Whispering Pines: Stranger Than Fiction? The Story of Searles Science Building


In this month’s column, John Cross ’76 writes about the strange-but-true account of how Searles Science Building came to be built.

I am often struck by the ways in which lives intersect at one or more points in time, and especially by how often those intersections involve people connected in one way or another to the College. The story of how the Mary Frances Searles Science Building [1894] came to be built is an endlessly fascinating account of fortunes made, of love, of eccentricity and excesses, of high-profile legal proceedings, and, finally, of a new dawn for the sciences at Bowdoin. It is also a tale of remarkable personalities—the wealthy widow Mary Hopkins of San Francisco; the young interior designer Edward Searles of Methuen, Massachusetts; the prominent New York lawyer and businessman Thomas Hubbard of the Bowdoin Class of 1857; and the English architect and champion of Gothic Revival architecture in America Henry Vaughan.

The narrative begins with the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1849, an event that brought a flood of adventurers, investors, and entrepreneurs to California, including a New York bookkeeper named Mark Hopkins. Hopkins had persuaded 25 men to join him in investing $500 each to purchase supplies for resale in California. With his modest profits Hopkins opened a grocery store with his neighbor Collis P. Huntington. In 1854 he returned from a trip to New York with a new bride, his first cousin Mary Frances Sherwood. Hopkins was rapidly becoming a player in the political and business world in California. Acting on a tip from a railroad supporter about federal plans to build a transcontinental railroad, Hopkins joined Huntington, Leland Stanford, and Charles Crocker as the primary investors in the Central Pacific Railroad in 1860. Subsequent railroad dealings and federal contracts to build the western portion of the Union Pacific earned each of “The Big Four” a staggering amount of wealth within a span of twenty years.

As wealth and social standing accrued to Mark and Mary Hopkins, Mary began planning the construction of a grand mansion on Nob Hill. Her husband, a frugal man, was content to live in a small cottage and concentrate on his business ventures. He was reportedly aghast when he saw the scale of the project. He never saw it completed; he died in 1878, leaving a fortune estimated at $20-$40 million. Civil War general and Bowdoin Trustee Thomas Hubbard was a friend, legal counsel, and business partner of Hopkins, and he assisted Mary in navigating the complex issues surrounding her late husband’s estate and business matters. Mary and Mark Hopkins had no children of their own. Mary had adopted Timothy Nolan, the adult son of her housekeeper, who took on the Hopkins name and was given an administrative position at the Union Pacific Railroad.

Faced with the task of finishing, decorating, and furnishing the Nob Hill mansion, Mary sought advice from Herter Brothers, a prominent furniture and interior decorating firm in New York. They sent a young associate, Edward Searles, who soon developed a close relationship with Mrs. Searles, despite the fact that she was 22 years his senior. The courtship between Mary Hopkins and Edward Searles raised eyebrows and sparked gossip in San Francisco high society about the respective motives of the decorator and the wealthy widow, but they were married in 1887. Following a six-month post-wedding tour of Europe, Mary changed her will to read, “The omission to provide in this will for my adopted son, Timothy Hopkins, is intentional, and not occasioned by accident or mistake.” Everything was to go to her husband, Edward. Mr. and Mrs. Searles moved to Edward’s home town of Methuen, Massachusetts, where Edward embarked on building a series of grand homes designed by English architect Henry Vaughan. Vaughan was best known for his Gothic Revival ecclesiastical architecture (e.g., the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., three chapels at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, and Christ Church in New Haven, Conn.).

When Mary died in 1891—less than four years after her marriage—it set in motion a series of legal challenges from Timothy Hopkins that lasted for several years. Thomas Hubbard was named as an executor of Mary Frances Searles’s will, and he was embroiled in the case as a witness who had detailed knowledge of the Hopkins and Searles estates, Mary’s business affairs, and the circumstances surrounding the drafting of the wills for Mary and Edward. The probate hearings were held in Salem, Massachusetts, and attracted national attention. California newspapers stood solidly behind the claim of Timothy Hopkins, while Edward Searles garnered support from the eastern papers. Under oath, Edward testified that he had married Mary “…partly out of affection and partly for her money.” Each day the papers carried stories about how Edward may have exploited Mary’s interest in spiritualism, charges of forged letters and telegrams, attempts to unravel the complicated business dealings and partnerships in the original Hopkins estate and in Mary’s estate, and rumors of conspiracies to defraud business partners and cut an adopted son from the will.

