Granite Camelots: A Look at Real New Hampshire Castles

>Your home is your castle, so they say. Some Granite Staters take that old saying quite literally. From the glorious excess of Castle in the Clouds to more humble do-it-yourself habitations like Castle Anam Cara in Barrington, the medieval bond between man and stone is still rock-solid.

Castle in the Clouds

Ayn Rand's famous fictional architect Howard Roark would never have consented to Tom and Olive Plant's proposed vision for their castle. Roark (and Rand) would have insisted that a Captain of Industry like Tom Plant (who made his fortune making shoes) build something that more aptly conveyed his status. Something that shot through the clouds, not something content to reside among them.

But it was the early 1900s and the Arts & Crafts movement had made its strong impressions on the world, and Tom and Olive were eager to build something that would allow them to retire, quietly and well, but without too much pomp. They would underplay their hand architecturally and the grandness they devised would speak more naturally from its vista. They loosely followed the principles of eclecticism, chose stone over concrete and maintained an aesthetic that balanced form with function.

The result is set high on Lee Mountain in the Ossipee Range. The sepia-toned Lucknow Estate, better known as Castle in the Clouds, presides over a broad forest pan that spreads toward the skylarking edges of Lake Winnipesaukee.

Following the Plants' requirements, the two-story mansion with swooping red-tiled hip roofs and dressed granite sides was designed to welcome, not impose.

Regardless, when Plant fell on hard times in 1934, he attempted to sell Lucknow in a way contrary to the gentle premise of his premises. In the full-color pamphlet he devised to push the sale, he wrote, "Lucknow is a country home for a man of big thoughts and ideas, who can enjoy big things in a big way."

A better shoe salesman than castle hawker, his popular "Queen Quality" shoes bore the slogan "Enduring Shapeliness and Longer Wear" and made him rich. But his appeal to the man with big thoughts who enjoyed big things in a big way fell on big deaf ears.

By the time of his death in 1941, Tom Plant was penniless, his downfall due almost entirely to the bad financial advice of his friend, and his hero, Theodore Roosevelt.

[Somewhere in all of this there's a riddle about how a Queen's shoes got the King his castle, if only he hadn't heeded the President.]

Steps into the Pastlocals call it the stairway to heaven but the mysterious ruins of Madame Sherri's chateau on a mountainside in Chesterfield is actually a portal to a gilded era. The former Ziegfeld Follies costumer held wild parties there for a colorful set of her big city friends. Once subject to vandalism, the property is now protected as the Madame Sherri Forest and is troubled only by ghosts.

Keene CastleThe best time to build something that doesn't make sense is probably as soon as possible. At least, that's what Lance Keene thought when he began working on Keene Castle in Thornton eight years ago.

He still knows where the first rock is and he visits it every week. "I let it jut out like that so I always know where it is," he says and pets it with the bottom of his boot.

We look at this first rock – a fractal-ish blueprint of his not-yet-there castle – and then gaze along the lines of stones and finally take in the whole rising phalanx of the terrace wall he built. Even when castles are young, like Lance's, they have the feel of ruins. Piles of pale stones. Old bones sticking out.

The first six rows are sloppy, the next six more streamlined. "You can see how I get better the higher the wall goes," he says with a smile.

His grand terrace is 14 feet high and extends 116 feet along the cliff wall and has northern views into Franconia Notch. Across a mile of valley air the terrace is visible from the summits of Welch and Dickey Mountains and shows itself as a faint white smile in the pines.

Lance wasn't a mason when he started but he is now. "When I explain this project to people, a lot of them just don't understand it. They think, 'A castle?' But I found a better way to explain it over the years; I tell people this is my life-long art project. And when I put it in that context they say, 'Oh, so you're an artist!' Then it seems to make sense to people."

When he first stepped out the cliff-face 13 or 14 years ago, the view took his breath away. "And still," he says, "Every single time I come out here, I have the same feeling. I look at this view and I say, 'Oh my gosh. This is incredible. This is the coolest place in the world!'"

