When A Man's Home Really Is His Castle

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Gillette Castle Wide i

William Hooker Gillette, a playwright from the early 1900s, hired craftsmen to build his castle from fieldstones. Kevin Pepin/Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons hide caption

toggle caption Kevin Pepin/Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Gillette Castle Wide

William Hooker Gillette, a playwright from the early 1900s, hired craftsmen to build his castle from fieldstones.

Kevin Pepin/Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A couple of weeks ago, The Miami Herald ran a photo of a fire. The location, according to the caption, was an abandoned medieval castle built in 1925 in Miami Beach, Fla.

Robert Siegel, host of All Things Considered, has been struck by references like this, to America's imaginary medieval period, ever since his parents took him to see Gillette Castle in Connecticut, a concoction of glittering fieldstone and a Gothic theatrical imagination.

Siegel set out to explore what in the American psyche inspires people to desire their very own castle.

A Heart In An Earlier Time

The builder of the Connecticut castle Siegel saw in his childhood was William Gillette, the fabled stage actor who got rich playing Sherlock Holmes. Gillette died childless in 1937 and left a will that said this about the castle and its grounds:

"I would consider it more than unfortunate if it should be in the possession of some blithering saphead who had no conception of where he is or with what surrounded."

This sort of eccentric will may not be all that surprising for a man who built himself a castle. Ultimately, Gillette's castle was turned into a state park.

Castles — not the brick waterworks that look like castles, or the armories, or the hamburger chains, but the real, purpose-built, latter-day fortress just down the road from the strip mall — are scattered all around the United States.

One such dwelling can be found near Gloucester, Mass., built by a once-famous man named John Hammond.

Hammond was an inventor: In the 1920s, they called him "the father of remote control." His heart was evidently in an earlier time, and his pockets were deep enough that he could purchase chunks of the past and reassemble them.

According to Amy Handy, who wrote a book on American castles, Hammond took bits and pieces of actual medieval buildings from around Europe, small things like windows and doorways, and then had the rest of his castle designed around them.

"He loved traveling through Europe," says Handy, "and he wrote, 'Nothing can reincarnate the spirit except to walk through rooms in which they have lived. It is a marvelous thing, this expression of human ideals in walls and windows.' "

For several years, Hammond Castle was owned by the virtuoso organist Virgil Fox, who played and recorded there. Think stone walls and high ceilings, toccata and fugue.

Deterring Would-Be Attackers

Hammond Castle, and others like it, are monuments to wealth, theatricality, eccentricity and the Gothic revival in architecture that led 19th century Europeans and Americans to rethink those dank, drafty ruins of the Middle Ages and build mansions that resembled them.

The mock castle evokes the solid, fortresslike structures of the real thing. But it often lacks the defenses that a king or a noble would have needed in a castle.

David Macaulay wrote an illustrated book called Castle 30 years ago. He says that castles, like those built in Wales in the 13th century, were not intended to display one's wealth or indulge one's imagination. They were built to impress one's enemies and deter would-be attackers.

"The visual aspect of a castle is as potent a weapon as the actual defensive structure," says Macaulay. "You see that thing from the distance and you probably are going to try to steer clear of it."

John Roswell Miller's 7,000-square-foot castle has never been attacked. Maybe that's because it dates from 1979 — and Loudoun County, Va., has been at peace since the end of the Civil War. Nevertheless, defense against intruders has always been a prime concern of Miller's.

"The plan has always been — let's say it's Saturday night, I catch some guy, I dump him down in the dungeon and the next day I call and say to the cops, 'Hey, I caught this guy a while ago,' " says Miller.

Although he lives elsewhere now, when Miller lived in his castle, he said he kept 30 Enfield rifles, with 6,000 rounds.

Hearst Castle i

In 1865, wealthy miner George Hearst purchased 40,000 acres in San Simeon, Calif., now known as Hearst Castle. Dan Steinberg/AP hide caption

toggle caption Dan Steinberg/AP
Hearst Castle

In 1865, wealthy miner George Hearst purchased 40,000 acres in San Simeon, Calif., now known as Hearst Castle.

Dan Steinberg/AP

Miller modeled what he calls the Bull Run Castle after his own fantasy of what a castle should be. Architecturally, it falls into the school of whatever works. The four turrets evoke a castle, but the plywood floors and wide staircase inside suggest a McMansion or a bed-and-breakfast — which it was for a while.

"Six bedrooms, five full baths, two powder rooms, 14 closets, 58 doors, a dungeon, a portcullis and a chapel," says Miller. "Built so it could be defended."

He recalls that once he finished building his castle, he needed workers to maintain and service it. "I made a big sign, 'Peons and serfs wanted,' " he says. "Not a darn one showed up."

So Miller lived alone in the castle for six years. He sold it in 2005, but it remains empty: The new owner has yet to find a tenant. In Northern Virginia, castle supply evidently outstrips demand.

Pretty Magical

Dale Roznik, an oral surgeon, built himself a castle in Farmington, Wis., with four octagonal towers, each rising 50 feet over the landscape — offering him the best line of defense against potential invaders coming across Lake Michigan to the east, or from the Wisconsin Dells to the west. But it wasn't just a desire for defense that motivated him.

"A castle is something that's pretty magical. A castle is something that almost everyone is entranced with," says Roznik. "Every adult and child loves them."

The exterior looks like something out of Macaulay's castle book. It's five levels from the dungeon to the top of the towers. The stonework alone on Roznik's castle cost $600,000.

"We thought the whole thing was going to cost $600,000, maybe, and when we heard the figure, we almost stopped building it," says Roznik. "But I've always said you couldn't put vinyl siding on this castle. It just wouldn't be the same."

Siegel asks Roznik if there is any parallel between his dentistry and stonework.

"It's probably precision and accuracy to cut the stone," says Roznik. "There's an artistic and a functional [element], as with surgery and dentistry."



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