…a fitting memorial to a noble woman who, herself the daughter of a teacher, was always interested in the cause of education…

In the end, the claim of Edward Searles was upheld, and a “token” settlement of several million dollars was given to Timothy Hopkins. When Searles approached General Hubbard about reimbursing him for his services, Hubbard declined, but suggested that his alma mater, Bowdoin College, could certainly use a modern science building along the lines suggested by President William DeWitt Hyde in his president’s report for 1891-92. Searles was persuaded by Hubbard that this would be an enduring symbol of his love for Mary. Within three weeks of Hyde’s report, Searles (through Hubbard) offered to fund the project, with Henry Vaughan as architect. Speaking for Searles at the dedication in 1894, Hubbard described the building as “…a fitting memorial to a noble woman who, herself the daughter of a teacher, was always interested in the cause of education; who, to the end of her life was a diligent student; who understood the worth of a well-trained mind and the worthlessness of life’s tinsel and display… Could she express her wish it would not be to perpetuate her own name, but to continue her usefulness by effective work for the benefit of others.” Less than a decade after the construction of Searles Science Building, General Hubbard decided to build a new library as a gift to Bowdoin. He turned to Henry Vaughan to design Hubbard Hall (1903), and once again in 1904 for the Hubbard Grandstand at Whittier Field.

For the remainder of his life, an increasingly reclusive Edward Searles continued building castles and estates designed by Henry Vaughan, including Searles Castle in Windham, N.H., (a ¼ replica of Stanton Harcourt Manor in Oxon, England) and Pine Lodge in his home town of Methuen. For all the money spent by Searles in executing Vaughan’s architectural designs, none of these castles can match in importance the painted brick building on the northwest corner of the Bowdoin campus.


With Best Wishes,

John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations


  1. John Currie '73 says:

    This is one of the coolest short history storys that I have read. I sent a link to my sister who lives in the San Francisco area. The next time that I have a Bloody Mary at the Top of the Mark at the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill I will think of Bowdoin and the Searles Science Building. So what is the story behind the paint? It was a awful yellow for many years!

  2. Bob Armstrong, '71 says:

    I seem to recall that there was a story about the color of the brick used in building Searles Hall. Does anyone recall how yelow brick was selected?

  3. Great story! Who knew! Similar stories about named buildings on the campus would be most interesting.

  4. Christopher Hanks '68 says:

    Two memories from Searle:

    The first is the story of Eric Boesch ’65, TD,, who, along with some fellow adventurers from TD, decided they would liberate Foucault’s Pendulum from its captivity in Searle. Eric’s job was to hold onto the ball so that it didn’t crash into the floor when the cable was released. The ball was heavier than Eric was expecting, however, causing him to drop it on (and break) his foot.

    Second, sitting in the back row of freshman physics in the fall of 1964 and watching as Associate Professor of Physics Elroy O. LaCasce, Jr. would launch plastic water rockets at people in the back row who had fallen asleep.

    I’d also like to know whether it’s really true that Professor of Physics Noel C. “Nookie” Little, Prof. LaCasce’s famous predecessor in the Bowdoin Physics Dept., , once climbed to the top of a ladder on rollers leaning against one of Searle’s walls to demonstrate the subtle interaction of angular force and friction – only to have the ladder come crashing down, with him on it, after having gone up one rung too far.

    I do know that one of Professor Little’s legacies passed down to generations of physics students inside Searle was the art of “nookieing” — as in: “I had to’nookie’ the numbers” — when it became necessary to make sure the results of physics experiments in the lab came out the way they were supposed to.

