High on a hill, surrounded by woods where people walk dogs or ride bikes along trails carved out long ago, sits Highfield Hall—Falmouth’s restored 1880s mansion turned state-of-the-art museum and cultural center. Showing off manicured lawns with lush perennial gardens, along with an occasional fairy house or two, the Queen Anne-style mansion is a showcase for world-class art exhibits, musical performances and culinary demonstrations.
“It’s a house for the community,” says Highfield’s executive director, Peter Franklin, of the storied property. “We have a high caliber of art shows, and we’re unique in the sense that visitors can come and see art the way it was meant to be seen—hanging on walls in a home.” The property also boasts a theater converted from old stables, where every summer the world-renowned College Light Opera Company wows audiences. Says director of marketing Janet Morgenstern Passani, “People have a special experience here, a feeling.”
But as Falmouth residents know, it wasn’t always this way.
The property sat abandoned for two decades. Broken windows and graffiti are what many Falmouth residents recall about the state of the once-glorious mansion during its years of neglect—when, Highfield archivist and Falmouth resident Lisa Willow Dunne says, the ghost stories surrounding the property were as rampant as the raccoons that resided there. Kathleen Brunelle, a Falmouth native and author of “Cape Cod’s Highfield and Tanglewood: A Tale of Two Cottages,” notes the grass was always overgrown and the house reminded her of an old plantation. “There was this sense of an abandoned, ghostly edifice from a forgotten time,” she says. “But there was also a shared feeling that this abandoned building belonged to us because it was part of our town.”
Highfield was built by Pierson Beebe in 1878. The oldest son of James Madison Beebe, patriarch of the wealthy Boston Beebes, he later built its sister cottage, Tanglewood, and the two were used as the family’s summer residences. Beebe came to enjoy getting away from city life by spending summers in Falmouth, along with many of his wealthy Boston compatriots—the Cape’s first “summer people.” The last of the Beebes, Franklin Beebe, died in 1932 with no heirs.
Highfield was sold, and the property changed hands many times, with each new owner aspiring to transform it into the “latest thing.” One attempted to convert it into a health retreat, and another a religious center, until Broadway playwright and director Arthur J. Beckhard purchased 200 acres of the Beebe woods and converted Highfield’s barn and stables into a theater in 1947. That summer, he produced his inaugural play—“The Hasty Heart,” written by John Patrick—which featured the University Players, a group of students from the likes of Harvard and Princeton who performed around Falmouth.
Despite the success of his plays, Beckhard suffered financial difficulties and sold his share of the property to an acquaintance for use by the Oberlin College Gilbert & Sullivan Players. When their director retired in 1969 and they lost funding from the college, company members Bob Haslun and Donald Tull took it upon themselves to keep Highfield’s summer theater going. That year, they formed the College Light Opera Company (CLOC). “It was too important to let it die,” says Mark Pearson, who is currently CLOC’s artistic director.
In 1972, Josephine and Josiah Lilly of Falmouth purchased Highfield and Tanglewood, and in an effort to stave off developers, they donated the properties to the Cape Cod Conservatory of Music and Art (now the Cape Conservatory). Sadly, Tanglewood, condemned by this point, was demolished. Around the same time, a new conservatory was built, and Highfield Hall was abandoned.
At the time, locals like artist Kathy Twombly and historian Mary Lou Smith began discussing its potential as a cultural center. “But there was no example of a building like that,” says Annie Dean, formerly Highfield’s director of programs and exhibitions. “There was no telling if it could support itself as a cultural center.” Highfield remained a ghostly edifice until it was threatened with the wrecking ball in 1994. That was when the community sprang into action.
A movement to save Highfield began to spread. And with it, some opposition. “To take a dilapidated building and clean it up wasn’t an easy thing to ask of the community,” says Lisa Willow Dunne. Some Falmouth residents were also opposed because of memories of the early Boston elite. “When we think about Falmouth at that time, we had farmers and mariners – salty, hard-working everyday kinds of people,” says Kathleen Brunelle. “The Beebes were foreign to Falmouth, not a part of typical Cape Cod life.”
But the Beebes, while their being in Falmouth did raise a few eyebrows at the time, had loved and celebrated art in their Falmouth home. For that reason, Dunne says it was appropriate that the mansion be transformed into a cultural center. “The difference is that this time, it’s for the community,” she says. Friends of Highfield Hall, a nonprofit organization, was formed to restore the property. “Members of the Falmouth community came out and weeded,” says Dunne.
In 2006, first-floor renovations were completed, and that September, Highfield Hall opened its doors to the public with a week of special events, programs and concerts. After being abandoned for two decades, Highfield survived and has showcased the arts ever since through events and performances, exhibits, culinary demonstrations, classes and family and kids’ programs.
CLOC continues to hold performances each summer at historic Highfield Theatre, and this season, is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The rest of the year, the space is used for staged productions by Falmouth Theatre Guild.
As for further restoration, Franklin says that now the focus is on the outside. Last year, Highfield launched its Gardens Initiative program. “The Gardens Initiative is a multi-year commitment that will restore Highfield’s gardens, with additions such as a butterfly garden, sculptures and interactive experiences for children. It’s our goal to make Highfield a world-class cultural center,” he says. Programs for 2018 include walking tours, artist openings and Jazz Under the Tent.
Most importantly, Brunelle says, is that Falmouth residents can take pride in what Highfield has become. “Look at all the acreage that’s been preserved, and what we now have,” she says. “Highfield is part of our identity. It’s part of who we are.”