A Grand Estate for the Owners of Watkins

  • September 14, 2011

As preservationists approached Rockledge, just south of Winona, the home’s owner, Ernest L. King Jr., shuffled to the front door and yelled, “I’m tearing it down and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Mr. King had no use for the home, but didn’t want anyone else to use it either. Holding true to his word, Rockledge was razed just before his death in 1987.

In 1911 architect George Maher designed a grand, 10,000 square foot Prairie School style home nestled against a rocky cliff along the Mississippi River just south of Winona. His clients, Grace Watkins King and E.L. King, Sr., were the owners of the Watkins Medical Products Company.

The entire home was a complete work of art; Maher designed all of the interior objects for the estate including chairs, rugs, urns, clocks, lamps, and even the silver service. Maher, who had worked alongside Frank Lloyd Wright for many years, borrowed from the home’s surroundings to create an earthy interior with brown, green, and orange colors throughout. Lilies also appeared throughout the home on lamps, drapes, and on the silver coffee service.

In 1931, the King family decided to redecorate Rockledge. All of Maher’s furnishings and fittings were moved from the home and stored in the barn. The couple decided on modern Art Deco décor and furnishings to update the estate. Maher’s harmonious, earthy design gave way to zebra-covered sofas, brightly colored vases, mirrored bathrooms, and chromium fireplaces.

After E.L. King Sr.’s death in 1949, Grace moved to Hawaii and spent little time at Rockledge. Their daughter lived primarily at Kingswere, an estate just south of Rockledge that King built for her as a wedding gift. E.L. King, Jr. stayed at Rockledge off an on–mostly in the summer. The house quickly became neglected. Parties were often held at the estate and were rarely cleaned up after. One winter, the heating fuel ran out and the pipes burst causing water to flood the home and freeze. The mess wasn’t discovered for weeks and damage was not repaired. King, Jr. was slowly allowing the home fall into disrepair.

By the time the family voted to list the home on the National Register of Historic Places, which King, Jr. vehemently opposed, there were holes in the wall big enough to walk through. Many of the furnishings that were left were in shambles, pigeons roosted in the home, and vandals often found their way inside.

Before the home was razed, King Jr. sold the original Maher furnishings and fixtures piecemeal at auction. These pieces are highly sought-after by collectors to this day. Some pieces are in museums across the country, but most are owned by private collectors.

Some say the unhappy and reclusive King Jr. used the money from the sale of these items to tear down Rockledge. The anger he had toward his family clouded his mind to the point he wasn’t able to see how magnificent the home could have been if it had been maintained and the original furnishings and fixtures had been replaced. At the very least, it could have been one of the most spectacular house museums in the nation.


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