  5. alan n. hall says:

    Great social history connecting Maine and California and providing a quick coverage of an important segment of architectural history of the United States. You get a “new look” now as you pass Searles now! There is, nearby, a more modest example of Henry Vaughan’s early work in the Episcopal Church, Newcastle, Maine. I lived and worked in other Vaughan-designed buildings at St. Paul’s School, Concord, N.H., and once, out of curiosity, I drove into the courtyard of “Castle Junior College” in Windham, N.H., and found myself back in the Middle Ages. And finally, stretching connections more than a little, happy memories, Top of the Mark 1945-1946!

  6. John, this is outstanding. As a genealogist, an enthusiastic reader of old newspapers, and an Alpha Delt who stared out at Searles for four years, this was a terrifically fun read. Thank you for your continued chronicles!

  7. Richard Bolduc says:

    This explains a lot. I remember driving by the Searles building in Methuen,MA and saying it looked like a baby Searles (Bowdoin) and then seeing a plaque with Searles’ name on it I knew this guy was purveying this specific gothic architecture for a broader audience than I realized.

  8. Fred Myer 1960 says:

    Verry interesting. To my memory, I never set foot in Searles during the four years. Tells you about science and my brain. Practically lived in Gibson, tho.

  9. David Latterman '93 says:

    Thanks John, this is great. I live in San Francisco, and I never would have associated the Mark Hopkins with Bowdoin. Of course, their mansion didn’t survive the earthquake and fire, and the hotel was built on the site twenty years later. Timothy Hopkins went on to found Palo Alto, home of Stanford University. He also worked closely with Leland Stanford developing the university. Two great schools benefited by all of the intrigue.

  10. Ellsworth Rundlett says:

    This account was very fascinating, considering I practice law and see cases,not quite this big, but similar. I’m sure I could have looked it up but I always wondered why that building looked the way it does. I took some math classes there and when I was a campus guide I would show people the room which had many animals in large jars and containers. The tourists and future students used to get a kick out of the design of Searles and its many passageways and doors that looked like they contained secrets. I have seen similar looking castles along the Rhine in Germany. Thanks, John.

  11. Al DeMoya, '72 says:

    As always, John, a fascinating and entertaining look at Bowdoin’s less-known history. I’m continually looking forward to your next article.

  12. Chris McGlincey '88 says:

    John, Terrific stuff. As a one-time San Franciscan (who got to the Top of the Mark more than a few times) this was enlightening. I had no idea of the SF connection. Now that we have the real story behind the building, I wanted to share a rumor that I heard more than once while attending the college mid-80s. The building was by consensus of students (perhaps unfairly) considered the ugliest on campus. By way of explanation, it was said that Mrs. Searles was the widow of an alumnus who, upon learning that her husband had bequeathed a sizeable sum to the college to fund construction of the building (and had consequently overlooked her needs), became enraged. She was given some license in dispensing the gift, however, and chose a design and materials so hideous that it would create an enduring legacy of her displeasure; then she named it after herself to emphasize the point. That fiction might be stranger than the truth, but not by much.

  13. Maury Walsh says:

    As a parent of an ’11 and ’14, I am not familiar with the yellow brick that was mentioned from the past, but I have wondered about the odd salmon color it currently wears. Any story behind the selection of that?
    I am also delighted by the volume of comments this article generated so quickly.

  14. Conrad Spens '77 says:

    Thanks, John, for a great story! How delightful to find that my two daughters, (Courtney, Stanford 2013 and Amy, Bowdoin 2015) are connected in more ways than they could imagine, even though they chose very different paths that took them to opposite sides of the country. I spent my freshman year looking across the street from what is now Howell House (old AD) to see the mass of Searles. It’s much more interesting to me now. Thanks again!

  15. Tim Hayes '00 says:

    Reading of these connections from Oneonta, NY where Collis P. Huntington started and first developed his attraction to railroads.

  16. Hubert S. Shaw, Jr. says:

    John, once again you have done a masterful job of bringing us a wonderful vignette from Bowdoin’s rich history. Thank you for this background on the Searles family and General Hubbard and their contribution to Bowdoin. Hugh Shaw, Jr. ’65

  17. Merton G. Henry '50 says:

    John: A great summary of a very complex and long story.I enjoy the Whispering Pines part of the Bowdoin Daily Sun tremendously.

