Thursday, June 11, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Albert Crosby and Tawasentha

     Home is where the heart is. For so many their childhood home is a place of wonder and magic where they grew and learned and became who they were as adults. Most move over time and leave those places behind. Sometimes the call of those cherished memories is so strong people find themselves wishing they could live in those homes once again. For Albert Crosby of Brewster his childhood home was so meaningful to him that even after making millions of dollars in the mid-19th century far away from Cape Cod he never forgot where he came from. So much so that even when he returned home after retiring and had a custom mansion built for him his childhood home needed to remain a part of it. Crosby did so by literally building his new home around the one he grew up in. This is story of the Crosby Mansion also known as ‘Tawasentha’ and the legendary Cape Codder whose life created it.


     Albert Crosby was born on January 14, 1823 in Brewster, the son of sea captain Nathan Crosby and Catherine Nickerson. The home he grew up in was small and white with a beautiful view of Cape Cod Bay to the north. It was built by his father in 1835 upon returning to Brewster from Chatham.

     During his early years Albert tried his hand at work in the Mercantile Marine Service however his fortunes quite literally lay in the western United States. In 1848 Crosby left Cape Cod and headed for Chicago with his wife Margaret whom he had married the previous year. The Crosby name on Cape Cod carried with it such weight that Albert was able to borrow $10,000 of goods from Boston to begin to create his business empire.

     Albert’s beginnings were in that of dry goods such as teas but by 1851 he had created the largest alcohol distribution business in the west. He even persuaded his younger cousin Uranus to leave Cape Cod and come work with him in Chicago. The business, Albert Crosby & Co., became a success. Albert and Uranus increased their profits in the liquor business by hoarding liquor in 1860 ahead of the Civil War which also brought with it a wartime tax on alcohol. In 1862 the business name was changed to Northbranch Distillery Co. Crosby would increase his wealth selling liquor to the Army during the Civil War.

The Crosby Opera House in Chicago (New York Public Library, Public Domain)

     Despite the success in dry goods, liquor, and even real estate, Albert’s wife Margaret longed to return back east. Crosby relented and moved to West Roxbury with her and their four children in 1862. Albert would however find any excuse he could to return to Chicago. Once such excuse was the opening of the Crosby Opera House by Uranus in 1865. Located on Washington Street the building itself cost $600,000 ($9.4 million in 2020) and it was designed for the purpose of enhancing the arts in Chicago.

     The endeavor was doomed from the start with the desire for opera in Chicago not what Uranus had expected it to be. He attempted to sell the opera house and its collection of art in a lottery in January 1867. The lottery was a huge controversy as the ‘winner’ A.H. Lee immediately sold the opera house back to Uranus Crosby at a fraction of the original cost. In April 1867 Albert Crosby bought the opera house and Uranus left Chicago for Cape Cod.

     Also in 1867 Albert Crosby added to his business portfolio, becoming director of the Chicago Railway company, a position he held for seven years. He had become president of the newly formed Downer & Bemis Brewing Co. the previous year which would serve him well in the future. While in Chicago Crosby would frequently appeal to his wife Margaret to come from West Roxbury, she always refused. During his time as opera house owner he developed a relationship with burlesque performer Matilda Garrison more than twenty years his junior.

     From October 8-10, 1871 the Great Chicago Fire destroyed more than 17,000 structures and left an estimated 300 people dead. In this fire the Crosby Opera House and its art was lost. Albert Crosby himself lost $1.5 million ($31.5 million in 2020) in art and property. The only saving grace for Albert was his railway connection and that of the Downer & Bemis Brewing Co. He was able to almost immediately begin amassing a second fortune.

     In January 1872 Albert quickly divorced Margaret and was married to Matilda that June. The couple toured Europe beginning in 1874 living the lavish lifestyle for nearly ten years. They returned to America in 1884 with Albert spending the next three years in further pursuit of wealth. However in 1887 he retired from business and longed for a return home. Despite Matilda’s lack of enthusiasm the couple arrived in Brewster in April 1888.

The original home of Nathan Crosby built into Tawasentha

     After living a life of grandeur for so long a compromise was made. Crosby’s original childhood home would remain untouched, however an impressive mansion would be built all around it. The finished product took just over a year. It was three-stories and included a 60-foot tower with a view of the bay, 35 rooms, 13 fireplaces, a 75x50-foot art gallery, and a long veranda. The mansion was given the name 'Tawasentha' after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Song of Hiawatha.” The Crosbys told guests the mansion was modeled after Versailles and Buckingham Palace among others.

     Tawasentha became the place to be for the social elite from Cape Cod, Boston, and New York. Even legends such as Mark Twain, Helen Keller, and the Duke of Wales paid it a visit. The high life at times wore on Albert as Matilda loved throwing extravagant parties. Legend has it during these times he would retreat into his childhood home part of the mansion and relax in his favorite rocking chair.

     Albert Crosby died on July 24, 1906 at the age of 83. After his death Matilda opened the art gallery to the public once a week until her death in 1928 with the art inside valued at roughly $100,000 ($2 million in 2020). At this point Tawasentha was passed to the grandnieces of Matilda who in turn sold the home and all of the art in 1929. The former Crosby estate was purchased in March 1939 by former Metropolitan singer Martha Atwood Baker. It became the new home of the Cape Cod Institute of Music. One student who went on to great success was Kirk Douglas. World War II took its toll on the school and it was dissolved in 1943 though the Institute of Music itself ran for several more years.

     Tawasentha sat empty until 1950 when the owners of the Southward Inn of Orleans bought it. It was rechristened the Gold Coast Restaurant and Inn. In 1955 fire destroyed the former art gallery section of the mansion. The tenure as a restaurant was short-lived as in 1959 a group led by Dr. John Spargo purchased it to be used as a weight loss camp for young girls. Spargo bought out his partners in 1978 and had plans in place to turn the former Crosby estate into condominiums. Luckily the plans were not approved by the town and after a few years of battling Spargo sold the mansion and its land to the state in 1986. Tawasentha became a part of Nickerson State Park.

     Over the years the building itself fell into disrepair with the 60-foot tower burned by vandals. The Friends of Crosby Mansion group, founded by Brewster residents Brian Locke and his mother Ginny, has been working to renovate and restore the property for more than 25 years. It is a beautifully impressive site located between historic Rt. 6A and Crosby Landing Beach. It is a mansion built by Albert with love for Matilda while also keeping intact the childhood home built with love for Albert by his father Nathan.

Tawasentha is located at 163 Crosby Lane in Brewster

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View my previous blog posts: In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - The Pacific Guano Company

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