Postscripts: An architect’s legacy grandly commands the tip of Fishers Island

By Steven Slosberg
Special to The Westerly Sun
July 30, 2022

“White Caps”, the medievil style castle at the east end of Fishers Island, designed by the architect Eric Kebbon, who spent his later years in Stonington, and was completed in 1934.

Buried in Stonington Cemetery is yet another treasure of a tale, this one connecting Beautyrest mattress kings, Kennedy heraldry (and Skakel scandal), and rock ’n’ roll royalty itself, one of the Beatles.

The link is an architect named Eric Kebbon, who died in 1964 at age 73 and whose elegantly inscribed grave marker was recently pointed out to me by Wick York, a historic preservation consultant and lifelong Stonington resident.

The headstone reads, beneath his name, profession and years of birth and death, ‘Beauty. Integrity. Humanity.”

Architect Eric Kebbon’s home in Stonington, CT

Kebbon, who bought a mansion on Main Street in Stonington Borough in 1942, was a prolific architect in the tradition of Robert Mills, who designed the Custom House Maritime Museum in New London in the mid-1830s, and Henry Hobson Richardson, who designed, shortly before his death in 1886, Union Station in New London.

According to the obituary published on April 19, 1964, in The New York Times, Kebbon designed more than 100 New York City public schools, as well as federal buildings and post offices in Tallahassee, Fla., and Greenville, S.C., Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and New York City.

But what is of particular interest here is his work designing housing developments and country houses in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

On a clear day, from The Point at the tip of Stonington Borough, one of Kebbon’s more picturesque, if not curious, creations stands squarely and grandly at the far eastern end of Fishers Island.

It is known as “White Caps,” a medieval-style seaside castle completed in 1934 for Grant Simmons Sr., an heir to the Simmons Company, then the leading manufacturer of mattresses in this country and best recognized perhaps for the “Beautyrest” mattress.

One published description of the castle reads:

“Naturally it was also waggishly named ‘Beauty Rest’ in honor of the mattress firm. The architect, Eric Kebbon … resurrected an old quarry in Stonington and shipped great balls of granite slate to the island. To this was added turrets, gables, and huge oak beams that rose from the craggy seascape of the east point on the island. It became a seafarer’s landmark, with a fabulous view of Fishers Island and Block Island Sound, the Connecticut shoreline, Watch Hill and the Long Island north shore.”

Westerly is famous for its quarries, but I hadn’t heard about those in Stonington. Mary Thacher, of Stonington, the eminent local historian, told me there were several granite quarries — Cove Road, Island Road and off Pequot Trail (Anguilla granite). However, she added that the completion date of “White Caps” would have been “too late for the Anguilla quarry, which was dark granite without pink feldspar.”

Another quarry was on Masons Island, but that, too, had ceased operations before the building of “White Caps.”

Before he undertook the Fishers Island project, Kebbon designed in Greenwich, Conn., then one of the wealthiest enclaves in the country, a home for Zalmon Gilbert Simmons II, son of the company’s founder and father of Grant Simmons Sr.

It is at this point that the story takes on a decidedly gossipy and celebrity-infused turn.

From a publication about the history of Greenwich:

“Built in the 1920s for Zalmon Gilbert Simmons II (1870-1934) and his wife Frances Etheridge Grant (1872-1964). The mansion (known as “Rambleside”) is perhaps best known as the childhood home of Mrs. Ethel (Skakel) Kennedy and her notoriously rowdy brothers and sisters. In 1950, her wedding reception was held here when she married Bobby Kennedy (1925-1968), and his brother, JFK, was the best man. It remains a private home.”

On Fishers Island, “White Caps” has been subjected to several rumors, according to island historian Pierce Rafferty, including being disassembled in Europe and shipped to the United States.

I have not visited the place. It is said to be somewhat dark, with small windows, though grandly appointed and featuring a swimming pool and outbuildings.

After the Simmons family sold it, one owner was a fellow named Denis O’Brien, who lives on ingloriously as the business partner of the late Beatle George Harrison, with whom he formed HandMade Films, a vital backer of the Monty Python films.

However, Harrison eventually broke with O’Brien, an American raised wealthy in St. Louis, accusing him of bilking Harrison out of millions.

From an online British biography:

“Harrison brought a lawsuit against O’Brien in Los Angeles in January 1995, claiming O’Brien had deprived him of £16 million over a 12-year period. The court found that O’Brien had mismanaged HandMade and ruled that he should pay Harrison $11 million. He was subsequently instructed to pay Harrison £6.7 million in damages. Harrison felt betrayed by O’Brien, whom he considered a close family friend. According to Eric Idle of Monty Python, Harrison wrote the unreleased song “Lyin’ O’Brien” about his former manager.

O’Brien filed for bankruptcy, while Harrison sued O’Brien in bankruptcy court without success. In August 2001, the judge dismissed the case because Harrison failed to appear for a deposition, and also dismissed Harrison’s claim that his poor health had prevented him from doing so. Harrison died of lung cancer three months later on November 29, 2001. O’Brien died on December 3, 2021, at the age of 80.”

[Another owner was Jonathan Barres, formerly of Stonington, once one of the more high-flying property partnership moguls in this region during the high-rolling real estate boom of the 1980s.]

Today the place is owned by the William L. Hanley family of Greenwich and Fishers Island. The late William Lee Hanley, who died in 2016, was, among many business leadership and philanthropic organizations, appointed executive director of the Connecticut Reagan-Bush Committee in 1980 and was a member of President Reagan’s campaign finance committee in 1980.

Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington. He may be reached at maayan72@aol.com.

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