  18. Alexander Platt '76 says:


    Another great “Whispering Pines.”

    As I recall, the story behind the yellow brick was Henry Vaughan’s inexpensive and accessible approximation of the celebrated warm golden stone found at Oxford University- I believe there’s an architectural drawing for Searles from the time it was designed that showed students standing in front of it dressed in caps and gowns like Oxford undergraduates of the day.

    Although Memorial Hall has some gothic elements, Searles was really Bowdoin’s first Gothic Revival building, followed as John points out, by Hubbard Library, which is Bowdoin’s last Gothic Revival building. In other words, unlike many other colleges, Bowdoin only flirted with Gothic and moved quickly back to Georgian by the 1920s. (consider the direction of Yale, Wellesley and others at the same time). (Although Upjohn’s First Parish Church is Carpenter Gothic, the College showed its ambivalence towards the style by settling on Upjohn’s Romanesque design for the chapel in the 1850s).

    I always thought that painting over the yellow brick was not only because it was ugly, but that it was part of the process of turning away from (or rejecting) the Oxford look that Vaughan had wanted to promulgate. It’s hard to picture Bowdoin if it had carried on with the Gothic revival (with or without yellow brick).

    I haven’t double checked this, but I believe other Henry Vaughan buildings in New England are the chapels at Williams, Trinity and Groton.

    In any event, John, a great job telling a fascinating story.

  19. Dave Larsson says:

    Another awesome post from the Ken Burns of Bowdoin College. We need to set John up with cameras, slow dissolves of sepia photographs, and celebrity voice overs (Frank Burroughs instead of Shelby Foote). We could use it to launch quarterly televised beg-a-thons. What’s not to love? Seriously, John, this is my favorite post yet.

  20. Dan Dorman '65 says:

    On Being Rich: Story of Edward Searles

    Dear John –

    Your “Stranger Than Fiction?”, like most of your “Whispering Pines” articles, embodies a primary reward that comes from reading history, i.e. its potential to enrich one’s life. Thanks for spreading the wealth.

  21. Nancy Bellhouse May says:

    I agree. This is a classic.

    Thanks, John, for bringing these characters and their story to life.

  22. Terrence Rouse '90 says:

    John, thanks for a great read. I was expecting to read a story similar to the one posted by Chris McGlincey above. That was how my tour guide described the building in the summer of 1985.

  23. Mark Smith '58 says:

    Bob, your best yet, but it still does not really get to to bottom of the yellow bricks. I was told a (a long time ago) that they were a cost cutting measure. Who really knows? I enjoyed the piece even if that question is still on the table.

  24. Aah! now a connection between Bowdoin and the small museum where I work in the Central Valley of California. The family of the eponymous Haggin Museum orbited just outside the circle of the “Big Four.” Their considerable wealth accrued through mining rights and legal positioning also made them neighbors on Nob Hill. One founder, Robert T. McKee attended art school at the Hopkins mansion after it had been converted.

    However, James Marshall discovered gold in the tail race of his sawmill in 1848 and President Polk announced the discovery nationwide in his state of the union address on December 5, 1848. The world rushed in in 1849.

  25. Awesome! Breating life into the names of Searles and Hubbard sends more depth of meaning and understanding for us, over a century later. Telling and sharing our stories and the stories of others is a most important task that fulfills the story teller and those who listen. We’ve got a new dimension to view Searles and Hubbard, and perhaps Bowdoin and ourselves.