There is no actual Keene Castle yet. There are plans and there are terraces and there is great intent – Lance works on his castle as hard as he can as often as he can. Lately, he's been re-grading the too-steep access road with the help of an old excavator. He's always piling and collecting stones, always hauling water up from the pond in the valley to keep his mortar pliant.

On those days when he's too tired to travel home, he'll sleep in the one-room cabin he built on the cliff.

"When will you move in?" is a question he hears all the time. "Soon," he always says.

But in one way, as an artist in the rocky throes of creation, he already has.

On Rice MountainProof that a castle is a thing of dreams, the mountaintop estate of Peter Van Dyk Berg and his wife Teddy, while designed and built by skilled artisans, was conceived in the mind of the owner, piece by piece. Along the way it evolved into a remarkable collection of four distinct but architecturally harmonic elements: Dudley Friedman House, the Peak House, the Norman Tower and the Tudor Tower, and numerous outbuildings, barns and additional features, all atop Rice Mountain in historic Walpole.

Peter, a retired lawyer from New York, had seen the tragic demolition of so many historic structures, victims of progress and economics in the city, so this magnificent estate was his way or preserving the past by creating it anew, using the artistry and adding, in his words, "a note of Gothicky whimsy."

The story of the creation process was captured in "The Accidental Architect," a sumptuous, photo-laden book by Jeffrey Simpson that chronicles Peter's Rice Mountain exploits.

Last year witnessed the release of a second book by Simpson on the estate, "Gardening on Granite," which features essays by famous Vermont stoneworker Dan Snow.

Both books are available from Rice Mountain Publications, P. O. Box 566, Walpole, NH 03608. Or if you want more than just a virtual encounter with the compound that the owners simply refer to as "The Mountain," the property is up for sale.

It's currently listed with Landvest, an exclusive affiliate of Christie's International Real Estate, at an asking price of $5.3 million.

Then again, "The Accidental Architect," is available from Amazon for about $57, so one way or another, Peter Van Dyk Berg's dream is affordable for just about everyone.

The Allure of Stone"I've never met a person who doesn't love stone," says Chance Anderson. Of course, many of the people he meets have employed him for the express purpose of installing, arranging or ornamenting stone for their homes or outdoor spaces.

His projects range from small art pieces a strong person could lift to entire boulders that require heavy equipment just to move.

Chance, an architectural stoneworker and sculptor from Canterbury, is famous for his ability to "relate" to stone in a way that overcomes its reputation as a hard, cold element. When he takes chisel or diamond saw to a piece of granite, his goal is to bring it to life. In fact, to him it was alive all along.

Residing in the Granite State just increases his conviction that such living rock, the bone structure of the land, is the magnet that lures people out of their shells of wood and glass in search of adventure. For more than 40 years his own travels in search of stone have taken him from the summits of Baffin Island to Nunavut and Arctic Canada and his resulting creations have a similar distribution, even appearing in the permanent collection in the New Hampshire Room of the Currier Museum of Art.

And of his journey, Chance says, "I am convinced that I have never traveled that path alone. The real collections of treasured stone artifacts lie deep within our ancestral heritage."

Extending that heritage into the modern world – "elevating the ordinary," he calls it – is his mission.

Sometimes the jobs he takes are whimsical, like the assortment of stone puzzles and perches he installed in Concord's Bicentennial Square. Sometimes they are brutal.

Invited to a home in Lake Placid, NY, he faced such a task. At first he rebelled at the landscape architect's suggestion he sculpt a stairway into "an impossibly hard anorthosite outcrop." But when he realized the degree of elegance and challenge it involved he said OK. He burned up about a half-carat of industrial diamonds on his hydraulic powered chain saw and rotary blades in the process. As you might imagine, such work doesn't come cheap. He says that the cost of the kind of stonework that was commissioned is comparable to buying a famous work of art, "… but they wanted steps in stone."

Art, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder, and there's every reason to believe that those steps carved into rock will delight beholders for thousands of years to come.

Castle Anam Cara"You must be here to shovel?" David O'Connor jokes as he ushers me into Castle Anam Cara, a neat two-story square of daubed stones capped with a turret ruffle.

