tours. Handicap access requirements and funding shortfalls hamstrung the effort. The structure and grounds have mainly lain untouched for a decade. The state recently had them appraised for $750,000.
An upside-down tub on wheels, a relic of Rose’s ownership, remains in the home’s parking lot. Thompson never owned such a fixture. A family member confided the misrepresentation to an author, Sylvia Lee, who wrote a history of the Arboretum and the house. The source wanted to make sure that Lee’s account would be accurate.
Franklin’s tome popularized the myth that when she moved in, the house contained an oversized armchair from which the Colonial tried to avert the stock market collapse of 1929. According to Franklin, Thompson spent $50 million from this perch on “Black Thursday,” October 24, 1929, trying to prop up the market. The writer contended that The Magnate 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.
Franklin went to great lengths to “confirm” that the call was made, interviewing telephone operators. But Herman Hagedorn’s authoritative biography, The Magnate, based on hundreds of interviews with family members and associates, confirms that Thompson was sailing around the Mediterranean on a new yacht he had bought during the autumn of 1929.
Thompson, who lived in the mansion from 1927 to 1931, furnished his home with antique treasures worldwide. He was confined to a wheelchair during much of that time. According to Hagedorn’s seminal biography, Thompson’s nurse Rocchia, who slept on a separate bed in the Magnate’s room, would roll him to the window in the morning to watch the sunrise. Thompson would arrive at the house on a private coach accompanied by 14 servants, according to an August 25, 1960, article in the Arizona Republic. The Black servants slept in the railcar.
After the Colonel died, his wife Gertrude and Mrs. J.E. Thompson spent an afternoon inspecting the house. They produced a list of things they would “very much like to have” as long it would not imperil the house sale. The list included two garden chairs from Mrs. Thompson’s rooms, the drapes in Colonel Thompson’s room, a Spanish table near the doorway to the dining room on the sun porch, after-dinner coffee cups, four fiddle-back chairs, a day bed in Mrs. Thompson’s living room, a large rung in the sun porch, and two additional fiddle-back chairs.
Nevertheless, Franklin claimed that the home contained hidden treasures when she moved in. The Colonel’s clothing eerily hung in closets. In one room, Franklin found a Boulle furniture suite made for a Cardinal living in Naples. The sunroom contained a handsome table 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. A library table had been built with a single slab of lignum-vitiate almost a yard wide and over seven feet long. Formed with the hardness and brilliance of marble, solid and straightforward wrought iron stretchers suspended it.
Italian paintings Thompson collected on Mediterranean cruises adorned the walls. In a study of the Rape of the Sabine Woman, a magnificently helmeted Roman carried a limp woman across his shoulder. In another painting, an angel overshadowed by a great black wing bent low to awaken a sleeping bearded man. A small, battered painting of the Annunciation hung on another wall; it depicted the virgin receiving news from an angel that she would become the mother of Christ. A sensual portrait, Lady of the Tear, was displayed near the sunroom. A circular wall plaque with a great knight riding a horse hung above the “castle” entrance.
Hagedorn wrote that William Boyce procured many items for the house in Italian antique shops, “taking a delight in beating down the dealers.” He sent home three hundred tons of Renaissance garden sculpture, a church facade, a small temple, and countless pillars and stone fragments.
The Franklins discovered a home filled with curiosities — a lava cave to store linens; a wood-encased, walk-in refrigerator as big as a small kitchen; and a dumbwaiter to take meals from the first-story kitchen to the second floor. A bank of electrical call bells hung on the wall above the Colonel’s bed, each for a different purpose.
Franklin, who possessed a strong, maybe even overactive imagination, thought the 26-room estate might be haunted. With great trepidation, her husband turned the front door key to the “ghost castle” for the first time. The writer 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 were caused by the building’s copper roof contracting in the evening.
J.E. Thompson, Jr., the Colonel’s nephew who formerly directed the Arboretum, told reporters in August 1960 that the value of the furnishings and artwork in the mansion had been greatly exaggerated. By the 2011 open house, little artwork or furniture from Thompson’s time remained in the house. Nearly all the carpeting, window, wall, and ceiling treatments, along with current furnishing, had been added after the mansion changed hands in 1946. Nevertheless, the Arboretum pledged to inventory the home for items that might have belonged to Thompson. The survey results remain a mystery.
