Mysteries of the Castle
You’ve heard the rumors. Higgins House is haunted (this story is still in hot debate on campus) and we heard from a friend’s cousin’s girlfriend’s uncle’s neighbor that the original goat’s head from that long-ago event (yup, that one) is stored in a closet in the house.
We know for sure this masterpiece was built in the early 1920s by Aldus and Mary (May) Higgins as a smaller-scale replica of the c. 1525 Compton Wynyates Castle in Warwickshire, England. "The building materials were imported from chiefly the UK and France and many of the building elements feature traditional treatments, such as lime-cured lumber in the ceilings," says assistant director for archives and special collections Arthur Carlson. "The Higgins family also were one of the earliest collectors of pre-Columbian art from the Americas. Much of that material was donated to WAM by the family." Members of the Higgins family lived in the home until it was donated to WPI in 1971. After that, it somersaulted through purposes and tenants (some lucky students even lived there in the 1970s and ’80s). Higgins House is now home to the Alumni Association, the Student Alumni Society, the Quorum café, and University Advancement. It’s also the impressive backdrop to events and gatherings.
Almost anyone fortunate enough to enter this 29-room castle wonders about its history. The Herd staff can’t offer an opinion on the haunted aspect (we didn’t experience anything weird) and there was no decrepit goat’s head to be seen (but the brass goat’s head trophy does spend a welcome summer vacation in the house), but we found some cool things we bet most of the campus hasn’t seen.
A Bird's-Eye View
Mrs. Higgins's parlor has a secret window that looks down on the Great Hall. “According to the lore, Mrs. Higgins used to use this window to peer down at her guests,” says Peter Thomas, executive director of lifetime engagement and Higgins House superfan. Opening the hidden panel door in his office, Thomas reveals a small window with a perfect view of the expanse of the Great Hall below. After noting her guests apparel, Mrs. Higgins would then choose her own attire and head down to join the gatherings.
Like She Just Left
Shoe boxes with May Higgins’s handwriting on the labels and the faint imprints from the bottom of her shoes as they were stored on the shelves are a visual reminder of the graceful woman who used this elegant space as her dressing room. Hand-painted panels in the room evoke a lightness and femininity not seen in the rest of the home.
A little-known and well-hidden narrow staircase leads down from May Higgins’s parlor to the hallway near the recently renovated alumni library. Although people walk by this door daily, few realize its purpose. With this staircase, Mrs. Higgins could reach the Great Room quickly and virtually unnoticed. There’s even a hidden pocket door next to the staircase downstairs—it provides privacy to the library.
Revealing Stunning Carvings
For years, these carvings were hidden behind massive air conditioning units in the Great Hall, says Thomas. When the units were removed, the carvings surprised many who hadn't realized they were there.
Henry VIII's Jovial Reminder
According to Lora Brueck’s history of Higgins House, the distinctive decorative ironwork on the upper balcony once stood in front of the home’s Aeolian organ. Although May donated the instrument to St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer after Aldus’s death in 1948, the front-facing ironwork was left untouched. What often goes unnoticed is that the ironwork is a pattern of a musical score and the accompanying words from Henry VIII’s “The King’s Ballad" ("Pastime with Good Company").
As translated from the British Library:
Pastime with good company
I love and shall until I die.
Grudge who likes, but none deny;
So God be pleased, thus live will I.
It's the Peanut Gang
Students lived in Higgins House during the 1970s and part of the 1980s. Up in the attic, says Thomas, they added their own mark to the home with this on-target mural of the Peanuts gang. There is another mural hidden behind some piping and ductwork, too.
A thick safe-styled door leads into the once-stocked wine cellar in the basement. The heavy door has a combination lock and engraved metal panels on the inside of the door.
Aldus and May Higgins reportedly enjoyed collecting elements for their home while on their travels around the world, says Thomas. One can imagine this quirky toucan-shaped door handle striking their fancy as both whimsical and useful.
The Hub of the Attic
Tucked way up in the eaves of the attic is a room that sees a lot of traffic but mostly by students. The bright and efficient room is the student call center. It’s busy throughout the year with a team of energetic students building relationships with alumni and donors. Ever the WPI students, they pass the slow times with a frustratingly complex puzzle—a WPI seal in the middle of all-red surroundings.
- By Julia Quinn-Szcesuil