The "Keep," as owners/builders David O'Connor and Loretta Salazar call it, is a medieval replica of a 10th-century Clan Castle on eight boulder-laden acres in Barrington.

Bunnies and barbells are the first thing you notice when your eyes adjust to the castle-y darkness inside. "This lower level is where the kitchen would have been in castle times," David tells me. "Now we use it to store wood and just about everything." A sword leans against one wall beside a pile of brain-teaser iron shards and various exercise belts.

David waves in genial wonder as the rabbits hop beside the barbell, as though there can be no easy explanation.

"If it's out of the box and unusual, I guess we do it here somewhere," he says.

We go upstairs into the open main room. The kitchen, dining room and bedroom share a single wide-wood floor. The master bed is enclosed in velvet-heavy curtains and fronted by a suit of armor. Light leaks through rear arrow slits. Wrought-iron sconces and hooks slip like shadows off the walls. In the center of the room a huge wooden chest houses their collection of artifacts. Roman coins, jewelry, pottery. A baseball-sized meteorite. A beautiful piece of vellum from an ancient book.

"I've been a life-long competitive athlete," David says, still explaining the disparities at Anam Cara. "I was a gymnast, a rock and ice climber, a power lifter and a tri-athalete for 20 years. Now I train people for endurance sports and help them get to the next level."

David is also an avid blacksmith. For her part, Loretta makes clothes and puppets, works the garden, teaches dance and tells stories. They fit together in many unlockable ways. Loretta's marionettes hang from the wrought-iron hooks David made and this seems a fair way to view their partnership.

A bounty hunter for 15 years, David also now trains people in wire walking, dangerous object juggling and how to use the iron forge in the blacksmith shop out back.

David also gives seminars on high-tech plant growing systems.

Inside their greenhouse, enclosed in a laboratory of Styrofoam and modern thought, is a thriving hydroponic garden of kale and herbs and other greens that uses very little energy, very little water. "I just have to check the chemistry every few days," he says. "Our goal here is to combine old techniques and new techniques."

It shouldn't make sense and yet it does. What is medieval glides into what is hydroponic without the seam of any intermediary. Despite the mid-dreamed arrangement of unalike projects underway, this is a peaceful and uncluttered world.

We have tea and homemade bread and blueberry preserves by a fire-murmuring stove and David tells me the castle's origin. "We didn't start with a piece of paper with all the dimensions," he says. "We basically started with the knowledge that we wanted to build a place that reflected our inner philosophy. We wanted to build a place that was quiet and conducive to inward travel philosophically and creatively. That reflected a connection to the land and self-responsibility."

Anachronism and discontinuity are in sympathetic league at Castle Anam Cara. A mood not just of ancient days, but of gathered different times, as though their home was a Noah's Ark of mysterious treasures, places to visit and pure possibility.

Searles CastleNot many of us have personal mottos, but Edward Francis Searles did.

"They say. What say they? Let them say." He liked to say.

One of the things they said was that his 1887 marriage to Mary Hopkins, possibly the wealthiest widow in America, was a sham. True, it was not a union of long duration or great romance and Edward was almost certainly gay. But as Mary later reported, she found in Edward a "kindred spirit" and left him the bulk of her vast fortune when she died.

Born on a farm, Edward found his first success as an interior decorator in New York. This put him in touch with a gilded society he labored to join. He took to wearing the finest clothes and cultivated the manner of an English gentleman. When he met, and married, without much trouble and very little wooing, Mary Hopkins, it seemed that he had finally arrived.

When he began building his castle in Windham in 1905, Edward suggested that he was upholding a family tradition. Though meant to be a scale replica of his progenitors' medieval Tudor manor in Oxfordshire, England, he didn't have much to work with – the original Stanton Harcourt castle had been destroyed in the 18th century.

Thus the final castle in Windham bears very little resemblance to the departed family manor in Oxfordshire. What Edward created, with the granite, fieldstone and red sandstone from his own quarries, was a kind of fairytale palace, with arches and bridges and stocked ponds, loaded with blocky turrets and regal towers.