  26. John Cross says:

    Yellow/buff Perth Amboy bricks were called for in Vaughan’s plans for Searles Science Building, and they were used, despite the suggestion from the building contractors (Woodbury and Leighton of Boston) that red brick would be suitable and less expensive. The yellow brick may have been Vaughan’s choice to evoke the color of stones used in buildings at Oxford University, as Alix Platt suggests. Vaughan used buff-colored brick in the barrel-vaulted west hallway on the first floor of Hubbard Hall. In any event, within a few years – less than a decade – it became apparent that the yellow bricks useed in Searles did not hold up well to Maine winters (spalling of the comparatively porous yellow brick during freeze-thaw cycles). Repairs were made using red brick, and the entire building was painted to seal the outer surface of the brick and to conceal the mismatched patches. In his 1985 James Bowdoin talk, Joseph LaCasce ’86 dispelled the notion that unhappy heirs had created an ugly building out of spite. The current color for Searles was selected after test areas were stripped of paint down to the original bricks and were painted in different shades of red or yellow-buff colors. After several months observing how the colors looked through a series of seasonal changes in the quality of light College officials chose the current hue.
    It’s wonderful to read the insights of alumni, parents, and others, and I’m grateful for corrections (e.g., Lisa Cooperman’s tactful reminder that gold was discovered in California in 1848, not 1849), personal memories and experiences about the Searles Science Building and its denizens, San Francisco stories , other architectural works by Vaughan, Edward Searles’s legacy in Methuen and elsewhere in New England, and the broader historical context for the Hopkins fortune. Thanks so much for your support and encouragement.


  27. David C. Taylor, '61 says:

    As of 1957-58, my tenure in General Physics demonstration lectures (which no one dared miss because of the potential for the unexpected), the reported rumor regarding Dr. N. C. (“Nookie”) Little and the slipping ladder (happening only two or three years earlier) was presumably true. Omitted from the story was the fractured ankle “Nookie” sustained from the impact of him on his ankle.

  28. John Humphreys '75 says:

    John – Thanks for the great story. My senior year we used a darkroom in Searles for the photography class I was taking. We did some work with 4×5 view cameras and for one assignment we had to make a pinhole* lens for the camera. The Searles science building was a prominent backdrop in several of the photographs I took. I’m sure I have some of them stashed in a closet somewhere, and I will try dig one up and send it to you. Being 21 at the time I’m sure I was pretty clueless as to the architectural style and background of the building, though I do remember the stairwells as poorly lit, noisy and a little mysterious.

    *See Abe Morell’s article on the Camera Obscura in the May 2011 issue of National Geographic

  29. Frank Marter says:

    The juiciest part of the Searles Hopkins “romance” was left out of this essay. Mr Searles had a friend of his living with him. He was his lover who eventually inherited all of his estate including the Hopkins money. The reason Timothy Hopkins got anything at all was due to blackmail. He knew the story and threatened to go public with it after loosing the court case. Timothy got the contents of the mansion in San Francisco and the art institute got the building. The lover died several years later living modestly as though he never inherited a thing.

  30. Robert Erikson says:

    The account of Searles Science Building would not be complete without mention of the frieze around the top of the outside walls: from Euclid through Newton, “Nature’s Laws are God’s Thoughts.” I wonder if the words have not been painted out by now.

  31. I have a question. I’m a tech illustrator and would love to draw the Mary Hopkins Mansion. Is there anyway to obtain the old architectural drawings of that house? Do they exist anywhere? How can I find out?

  32. Robert Duerr says:

    Robert Duerr ’75. Thanks John. Growing up in Methuen, Mass Searles was a whispered figure bigger than life. His castles and stone walls that roamed for tens of miles seemed like an odd WPA project that coveted Downton Abbey. These were not Robert Frost’s New England farm field piled rocks. Oddly Harvey Lipman ’75 and I were talking about the Seamless Bowdoin connection when we recently saw each other at my mom’s funeral wake. The Bowdoin Searles connect for me was the library card that I had as a young boy to the Searles Library. It was this that allowed me to get to Bowdoin.

    As Harvey said in passing it’s interesting further reading on how Stanford and his band of merry men won the west….and didn’t go to jail.

    “Acting on a tip from a railroad supporter about federal plans to build a transcontinental railroad, Hopkins joined Huntington, Leland Stanford, and Charles Crocker as the primary investors in the Central Pacific Railroad in 1860. Subsequent railroad dealings and federal contracts to build the western portion of the Union Pacific earned each of “The Big Four” a staggering amount of wealth within a span of twenty years.”

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