The History of Highfield Hall
Built by the Beebe family of Boston in 1878, Highfield Hall was one of the early summer mansions to grace Cape Cod and is one of the few remaining examples of Stick-style Queen Anne architecture in the Northeast. Along with its adjoining mansion, Tanglewood, Highfield Hall was originally surrounded by park-like gardens, carriage trails, and almost 700 acres of woodlands. Both homes are believed to have been designed by Boston architects Peabody and Stearns, while the landscape design for both estates was created by Ernest Bowditch.
Heirs to a mercantile fortune created by one of Boston’s merchant princes, James Beebe, the Beebe siblings created one of the first expansive summer retreats on the Cape. Brothers Pierson and Franklin Beebe, along with sister Emily, lived at Highfield Hall while their brother, J. Arthur Beebe, along with his wife and children lived at Tanglewood. Both Beebe families entertained in grand fashion and embraced a genteel and formal lifestyle supported by a large cadre of servants.
When the last Beebe family member, Franklin, died in 1932, leaving no heirs, the estate was sold and used for a variety of purposes, with each subsequent owner having their own dream for the property. E.H. Bristol wanted to create a health resort, while J. Elwin Wright, a religious revivalist, attempted a religious hotel and retreat. Subsequently Arthur J. Beckhard, a New York producer, ran the two mansions as hotels and converted the former stable into what is now Highfield Theatre.
In 1949, the entire Beebe estate was purchased by DeWitt TerHeun, a friend of Arthur Beckhard and a great patron of theatre and opera. TerHeun launched a training ground for student actors from Williams College and, later, Oberlin College. (The Theatre, today, remains the home of Falmouth’s much-loved summer stock company from Oberlin College, the College Light Opera Company.) The TerHeun’s remodeled Highfield Hall as their summer residence while Tanglewood was used as a dormitory for the students.
After Mr. TerHeun’s death in 1962, the estate was sold and development was considered including the creation of a planned residential community with 500 residential units. Various roadblocks from the Town of Falmouth prevented progress and the fate of the property was uncertain. Finally, in 1972, the entire estate was purchased by Josephine and Josiah K Lilly III. The Lillys generously gave the nearly 400 acres of Beebe Woods to the town for permanent conservation as green space. The buildings and acreage on which they stood were donated to a local arts organization.
Sadly, on May 20, 1977, Tanglewood succumbed to the wrecker’s ball and bulldozers, and Highfield Hall entered two decades of neglect and vandalism.
The Restoration of Highfield Hall
In 1994, Highfield almost suffered the same fate as Tanglewood when a demolition permit was filed by the owners. With a new demolition delay bylaw just having gone into effect in Falmouth, a 90 day grace period existed before the property could be demolished. A group of citizens organized to save the mansion and Historic Highfield, Inc. (now Highfield Hall & Gardens) was formed as a non-profit organization.
Many years of legal disputes followed as Historic Highfield tried to stave off demolition and gain control of the building from its nonprofit owners. Volunteers cleared the lawn, boarded windows, and attempted to ward off further decay and vandalism. They also raised money and worked to convince residents that Highfield Hall was worth saving. Eventually, collaborating with local officials and politicians, Historic Highfield was able to convince the town that Highfield Hall was important to our community and extraordinary measures were warranted to save the property.
In 2000 Town Meeting Members authorized Falmouth Selectmen to take Highfield Hall and six acres by eminent domain, and in 2001 the Town signed a lease with Historic Highfield to renovate and operate Highfield Hall. The extraordinary restoration effort that followed was made possible through donations totaling in excess of $8,500,000 — almost all of which were contributed by private individuals.
The restoration of the building began in the summer of 2001. The first four years of restoration concentrated on making the building water tight by installing a new roof and repairing windows and doors. A new septic system was installed, restrooms were completed, interior rooms were returned to their original configurations, and some foundation work was completed.
In the fall of 2005, the final construction phase began with a new foundation. All new systems were installed in the building include a fire suppression system, HVAC, electrical wiring, and plumbing. An elevator and handicap ramps at the front and rear of the building made the structure completely handicap accessible.
In September of 2006, the first floor of Highfield Hall was completed and a grand opening was celebrated in high style with a week of events, programs, and concerts. By April of 2007, the second and third floors had also been completed and Highfield Hall opened for its first full year of operations. The fall of 2007 brought the completion of a brand new parking area and path system. In 2009 and 2010, the Highfield Ice House, the only remaining outbuilding on the town-owned parcel, was also restored. One of the few remaining ice houses on Cape Cod, its restoration was made possible through the generosity of the Falmouth Community Preservation Committee. The restoration of the landscape began in 2010 with the Sunken Garden completed in 2011 and the West Garden installed in 2012. Since opening, Highfield Hall has welcomed more than 125,000 visitors!