Picket Post House Open House January 7 & 8, 2017 from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Admission is $20 each for adults and children, payable at the Visitor Center Gift Shop. Regular admission of $12.50 (beginning January 1, 2017) adults and $5 children is also required. Tickets are sold the days of the Open House only, and access to the Picket Post House is from the Main Trail, a walk of approximately one half mile from the Visitor Center. No advance tickets are sold.
Construction of the Picket Post House began in 1923 and took 14 months to complete. Colonel William Boyce Thompson founded the Boyce Thompson Arboretum and donated his house and the surrounding property to the Arboretum in 1928. The Colonel passed away on June 27, 1930.
The mansion was built on land belonging to the Crook National Forest (now known as Tonto National Forest) with a permit from the Forest Service. The Colonel later made an exchange with the Forest Service for land he owned in northern Arizona which deeded him approximately 293 acres of land. He also purchased an additional 108 acres to complete the Arboretum.
The main building (the Main House) was constructed of two layers of red brick that were manufactured in a brick yard in nearby Superior. The exterior is smooth plaster but with subtle, yet distinct, fan-shaped ornamentations that are clearly visible when the surface is observed closely. Jack Davey, a local contractor and brick mason, built Picket Post House as well as the Crider and Gibson houses at the Arboretum. He also built numerous brick buildings in Superior, including the smelter and other mine buildings. Jack Davey also won the bid for the original Administration Building (now called the Smith Building) and was awarded the contract on October 20, 1925.
All floors in the main building are constructed of oak, except for the large dining room which is made of Douglas fir. Mrs. Thompson’s house also has oak floors.
Picket Post Mansion originally consisted of three distinct buildings, with construction carried out in several different phases. The first to be started and completed was the Main House. It contains a kitchen on the first floor with a dining room above, connected by a still-functional dumbwaiter. Each of the second story bedrooms has two entrances: one from the central portion of the house and one from an enclosed veranda that wraps around three sides of the perimeter of the building.
The second phase of construction began with the building of a smaller house for the Colonel’s wife, Gertrude, on the east side of the main building. At the same time, on the south side, a third building was built that served as the Colonel’s private residence, often referred to as “Colonel Thompson’s House” or “The Cliff House.” A tall rectangular water tower was also attached to the Colonel’s residence. While the Main house is of mainly masonry construction, the other buildings are constructed of masonry and wood-framing, finished with matching lath and plaster.
One of the most endearing and infamous stories about the Picket Post Mansion is in regards to the Colonel’s personal elevator. 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 solid rock.
In truth, the elevator was only three and a half stories high, allowing the Colonel access to the roof of his residence on one side and to an adjacent rock viewing promontory he called the “Eagle’s Nest” on the other. The elevator then carried him down three stories to the first floor where a concrete platform connected with an elevated path that skirts the west side of the building.
This path is formed and supported by a substantial rock wall that is clearly visible from the Arboretum grounds to the west. This impressive wall was built in 1929 by a Slovakian stone mason known as “Doby Tom.” From this vine and flower-covered path, the Colonel, who was now restricted to a wheelchair after a stroke, could be wheeled via connecting dirt trails down into Queen Creek canyon and other points in the Arboretum.
The elevator was contracted to be built by the Otis Elevator company in April of 1929 for a cost of $3395. Other building improvements were also made at the same time, including the enlargement of a wing of the Main House, the rebuilding of parts of the Cliff House, and a new, above-ground utility line that was required by the 220 volt motor that powered the elevator. Unfortunately, Colonel Thompson was only able to use the elevator for a few weeks after its completion before his death in 1930. It is said that he enjoyed watching the sun set twice: once from a lower floor of his residence and then again, after a short vertical elevator ride, from the roof.
Many of the first plants for landscaping the Picket Post House and for the Arboretum were purchased at Armstrong Nurseries in Ontario, California and brought back in the Colonel’s private rail car, Alder, by Col. Thompson, Col. Thompson’s nephew Joe E. Thompson, and Arboretum Director Franklin Crider. Colonel Thompson grew up in Alder Gulch, Montana and he named both his private rail car and his yacht – thought to be the second largest private yacht in the world at the time – Alder, after his home town.
After lying vacant for 16 years, the Picket Post House was sold in March of 1946 to Walter and Ida Franklin of Globe for $40,000 after it became too much of a financial burden for the Arboretum to maintain and secure.
The Picket Post House then operated as a bed and breakfast. One of its more famous visitors was Admiral Richard Byrd’s wife and two daughters in 1947, who stayed there while the Admiral was away on an expedition to the South Pole. Again, due to the cost of maintaining the Picket Post House, it changed hands and eventually was acquired by Rick and Tina Rose. Most people’s memories of tours were probably during the Rose’s ownership. On July 15, 2008, Arizona State Parks purchased the property to make the Arboretum whole once again.
As the mansion stands today, it consists of two separate buildings totaling 7,287 square feet. The two story main residence contains 6,402 square feet and Gertrude Thompson’s house contains 885 square feet. All of the other buildings, including the Colonel’s personal residence and the attached water tower and elevator, were destroyed in a fire on June 8, 1960. Although nearly all of the original furnishings are gone, many of the “built-in” features of the house still remain. Some of these include wooden bedroom doors that open into the veranda, built in shelving, fireplaces, light switches and other hardware, a working dumbwaiter, a warming oven and lighted servant’s buttons in the butler’s pantry, steps carved out of rhyolite bedrock that lead to the eagle’s nest, outdoor masonry steps, and other hardscape features outside of the buildings. Nearly all of the carpeting, window, wall, and ceiling treatments, as well as current furnishings, were added after the mansion changed hands in 1946.
Renovations to restore the Picket Post House have not yet begun, but the interest in this historic structure has led the Arboretum to open it to help raise funds for its operations. We hope to have the house fully renovated well before our 100th anniversary in 2029.
Here are some images from the December Open House. Click on any image to open a lightbox slide show.