A roadside curiosity that countless motorists traveling U.S. Highway 60 east of the Valley have wondered about over the decades is about to open its doors for the first time in five years.
The Picket Post Mansion, built by globe-trotting mining financier William Boyce Thompson in the 1920s near Superior, will open for tours on Saturday, April 30. Tours will also be available May 1, 7 and 8.
“So many people stop and ask to see the house. They drive by it all the time going to Show Low or other places, and there are numerous stories out there that people have heard,” says Mark Siegwarth, director of Boyce Thompson Arboretum, the adjacent botanical park founded by Thompson shortly after he completed the mansion.
But don’t expect the home to appear with bells on at her debut party. The house is in need of renovation after years of sitting vacant, changing hands and operating, at times, as an inn. By 1960, parts of it had also been destroyed by fire.
“We really didn’t think we’d be able to open it to the public until 2019,” says Siegwarth. “We acquired the property in 2008, when the economy really tied our hands on being able to do anything with it right away. We knew it would be a major undertaking, and our plan is to eventually renovate and restore the home to what it was in (Thompson’s) time.”
The upcoming tours will serve as a fundraiser for the arboretum, and a chance for the public to see the home before improvements — yet unscheduled — begin.
The home, originally four separate buildings totaling more than 7,000 square feet, sits on a rocky rise above the arboretum. Thompson is said to have spent much of his time in a tower retreat, admiring 360-degree views.
“It’s kind of your typical Arizona story,” says Siegwarth. “The colonel came out here to see a new mine he bought in Superior, and when he looked out over the Valley, he just absolutely loved it here. He wanted this to be his winter home. Once he got the house built, he planted a few trees, and that’s kind of how seeds of the arboretum were planted.”
By 1928 Thompson had given the home and his surrounding property to the nonprofit arboretum he had founded just out his front door. In 1930, Thompson passed away, and the home sat vacant until 1946, when a Globe couple purchased it and turned it into an inn. Over the years, it changed hands again, operating off and on as a bed and breakfast or hosting tours by appointment.
In 2008, the arboretum again acquired the Picket Post house.
Siegwarth says that over the years, visitors to the park have never stopped asking about the magnate’s “Castle on the Rock,” which is easy to spy from the arboretum grounds. Others recognize it from the 1997 Oliver Stone film “U-Turn,” starring Sean Penn, Jennifer Lopez, Joaquin Phoenix, Billy Bob Thornton, Nick Nolte, Jon Voight, Liv Tyler and Claire Danes. Siegwarth believes changes were made to the home for the movie shoot, but that some original features remain, including a bathtub on wheels, a dumbwaiter and a swimming pool.
Thompson, a Montana native born in 1869, built a fortune buying and selling mining stocks on Wall Street and owning and operating mines all over the world. The Guggenheim Brothers, J.P. Morgan and Bernard Baruch were among his business partners, according to the Yonkers (N.Y.) Historical Society. He was also a philanthropist, raising and donating money to World War I relief efforts and, in 1917, leading a Red Cross team to Russia, where he earned the honorary title of “colonel.”
He founded the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research in 1924 in Yonkers, where he had also built a grand estate in 1910. Today, the botany facility is part of Cornell University in Ithaca.
“He had, at the time, the world’s second largest yacht, and he would sail it to Cannes, Paris and London,” says Siegwarth. “He left Picket Post one year for Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and there’s a telegram from Cairo discussing some of the details of building the house here.”
Siegwarth says he and his staff still have many unanswered questions about the mansion and the man who built it.
“We want to do the history and the research and really bring it back to prime time. We should be the experts on everything, and one day, I think we will be, but we’re still in the process of getting there,” he says.
Volunteers will be stationed throughout the buildings and grounds over the next two weekends to explain features or answer questions. Several large-scale photographs of the area taken in Thompson’s time will also be on display.
“The house is part of our story. A lot of people went on a tour years ago, or they say they or their parents swam in its pool when they were a kid, but everybody, whatever their story, wants to see it. It’s a great opportunity to see what the arboretum is all about and see the house and understand what’s ahead of us,” says Siegwarth.
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