Castles aren’t just for kings and queens.
Our Founding Fathers made it clear that the USA would have nothing to do with royalty, but that hasn’t stopped us from flirting with the regal notion of living like queens and kings. Throughout our history, Americans have dabbled in castle building—some stranger than others. Here are 15 of the most intriguing, all open to visitors.
WHERE: NYC, NY
Belvedere—meaning “beautiful view” in Italian—was built in 1869 as a Victorian folly in Central Park, New York City. That is, it was merely a beautiful thing to look at with a turret to climb for panoramic views over the park, and space to picnic at its base. All that changed in 1919, when the National Weather Service came along. Using the turret to measure wind speed and direction, the castle was given a real purpose. To this day, New York City’s weather data is measured at Belvedere Castle—and the beautiful views remain.
INSIDER TIP Aspiring naturalists should ask for a field pack filled with kid-friendly Binox, field guides, a hand lens, and sketch paper for DIY explorations of Central Park.
WHERE: East Haddam, Connecticut
William Gillette—the famous Sherlock Holmes actor-playwright—commissioned this very bizarre, medieval-style castle in the early 1900s. Why is it strange? Let’s just say, a real castle dweller would not need such oddities as hidden mirrors, 47 one-of-a-kind doors, a locked bar that disappears at a moment’s notice (it was Prohibition, after all), feline-size openings for cats, and a hidden staircase to spy on guests. Though the quirkiest attribute may be the tiny secret room complete with fireplace. Why would a widower, living alone in this enormous abode, need a secret room? We may never know.
WHERE: Bellville Texas
Local baker Mike Newman is famed for his pastries in the town of Bellville, but he wanted something more out of life. So he built himself a majestic cinderblock-and-stucco castle, complete with a working drawbridge, a moat, and a dungeon. That’s right, he and one assistant built the 3,400-square-foot abode medieval-style themselves. It took them eight years to complete, but now he lives there, offering tours to the curious (sword fights included).
INSIDER TIPThe castle also organizes murder mystery dinners in the Great Room.
WHERE: St. Augustine, Florida
It started as a Moorish-style castle-home in 1887, later converted into a swish inn by award-winning author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her husband. But Castle Warden didn’t hit its stride as one of the nation’s strangest castles until businessman John Arthur purchased the crenellated edifice and filled it with the late Robert Ripley’s collection of oddities—you know, as in, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Today, the castle is a museum jammed with weird stuff like the moose head in the window, the motorcycle made of roadkill bones, and the house chiseled out of a redwood tree. Oh, and they also say it’s haunted.
Castello di Amorosa
WHERE: Napa Valley, California
If you’re driving through Napa Valley and suddenly spot a medieval, Tuscan-style castle rising above the vine-striped landscape, you haven’t taken a wrong turn into an Italian parallel universe. This stunning, 13th-inspired, 107-room castle (complete with moat, drawbridge, and torture chamber) serves as—what else?—a winery. Guided tours reveal handpainted replicas of 13th-century frescoes, a Grand Barrel Room with a cross-vaulted ceiling, and a dungeon complete with an iron maiden. And here’s the best perk of all: All tours end with tastings of the castle’s Italian-style wines.
WHERE: Doylestown, Pennsylvania
Henry Chapman Mercer was an important archaeologist, ceramicist, and scholar at the turn of the 20th century. He was also considered the local madman. Proof in point: He built this 44-room poured-concrete eclectic-style castle, adorning it with his renowned, handcrafted tiles. Only Mercer himself could understand the mazelike architectural rationale which includes over 200 windows, 18 fireplaces, and 44 rooms, each a different shape. Indeed, he built it without formal blueprints. Today it’s open as a house museum, one of three must-see Mercer castles in Doylestown.
INSIDER TIPWhile you’re here, don’t’ miss the Mercer Museum, a six-story reinforced concrete castle completed by Mercer in 1916. It showcases a core collection of more than 50,000 pre-industrial tools that provide a glimpse into early America—including a fake vampire-hunting kit and a gallows.
Castle in the Clouds
WHERE: Moultonborough, New Hampshire
You might not think a circular shower, central vac system, or indoor fire hydrants are groundbreaking, but they were back in 1914 when millionaire shoemaker Tom Plant and his wife included them in their fairytale castle overlooking New Hampshire’s largest lake. The couple involved themselves with the minutest details of their dream home, including the height of the door knobs (Mr. Plant stood only 5’4”). Today you can spend an entire day here, touring the castle, strolling the gardens, exploring the grounds by horseback, and hiking 28 miles of trails.
INSIDER TIPPlan for lunch at the Carriage House Restaurant, occupying converted horse stalls. The patio overlooking the lake is a coveted perch as well.
Eastern State Penitentiary
WHERE: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Resembling a formidable castle in the middle of Philadelphia, Eastern State Penitentiary was actually built as a cold, haunting prison that once housed the likes of Al Capone and “Slick Willie” Sutton. When Charles Dickens visited the United States, the prison was on his bucket list of things to see (and he wrote about it in American Notes). Today it’s open as a historic site offering self-guided tours (along with special tours, including a Halloween haunted event called “Terror Behind the Walls”).
