Americans build regal residences
Jim and Patty Dupont’s dream home boasts some unusual amenities: two 40-foot towers, walls with battlements, and space for a future moat and working drawbridge.
“We wanted something a little different,” says Jim, 66, about Dupont Castle, which he’s been building since 1997 in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains near Berkeley Springs, W.Va. (pop. 624).
A whimsical conversation with other couples about building a castle planted the noble idea 20 years ago. While their friends bought or built conventional homes, the Duponts decided to live like royalty. They visited castles in the United States to glean ideas for their own design, bought 75 wooded acres in 1996 and began clearing a spot for their hilltop fortress.
“It’s basically a square box with towers on it,” says Jim, leading a tour of the castle’s keep, or main living quarters, where a suit of armor guards the grand entryway and medieval swords adorn the fireplace.
After 10 years of backbreaking labor, King James and Queen Patricia moved into the three-story castle in 2006. They continue to finish the interior, which features hardwood floors, three fireplaces and four bedrooms, each with its own bath in case the Duponts decide to open a bed and breakfast inn.
Patience and persistence are necessities for do-it-yourself castle builders. So are uniformly shaped blocks, Jim decided after building a wishing well and gateposts with stone, his first choice for the castle’s walls.
“I realized I couldn’t live long enough to build the castle with stone,” says Jim, describing how he hoisted 45-pound split-faced concrete blocks—11,000 of them—which can be mortared faster than stone.
Upon completion of the castle’s 5,000-square-foot living quarters, Jim plans to build an outer wall with three towers and a gatehouse, a great hall, courtyard, workshop and rental apartment.
The Duponts have spent $143,000 on the pay-as-you-go project and they love the solitude of their pastoral palace. “I really enjoy the quiet here,” says Patty, whose favorite room is the tower off the second-floor queen’s chamber.
During medieval times, tower windows afforded archers a view of invaders at the front and rear of the castle. From their tower, the Duponts often can see deer browsing below.
Despite two decades of work, Jim finds satisfaction in the process. “You build something and stand back and say, ‘That wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for me,’” says the retired computer technician, who remodeled a half-dozen homes before building his own regal dwelling.
The Duponts aren’t the only Americans building a medieval-style castle with their own hands. Twenty-one years ago, Casper Noz began building a brick fortress on 20 acres in Snelling, Calif., that he and his wife, Diane, plan to make their retirement home.
“I’ve always had a dream to build something big,” says Casper, 54, a full-time building contractor who devotes weekends to the castle, which is based on his childhood memories of castles in his native Netherlands.
Through the years, Diane, 53, has helped mix mortar in a wheelbarrow and hand Casper bricks, as have their three children, now grown. Fortunately, the Nozes bought all of the bricks—300,000—at the start of the project for $60,000. “I can’t imagine what it’d cost today,” she says.
The castle’s entrance features two three-story turreted towers and a moat. Casper has forged every bolt, hinge and piece of metal hardware; he’s built massive wooden doors and spiral fir staircases in the towers.
Before the Nozes occupy their fortress, Casper intends to build a 10,000-square-foot main living quarters with four more towers and a working drawbridge spanning the swimming pool. “People praise me for being a tough son-of-a-gun and sticking with it, but I’m enjoying the process,” he says. “The day it’s finished won’t be that big a deal.”
Casper has fun hosting parties at the castle where he reigns as king of the bonfire. “I go to the top of the tower and shoot a flaming arrow with cattails tied to it into the fire pit,” he says.
Another weekend warrior, Richard Stone, began building his copper-topped turreted, five-bedroom castle in 2001 in Cedar Lake, Ind. Three years later, he met his real-life princess, Emily Adams. The couple and their daughter, Ruthie, 4, can’t wait to move into the castle and put goldfish in the foot-deep moat.
“I’ve tried to marry the fairy-tale castle with the Old World look,” says Stone, 42, about the home’s design. Originally, he thought he could finish the 40-foot-tall castle in two or three years. But he didn’t take into account the time required to resurface and reseal 16,000 sculptured stones used to build the walls.
“They were too porous, water got inside, and I had leaks,” says Stone, a heating and air conditioning contractor. “I’ve never thought about giving up, though, because I’ve put so much blood, sweat and tears into it.”
While Cara McCandless and Barton Branstetter longed to live in a castle, they didn’t have any desire to build their own. Their royal residence in Wexford, Pa., is modeled after 14th-century Bodiam Castle in East Sussex, England, which they visited in 1994 on their honeymoon.
“It seemed some of the most beautiful architecture we’d ever seen,” says Cara, 44, a child psychiatrist. She and Barton, 43, a radiologist, joined the Society for Creative Anachronism and became swept up in the romance, history and arts of the Middle Ages. In 2004, they bought three acres and hired an architect to design their castle with historical accuracy in mind.
A drawbridge leads to the 7,000-square-foot castle, which features a cast-iron portcullis, a gate used in days of yore to trap enemies in the entryway. Historically accurate details include spiral staircases that curve to the right because it’s easier to swing a sword in defense when facing down, and second-floor “murder holes” for dropping scalding water or rocks on intruders. Today, the only thing launched through the holes is a sock by one of the playful Branstetter children—Josh, 13; Leah, 11; and Ian, 9.
The castle’s interior boasts handcrafted iron chandeliers, massive wooden doors and a cavernous 30-foot-tall post-and-beam great hall built with mortise-and-tenon joints, instead of nails. A library bookcase swings open to reveal a hidden staircase.
“The roof is open so you can walk there,” Barton says about his favorite spot in the castle. “You feel like you’re up in the clouds, yet surrounded by stone.”