One of the more spectacular residences in New England at the turn of the last century was the stately Grey Court mansion of Methuen millionaire hat merchant, Charles H. Tenney. Also called the Tenney Castle, the massive stone and terra cotta “summer cottage” designed by the prestigious architects Carrere & Hastings of New York compared with many of the Gilded Age mansions of the time built for America’s wealthiest families.

Charles Henry Tenney was born on the family farm in Salem, N.H., on July 9, 1842. He was the youngest of four sons of John F. and Hannah (Woodbury) Tenney. Charles and his brothers, Daniel W., George W. and J. Milton, grew up working on the farm and attending Salem schools. The family moved permanently to Methuen after John F., opened a grocery and hardware store on Hampshire Street around 1860.

In 1865, Charles married Fannie Haselton Gleason, daughter of prominent Methuen hat manufacturer Daniel Gleason. Daniel retired from the business shortly after the wedding and turned the reins of the company over to his new 23-year-old son-in-law. Daniel died soon after in 1867 at age 54.

Charles and Fanny had two children. Their son, Daniel Gleason Tenney, was born in 1867. Sadly, their daughter, Addie/Alice died shortly after birth in 1869.

In 1868, Charles and his brother J. Milton opened their own hat factory on Broadway. Charles then moved to New York City where he established himself as a successful wholesale hat dealer. He went on to become the largest commissioned hat merchant in the world – and a very wealthy man. He also served as a bank executive in the city and was an esteemed member of several prestigious clubs and organizations. He sold his interest in the Methuen factory to his brother in 1883.

Charles’ principal residence was in New York City, but he and Fannie frequently returned to Methuen during the summer. In 1882, he purchased the Whittier farmhouse on Pleasant Street at the top of Park Street. He then extensively remodeled the stone building into what is known today as the Tenney Gatehouse. It was their home whenever they were in the area.

In the late-1880s, Charles purchased large parcels of land behind the gatehouse to build a grand estate with a majestic mansion. The spot he selected for the home was atop what was known as Jones’ Hill. The surrounding area was called Fairview Park. It was a beautiful location with a commanding view of the Methuen village below. The vast estate covered 75 acres and stretched southward to East Street.

The building’s architects were Carrere & Hastings of New York, designers of many of the nation’s finest hotels, public buildings and mansions. They modeled Tenney’s elegant Beaux-Arts style mansion after Château d’Yquem, the ancestral seat of Montaigne, France. Construction began in 1890 and the building was completed in 1892. Charles named it Grey Court.

The elegantly appointed interior was designed by the prominent furniture and design firm of Pottier & Stymus of New York. It featured a library, a billiards room, a bowling alley and a smoking room. The woodwork throughout consisted of oak and other select hardwoods. The fireplace mantle in the large hall was carved from Sienna marble.

On the grounds of the vast estate were a handsome horse stable and a large horse track. Charles owned many valuable horses from famous lineages. The track surrounded a beautiful deer park. The spectacular manicured landscape of beautiful lawns, trees, shrubbery and flowering plants was designed by prominent Boston landscape architect Ernest W. Bowditch. Charles won a prestigious horticultural award for his landscaping in 1902.

In those days, New York’s wealthy tycoons typically retreated to elegant summer homes in Newport, R.I., or the Berkshires in western Massachusetts for the season. Charles and Fannie spent their summers at Grey Court. The 1900 U.S. census lists a staff of four servants at Grey Court: an errand boy, a maid, a waitress, a laundress and a cook. Presumably, these servants traveled with the Tenneys from New York. A year-round caretaker lived in a house at the end of Highland Avenue below the castle.

The Methuen Transcript often mentioned the Tenneys entertaining a few visitors while they were in town, but it doesn’t appear that they hosted lavish parties as did many of their Gilded Age contemporaries.

Fanny Tenney died in New York in 1905 at age 61. Charles continued to live in New York and remained at the helm of the C. H. Tenney & Company for several more years. His flourishing factory on Broadway had over 3 acres of floor space. He retired about 1914, turning the reins of the business to his son, Daniel.

Charles was very generous to the citizens of Methuen over the years. Among the many contributions he gave to the community was the beautiful Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Pleasant Street.

Charles died in New York on April 27, 1919 at age 76. He was laid to rest alongside his wife in the beautiful mausoleum at the Walnut Grove Cemetery in Methuen. He left an estate worth an estimated $5 million (a 2024 inflation value of about $79 million). The Grey Court estate remained in his son Daniel’s family until the early 1950s.

Daniel offered the property to the town in 1951, but he died suddenly in New York at age 83 while negotiations were going on. The town eventually accepted 26 acres where the horse track was located for the construction of the new Tenney High School. The Tenney family then sold the rest of the estate, including the mansion, gatehouse and stable, to the Basilian Salvatorian Order (St. Basil’s).

The mansion served as a seminary for the order for several years until they built a new building by the former stable. The priests used the gatehouse for a time as a residence. The stable became a meeting hall and a gift shop, which it remains today.

After the St. Basil order vacated the mansion, the building was used as a halfway house (Challenge House) for a few years. It was abandoned by the mid-1970s and vandals began destroying the interior. They set a few small arson fires causing a considerable amount of damage. Then in 1978, a massive arson blaze totally destroyed what remained.

The former grand mansion stood in ruins for several more years. The remains were cleared from the site in 1985, except for a small section of a covered walkway along the courtyard at the rear of the building. That piece of the structure remains along with an outline of the building’s footprint. The state designated the 24-acre site as the Grey Court State Park in 2001. The grounds are open daily for the public to enjoy.

The Tenney Gatehouse at 37 Pleasant Street has been fully restored in recent years and is now the home of the Methuen Museum of History (methuenhistoricalsociety.org). It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

Ken Doherty is a lifelong resident of Methuen. He served on the Methuen Fire Department from 1980 to 2010. He is the Fire Department historian and a former member of the Methuen Historical Commission. He wrote “Á History of Methuen and its Fire Department” in 1996. He is retired and still living in Methuen with his wife, Paula.