WHERE: Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania
Raymond Pitcairn, a leading light in the Swedenborgian religious movement, built this 90-room neo-Romanesque castle between 1928 and 1939 in the Philadelphia ‘burbs. Wanting to inspire his flock, he filled it with some of the world’s most priceless religious artworks, dating back as far as the third millennium B.C. These days, it’s open as a museum for the faithful and secular alike, who come to ogle the magnificent architecture and hundreds of sculptures and stained-glass panels. Look for the mopey king in the 13th-century stained-glass piece from a Soissons, France, cathedral.
WHERE: Lake Tahoe, California
Lora Josephine Knight married into super crazy wealth and used the money to help educate young, impoverished women. Oh, and she also constructed this magnificent Nordic-inspired castle on the shore of Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay (because the setting reminded her of Scandinavia). It’s filled with handhewn beams, dragon carvings, rare Scandinavian antiques, and, in some places, sod roofing. It’s open for tours, but the only way to get there is by steep footpath or by boat.
Castle Gould & Hempstead House
WHERE: Sands Point, New York
Here’s two for the price of one. Castle Gould is a spectacular Gold Coast edifice designed after Kilkenny Castle in Ireland, complete with wrought-iron chandeliers, vaulted ceilings, and floor-to-ceiling windows. Alas, its owner, son of railroad magnate Jay Gould (or, more accurately, his wife), didn’t like it when it was completed in 1902. So he built Hempstead House, another, better castle nearby, this one in grand Tudor style. Castle Gould then became a carriage house, stables and servants’ quarters. Today, Castle Gould holds a visitor center and gift shop, with nature programs and cultural events taking place in its Great Hall. Hampstead House is open for tours, offering peeks at stone gargoyles and the walnut-paneled library copied from the palace of King James I, along with a robust concert and lecture schedule.
WHERE: Thousand Islands, New York
In a grand sweep of love, multimillionaire George C. Boldt had this 120-room Rhineland replica built for his beloved wife. He spared no expense on the gorgeous edifice perched on Heart Island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, spending a whopping $2.5 million (a lot back in the early 1900s). Last-minute preparations were underway before his intended presentation to her on Valentine’s Day, when she died. Heartbroken, he stopped all work, and the castle remained idle for 73 years. At long last, the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority restored the castle and it’s now a major tourist destination. In a somewhat unsettling tribute, the first and second floors have been decorated as the Boldts would have enjoyed them, but never did.
INSIDER TIPInsider tip: Singer Castle on nearby Dark Island is another Gilded Age castle on the St. Lawrence that’s open for tours.
WHERE: San Simeon, California
If you set out to build a castle, you may as well go all out, just as newspaperman William Randolph Hearst did with this extravagant retreat in California’s Santa Lucia Mountains. Beginning in 1919, he spent 28 years building the elaborate Mediterranean-Revival-style estate and filling it with his priceless art and rare antiquities—a 16th-century French fireplace here, an ancient Greek vase there. In this lavish setting he entertained A-list luminaries, from Winston Churchill to Charlie Chaplin to Howard Hughes. Unbelievably, the castle was never finished, but as you gawk at its over-the-top lavishness, you’d never guess that.
WHERE: Washington DC
In a cityscape of neo-Greek white-marble monuments and beaux-arts edifices, you can’t deny that the faux-Norman castle on the National Mall stands out. Even stranger is the story behind the castle—that of British scientist James Smithson, who had never set foot in Washington, D.C., but bequeathed his vast fortune to the USA to found an establishment devoted to increasing and diffusing knowledge. Famous architect James Renwick designed the red-sandstone castle in 1855, complete with vaulted ceilings, arched doorways, rose windows, and towers. For the first few decades, the Smithsonian’s museum collections were housed here, along with lecture halls and admin offices. Of course, the Smithsonian legacy has grown far beyond these stone walls—now numbering 19 museums, including one in NYC. Today the castle, in all its regal splendor, serves as the Smithsonian’s visitor center, including a small exhibition with a sampling of objects from all the museums.
INSIDER TIPPay your respects to Mr. Smithson, who died in Italy in 1829 and whose body was moved to Washington in 1903; his crypt is located in a small room in the castle.
WHERE: Death Valley, CA
That there’s even a residence in the middle of freaking hot Death Valley is amazing enough. But the story behind this Mission Revival pseudo-castle is even stranger. Walter Scott was a crazy bloke who worked as a trick rider with Buffalo Bill’s show. But his most famous gig was selling shares to his “secret” gold mine, which worked fine until Chicago banker Albert Johnson insisted on accompanying him to the desert to see it for himself. They didn’t find any gold, of course, but Johnson declared that the dry weather improved his health. And so in 1922, he built Scotty’s Castle, with turrets and an enormous swimming pool. He didn’t mind that Scotty took up residence, who in turn told guests that he had built it himself, with his alleged gold profits. Today Scotty’s Castle is owned by the National Park Service and remains a tribute to one of the most outlandish con men around.