When A Man's Home Really Is His Castle From whimsical to threatening, mock medieval castles are scattered throughout the U.S. They are monuments to wealth, theatricality, eccentricity and the Gothic revival in architecture. But what inspires people to build them?
NPR logo

When A Man's Home Really Is His Castle

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/111365770/111436515" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
When A Man's Home Really Is His Castle

When A Man's Home Really Is His Castle

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/111365770/111436515" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Here's another housing story. A couple of weeks ago, there was a photo in the Miami Herald of a fire. The location, according to the caption, was, and I quote, "an abandoned medieval castle built in 1925 in Miami Beach."

What's with American castles? Not the brick waterworks that look like castles or the armories or the hamburger chains, I mean, the purpose-built, latter day fortress just down road from the strip mall. Time was, a self-respecting robber baron got rich and built himself a dwelling worthy of a Plantagenet king.

They're all over. There are a couple around Colorado Springs. There's one in Gloucester, Massachusetts, built by a once famous man named John Hammond.

Ms. AMY HANDY (Author): He wanted to live in a castle.

SIEGEL: Amy Handy wrote a book on American castles, including Hammond's. He 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 so that he could purchase chunks of the past and reassemble it.

Ms. HANDY: He took bits and pieces of actual medieval buildings from around Europe, small things like windows and doorways, and then had the rest of it designed really to look like a medieval castle.

SIEGEL: He built himself a castle.

Ms. HANDY: He wanted to live in a castle. He loved traveling through Europe. 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. So he really was after that feeling of living in a castle.

(Soundbite of organ music, applause and cheering)

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

(Sound bite of organ music)

SIEGEL: There are lots of American castles. They 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 to build mansions that resembled them.

The mock castle evoked the solid, fortress-like structures of the real thing, but it lacked the defenses that a king or a noble would have needed in a castle.

Mr. DAVID MACAULAY (Author, "Castle"): It consisted of rings of defense, perhaps starting with a moat or at least a ditch.

SIEGEL: David Macaulay wrote an illustrated book called "Castle" 30 years ago. The castle he describes was built in Wales in the 13th century. And the point of it wasn't to display one's wealth or indulge one's imagination, it was to impress one's enemies and deter would-be attackers.

Mr. MACAULAY: The visual aspect of a castle is as potent a weapon as the actual structure, the actual sort of defensive structure. You see that thing from the distance and you probably are going to try to steer clear of it. And in most castles, they actually put little pieces of stone on top the crenellations.

SIEGEL: The walls, they look like they have teeth marks in them or something.

Mr. MACAULAY: Right. Exactly.

SIEGEL: Why? Why are there crenellated walls at the top of turrets of castles here?

Mr. MACAULAY: Well, officially, you have crenellations. You have the low section and you have the high section next to it. Now, you want to load your crossbow or get your arrow out of your quiver, but you don't want to stand exposed to the enemy. So you stand behind the high part of the crenellation. And then you quickly duck over the low part, fire. And then get back behind the high part and reload to do it again. So it's purely defensive.

SIEGEL: So if I try to imagine the statements that a castle should make, number one, I am really well-defended.

Mr. MACAULAY: correct.

SIEGEL: Good luck trying to attack me.

Mr. MACAULAY: You haven't a chance.

SIEGEL: Right. Second, I'm a very big deal that I should have this castle and my security is something very important.

Mr. MACAULAY: Correct.

SIEGEL: And I got soldiers in here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MACAULAY: And they're mean because they've been trapped in here for quite some time. So go ahead, attack.

(Soundbite of clanking gates)

Mr. JOHN ROSWELL MILLER (Former Owner, Bull Run Castle): Well, you see, we've got iron gates and three inch doors.

SIEGEL: John Roswell Miller is inviting us into his 7,000-square-foot castle. It has never been attacked, maybe because it dates from 1979, and Loudoun County, Virginia has been at peace since the end of the Civil War. Nevertheless, defense against intruders has always been a prime concern of Mr. Miller's.

Mr. MILLER: 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, you know, I say, hey, I caught this guy a while ago.

SIEGEL: Uh-huh.

Mr. MILLER: And you know what the heck of it is they'll probably believe the criminal. That's the way it works these days.

SIEGEL: But you've got your own detention cell there underground in the trapdoor, yeah. Well, not every house has that.

And that's not all. Although he lives elsewhere now, when John Miller lived in his castle, he kept 30 Enfield rifles with 6,000 rounds, or so he told us.

(Soundbite of clanking gates)

SIEGEL: 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.

Mr. MILLER: That's six bedrooms, five full baths, two powder rooms, 14 closets, 58 doors, a dungeon, a portcullis and a chapel, built so it can be defended.

SIEGEL: Miller gave us a thorough tour of the castle. He recalled that once he finished building it, he needed workers to maintain and service the place.

Mr. MILLER: I made a big sign. I made it myself right when I started here, peons and serfs wanted…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: …apply inside. And you know, not a darn one showed up. That just shows you how people are now, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: I think that was the catch for the castle, that to make the whole thing work.

Mr. MILLER: But none showed up.

SIEGEL: Yeah, you have to have a lot of them.

Mr. MILLER: (Unintelligible) along.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: John Roswell Miller lived alone in the castle for six years. He sold it in 2005 and it remains empty. In Northern Virginia, castle supply evidently outstrips demand, which evidently is not the case in Farmington, Wisconsin.

(Soundbite of a newscast)

Unidentified Woman: You've probably heard the saying, a man's home is his castle. In Dale Roznik's case, his home really is a castle. NBC 15's Buckley Pollack(ph) brings us the story.

SIEGEL: It's actually Dr. Dale Roznik. He's a dentist.

Dr. DALE ROZNIK: I'm also an electrical computer engineer, teach anatomy at Marquette University.

SIEGEL: And you built a castle. Why?


(Soundbite of laughter)

A castle is something that's pretty magical. A castle is something that almost everyone is entranced with. It goes back in, you know, a thousand years or so, just for our history with King Arthur, et cetera, and Frankenstein's Castle and Hogwarts, and you name it. Castles are really entrenched in our society, and every adult and child loves them.

SIEGEL: They're not actually a part of American history, though, castles.

Dr. ROZNIK: No, I certainly don't think they are part of American history. Yeah - you probably have to go back when there were battles being made, and that's probably the original reason why they had castles. And you don't build them anymore because you don't need the fortress structure like that. And of course, they are rather costly to put up the stonework and your dungeons and your moats, and it's not exactly a practical aspect in America. And certainly, when the pioneers started off here, they weren't going to be building castles.

SIEGEL: How much did building your castle cost?

Dr. ROZNIK: Well, the only thing I can say is it kind of stunned us, is that the stonework alone was $600,000.

SIEGEL: Six hundred thousand dollars.

Dr. ROZNIK: We thought the whole thing would cost $600,000.

SIEGEL: Six hundred thousand dollars.

Dr. ROZNIK: We thought the whole thing would cost $600,000, maybe. And when we heard the figure, we almost stopped building it. But I've always said you couldn't put vinyl siding on this castle. It just wouldn't be the same. So if we were going to be a castle, this had to be done.

SIEGEL: Not only did it had to be done, it had to be done with four towers, in this case, octagonal towers 50 feet high over the landscape, surely the best line of defense for potential invaders coming across Lake Michigan to the east or from the Wisconsin Dells to the west. The exterior looks like something out of David Macaulay's "Castle" book, but inside, it's a castle with a splash of modern style.

Dr. ROZNIK: We didn't like the open concept. So we have little niches and hallways, lofts, a lot of minor rooms, no secret rooms, of course, not at all, not one, and it's probably about, depending upon how you do it, four or five levels from the dungeon area up to the top of the towers.

SIEGEL: Is there any connection between the satisfaction you get from doing oral surgery and working with stone?

Dr. ROZNIK: It's probably precision and accuracy. To cut the stone, there's an artistic and a functional, as with surgery and dentistry, there is that very specific surgical side and medical side, but there's also the required artistic side to make it look good, and you could certainly say that about stonework also.

SIEGEL: Can you imagine some day, say down below in the castle, opening up a dental office?

Dr. ROZNIK: It would be nice to have a little dental office some place.

(Soundbite of organ music)

SIEGEL: That's Dr. Dale Roznik, oral surgeon and proud owner/occupant of a castle. The thought of dentistry in the dungeon just boggles the mind.

I confess I've been wondering about America's imaginary medieval period since I was a kid and my parents took me to see Gillette Castle in Connecticut, an ingenious concoction of glittering fieldstone and a gothic, theatrical imagination.

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

Unidentified Man: (Reading) 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.

SIEGEL: Mr. Gillette's castle had only one plausible lord in waiting. It became a state park.

(Soundbite of organ music)

SIEGEL: If you want to find an American castle, you can check out our map at our greatly enhanced Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of organ music)

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.