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. A fire in the early 1950s destroyed half the 26-room, 7,012-square-foot estate, including the towers — personal retreats for Mrs. and Mr. Thompson, along with a tower for water and an elevator. The mansion was expanded during the four-year construction phase.
The mansion initially consisted of three distinct buildings. The Main House, the first to be completed, included a kitchen on the first floor and a dining room above, connected by the vaunted dumbwaiter. Each second-story bedroom had two entrances, one from the hall and the other from a veranda that wrapped three sides of the building.
The second phase began with constructing a smaller house for Gertrude on the east side of the building. Construction commenced on the construction of the Colonel’s private residence, known as “The Cliff House,” on the south side. It was attached to a tall rectangular, wood-framed water tower. While the Main House was built with masonry, the other buildings were framed with wood and finished with matching lath and plaster. Thompson’s private residence included a personal elevator that was the subject of some far-fetched stories.
“Early stories circulated that the elevator went from the mansion to the floor of Queen Creek Canyon, a feat that would have required drilling through nearly a hundred feet of rock,” read a two-page flyer produced for the open house.
Instead, Thompson’s French valet, Rochia, would lift him into his wheelchair, and the pair would take the Otis elevator down to the Cliff Walk, a one-eighth-mile, stone-walled trail. Thompson used the afternoon outings to check the progress of his saguaro, inspect new plants, and watch Queen Creek jerk along its rocky bed. He saw 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.
Another common destination: a settler’s cave that Thompson had expanded into a three-bedroom playhouse for his grandchildren. The Colonel’s entourage descended into the Arboretum or Rose Garden to sing hymns on special occasions.
An independent-minded stone mason, Tom Doby, built the walls along Cliff Walk. 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 in merciless teasing bordering on cruelty, a seemingly genetic Thompson trait.
The Colonel decided to build the Cliff House in 1927 after construction had begun on the rest of the house, and a stroke had confined him to a wheelchair, according to his nephew, J. E. Thompson, Jr. He picked the spot so that his third-story bedroom would look down 200 feet into picturesque Queens Canyon. Engineers blasted rock from the cliff to make room for second-story rooms occupied by Thompson’s nurses.
The ground floor reportedly housed Westinghouse’s first electric furnace, designed to keep the invalid Colonel’s suite at a constant 72 degrees. The Magma Copper Co. mine in Superior powered it. Thompson had a spur built from the mine so that he could travel to Picket Post in a private railcar. While in residence, his railroad servants became his house staff.
Before his stroke, Thompson spent weeks working with engineers from his mining company 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.” The Magnate ultimately settled on land owned by the U.S. Forest Service, originally part of Crook National Forest. He later obtained the 400 acres through a land swap, purchasing land in Northern Arizona coveted by the Forest Service.
The design for the estate was based on a monastery Thompson once saw on a crag in Greece. Working drawings were done by drafters at the Magma mine. That was probably a good thing because detonations were involved. The top of a 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’s nephew, J.E., Jr., designed the gardens. He had his work cut out for him. 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 carloads of plants shipped from California.”
The estate featured an ingenious 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.
The current mansion consists of two separate buildings – a 6,402-square-foot, two-story primary residence, and Gertrude’s 885-square-foot house. Many of the home’s built-in features remain, including wooden bedroom doors that open to the veranda, fireplaces, light switches, a working dumbwaiter, and a warming oven and lighted servant’s buttons in the butler’s pantry. Outside, steps carved out of rhyolite bedrock lead to the site of the former eagle’s nest. A decrepit swimming pool holds only rainwater. Original masonry steps circumambulate the grounds. And, of course, the tub is still in the driveway.
However, Rose’s personal curio collection is one thing that’s gone. On my 1999 tour, guides lavished as much attention on miniature carousels, brass ducks, and dolls as they did the house’s architectural features. Maybe the Colonel, who sought opportunities to spend time with down-to-earth folks throughout his life, would have appreciated the lawn jockey in the front yard.