The castle interior was equally flourished. While Edward used only the best craftsman to finish the paneled walls and tiled floors, he also introduced extravagances from afar. The reception room entryway was fitted with coveted doors from Windsor Castle in Berkshire, England. The gold inlaid marble fireplace in the living room had once warmed Napoleon in his Tuileries Grand Palace in Paris.

Whether farm boy Edward ever felt like King Searles while sitting by Napoleon's old fireplace is difficult to say. Living at a time when his sort of person was not welcome in the very society he wished to keep, he let his nature and hidden self speak through the fantasy of his creations.

"They say. What say they? Let them say."

They could say all they wanted. He would do as he pleased. As with his marriage, so with his life, building the castle was just one more of Edward's attempts to leap into a better world he hoped would have him.

Yankee SeigeNot so much a castle as a target, this turreted structure in the fields of Greenfield is part of what has to be one of the largest pieces of folk art in the country. Local farmer Steve Seigars once catapulted pumpkins from his trebuchet toward the structure to the delight of tourists.

Can't Afford a Castle?Five Homes You Can Get for (About) $300K

The average listing price for a home in New Hampshire was about $190,000 according to figures available at the start of 2013. But who wants an "average" home? As the country pulls out of a real estate slump that has lasted for most of a decade, it's possible to purchase a home that was once worth more than half a million for the more imaginable price of around $300,000. So to indulge your real estate dreams, that's where we've set our sights.

Here are five homes, each one in an iconic region of the state, each one with a story to tell and each one in reach of the above-average income earner.

1525 Rte. 140, Gilmanton

4,745 sq. ft., $399,000

Ready to move into. Classic contemporary with loads of room to spread out. Gourmet kitchen with oversized island, huge pantry and fireplace. French doors, custom woodwork, gorgeous master with jet tub/separate shower, den, bonus room, the list goes on. Great private setting with sweeping views, brick pathways and lovely gardens. make this a special place to call home

Agent: Judy McShane, Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, (603) 524-2255

85-87 Shawmut St., East Concord

2,138 sq. ft., $269,900

This two-family home can provide rental income to help a homeowner pay the mortgage and offers a warm country feeling home with wide pine floors and a big country kitchen complete with wood stove. All systems – roof, windows, septic, electrical, plumbing and heat – have been updated. It's situated one minute from I-93 on more than an acre with a turtle pond right up the street and a brand new state-of-the-art elementary school nearby.

Agent: April Dunn, Prudential Verani Realty

(603) 724-6505 1877 Islington St., Portsmouth

2,349 sq. ft., $319,000

The house is four-bedroom, three-bath residence on a 1/4-acre corner lot. Built in 1953 some of the stand-out details include hardwood floors, arched doorways and corner cabinets in dining room. Updates include new roof, new windows, new garage door, new boiler and new kitchen, all within the last six years. Other features include low-maintenance vinyl siding, a fenced-in back yard and a one-car garage.

Agent: Jim Mills, RE/MAX By The Bay, (603) 501-3825

19 Grandview Dr., Berlin

3,051 sq. ft., $269,900

Enjoy fabulous panoramic mountain views of three separate mountain ranges from the living room or deck of this impressive 3,000+ sq. ft. four-bedroom, turn-key contemporary home. Featuring a newly remodeled granite countertop kitchen, vaulted ceilings, a beautiful fireplace, an in-ground pool, a separate insulated two-car garage, a family/exercise room in the basement and more.

Agent: Roland Turgeon, Coulombe Real Estate, (603) 752-7535

119 School Street, Keene

2,815 sq. ft., $249,900

Have you always dreamed of living in a classic Victorian mansion with a great in-town location, but the price put it out of your reach? This gracious home needs a little polish, but that makes it affordable. The elegance of its life shines through, with the glorious front wrap-around porch, tall tin ceilings, fireplaces and original wood floors. Formal as well as casual features abound here, from the butternut paneling in the formal dining room to the detached two-story barn, suitable for more storage or a teenage haven. Easy walk to shopping, restaurants, and entertainment.

Agent: Bruce Murphy, HKS Associates, (603) 352-6030