Royalty will never exist in America in the literal sense, but it certainly doesn’t stop the super rich from living like royals (without any of the responsibility of, you know, governing a country). It begins with decking out a solid crib – and in the case of these following buildings, the cribs are made of solid stone and span anywhere from 15,000-121,000 square feet. Many of them have parapets and corner towers, and one of them even gleefully boasts a torture chamber decked out with a real Medieval iron maiden. Boys and their toys. All of these castles reveal some facet of a bygone America, whether it’s golden Hollywood, the Gilded Age or the overwhelming present. For a traipse into American nobility; the rise, the fall and the severely eccentric, take a look at the 10 best castles in the United States.
Perhaps the small, elegant castle in the middle of Central Park might not be able to fend off attackers, or offer a very comfortable home for nobility, but then again, you don’t see Buckingham Castle lending precious background to Count von Count in Sesame Street. The grey granite Belvedere Castle, built in 1869 by one of the co-designers of Central Park, provides one of the best and highest look-out points in the sprawling park – particularly from the far corner tower. A combination of Gothic and Romanesque styles, this century and a half old building now hosts community programs, a nature conservatory and one of the city’s best birdwatching sites.
Hammond Castle might not have been built in the Medieval times, but this late ‘20s-built castle has all of the trimmings of a small legitimate medieval castle: a drawbridge, gargoyles, towers, stone carvings, stained glass, columns and turrets are all details to be explored in this great inventor’s former residence and workplace. John Hays Hammond Jr., known best for his developments in radio wave technology and as the inventor of the remote control, finished building his castle in 1929. Inside, visitors can take a self-guided tour and marvel at his collection of Roman, medieval and Renaissance artifacts.
As is the case with all old and old-looking buildings in America, certain whispers of ghosts surround the Pythian Castle. Commissioned in 1913 as an orphanage and retirement home for children and widows of members of the order of the Knights of Pythia, a secret fraternity, the Pythian Castle later served as a meeting hall and rehab center for U.S. troops during World War II, as well as a prison for prisoners of war. The construction of it is very American, made of a special kind of limestone most commonly quarried in the Ozarks, while the interior infrastructure has a steel framework with concrete floors, ceilings and stairways. The rooms also served purposes of its time, with a grand foyer, meeting room, ballroom, dining hall, dormitory rooms, bedrooms and a theater. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009, the building now serves as a cultural arts and events facility, holding various tours and holiday events.
Remarkably, this 35-room Scottish Baronial castle at the top of a hill in Omaha, only took 11 months to construct. Built in 1903, the state’s wealthiest couple, George and Sarah Joslyn, at the time commissioned a four-story house that consists of a reception hall, music room, conservatory, ballroom, a library and a gold a drawing room over 19,360 square feet. Every detail was considered: carved wood, wrought iron, stained glass, chiseled stone, mosaic tiles, et al. Located on an older part of the city, surrounded by Craftsman and Victorian-style homes, the remarkable castle is open for public tours as well as weddings.
Wine lovers who have always wanted to sip their preferred bottles in a perfect 13th-century Italian castle need only turn to Napa Valley. There, sitting in a lush plain off the St. Helena Highway is a winery housed in an architecturally faithful 121,000-square-foot castle comprising 107 rooms on eight levels, a moat, a drawbridge, defence towers, a chapel, a knight’s chamber, a torture chamber (where sits a 300-year-old iron maiden bought in Pienza, Italy, as well as other torture devices both authentic and model), and a massive great hall with coffered ceiling and delicately muraled walls. Opened in 2007 as a pet project of an extremely eccentric and Medieval-obsessed vintner, the Castello di Amorosa has proven to be an invaluable landmark on the undulating Napa skyline.
In almost every way, Gillette Castle, in East Haddam Connecticut, is eccentric, and that is entirely to the credit of its eccentric designer and former resident. William Gillette, the turn of the century actor best known for his role as Sherlock Holmes on film and stage, arranged every detail of the stone-studded design, as well as designed an aerial tramway to ship the material for the castle. Gillette designed the exterior, he built a three-mile long mini-railroad that snaked all through the property, including through a tunnel that he designed. He designed the meticulous locks on the doors, as well as arranged mirrors throughout the house in a system that allowed him an eye into all of the public spaces in the house from his bedroom, and the special switches near his bed so he could turn off all the lights from his room (remember, this was 1914). He had a secret passage put in, as well as designed clever tricks to keep his guests on their toes or straight-out avoid his guests if he felt like doing so.
In the golden ages of super rich industrialists, when wealthy Americans claimed New York and New England as their personal playgrounds, George Boldt rose into extreme affluence catering to them. The proprietor of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, he enjoyed summer on Thousand Islands and sought to build a six-story 120-room Rhineland castle on Heart Island, with all the trimmings: tunnels, a powerhouse, Italian gardens, a drawbridge, and alster tower. Originally conceived as a monument of love for his wife, Louise, construction on Boldt Castle came to an abrupt stop in 1904 when his beloved Louise died suddenly. For 73 years, the castle and island lay dormant, slowly disintegrating with the wind, rain, ice and snow; but in 1977, the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority acquired the property and began restoring the palatial home. Now it’s a house museum for visitors in both Canada and America to tour and visit, as well as a wedding banquet hall.
If the kingdoms past had adopted this strategy for self-defense, perhaps they wouldn’t be so quick to fall. Bannerman Island, located in the middle of the Hudson River about 50 miles north of Manhattan, was purchased by an arms dealer, Frank Bannerman VI in 1900 as a place to store his surplus ammunition and, later, build a castle. It was an explosion and then, decades later, a fire that turned this castle into ruins, but there are cool little details that belie its dramatic history and fascinating former owner, like the cannons and cannonballs studded over the parapets, as well as the words "BANNERMAN’S ISLAND ARSENAL" carved into the stone between the two remaining towers. Beyond this, Bannerman Island is simply a unique way to spend a day, wander dilapidated castle ruins from the glamorous turn of the century, and observe the view of the Hudson River.
Perhaps the closest thing we still have to Gatsby’s mansion, the OHEKA Castle in Cold Spring Harbor was finished in 1919 to the tune of $11 million (which would be $110 million today) as a summer home and weekend retreat for Otto Hermann Kahn and his family. The French-style chateau sprawls over 109,000 square feet and comprises 127 rooms, 39 fireplaces, a ballroom with a 24-foot high ceiling, a formal dining room, a library, a grand staircase modeled after the exterior staircase from the Château Fontainebleau and much more. Also located on the 442 acres of land are formal gardens and three gatehouses. At the time, Kahn, who inspired the employed 126 full-time servants at the estate and threw opulent parties for all of New York’s finest. Now, the residence is a luxury hotel with with 32 guestrooms, an even larger banquet hall for weddings and totally restored details.
Commissioned by William Randolph Hearst, one of the heavier hitters in American media history, and designed by Julia Morgan between the years 1919 and 1947, Hearst Castle stands out as a landmark of old Hollywood glamor, when such opulent mansions and islands could be obtained by men who bought ink by the gallon. The 90,000-square-foot Mediterranean Revival-style mansion in San Simeon, California, was a playground for the rich and famous: people like Cary Grant, Greta Garbo, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and the Marx Brothers partied high above the Pacific Ocean in Hearst’s own personal Xanadu. In fact, Hearst Castle and its larger than life owner were the inspiration behind Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane!