Castles are one of the prime tourist attractions of Europe and the Middle East. These romantic fortresses and royal homes make for great photographs and fascinating reading. They offer an insight into history and are an easy sell to kids. But you don’t have to cross the Atlantic to see them. Back around the turn of the last century, there was a boom in the number of millionaires in Canada and the United States. Industry was expanding and fortunes were being made, for some. It was called the Gilded Age, golden for the rich, rotten for the working class. The new millionaires, many of whom started from modest circumstances, wanted to show off their wealth, and what better way to do that than to build a castle? After all, the rich in Europe had them. Castles starting popping up all across North America. And now, many of these exclusive playgrounds for the rich are open to visitors.
(above) Casa Loma and part of its garden. Photo courtesy flickr user InSapphoWeTrust.
Familiar to every local schoolchild, Casa Loma (pictured above) is one of Toronto’s best-loved landmarks. This stately home was built by Sir Henry Pellat in 1914. Sir Pellat was one of a handful of millionaires who were said to “own” Canada. He made vast sums wiring Toronto for electricity and speculating in mining and other businesses. He poured much of his fortune into making his dream castle. The final price was $3.5 million, more than $40 million in today’s dollars.
Hallways of Italian marble lead to oak-paneled libraries filled with rare books, a soaring Great Hall that looks like something out of the Middle Ages, and a conservatory with a huge stained-glass skylight. Every room is filled with antiques, including Louis XIV furniture and suits of armor. There’s even an exact replica of the Coronation Chair from Westminster Abbey, where monarchs are crowned, as well as the Stone of Scone, the legendary coronation stone of Scottish kings.
Sadly, Pellat only got to live in his castle for a few years before unwise investments and an economic slump left him deeply in debt. He had to sell off Casa Loma. It was eventually reopened as a tourist attraction in 1937 and is a popular wedding venue and school field trip. The castle is also a favorite for filmmakers, with rooms being used in scenes in movies from Robocop to X-Men.
Classical statues in the English garden at Thornewood. Photo courtesy Joe Mabel.
While Sir Pellat was building a replica castle in Toronto, millionaire Chester Thorne of Tacoma, Washington, was getting the real thing. In 1907, he bought a 400-year-old Elizabethan manor in England, dismantled it, and reassembled it on a beautiful spread of land by American Lake with a stunning view of Mount Rainier. It was all a gift for his beloved wife.
Thorne had an eye for period detail. The windows are Renaissance stained glass from European churches. The main oak staircase is older than the home itself and constructed in a medieval style that uses no nails.
Unlike Sir Pellat, Thorne kept his money and lived in his castle the rest of his life, cared for by 40 servants, plus 28 gardeners who tended the English garden that will make you feel like you’re at Hampton Court, not the outskirts of Tacoma!
While Thornewood Castle remains a private home, it offers a bed and breakfast and weddings.
Castello di Amorosa. Photo courtesy Dhinal Chheda.
Castello di Amorosa Winery
Of all the North American castles, this one is the most authentic. Ironically, it’s also the most recent. It was built in the style of a 13th century castle from Tuscany by the owners of V. Sattui Winery near Calistoga, California, in the famous Napa Valley. It makes for an unusual stop on your wine tour.
So many faux medieval buildings turn out to be cheesy, but here the builders got it right. Standing in the main courtyard, you feel like you’re in one of the medieval castles of rural Italy, so much so that it comes as a bit of a shock to ascend one of the towers and see the parking lot right outside. The Great Hall is hits the eye with elaborate medieval scenes vividly painted on the walls. The people of the Middle Ages loved bright colors and would have felt at home here. There’s also a functioning Catholic chapel, a moat complete with drawbridge, and even a torture chamber for those who complain about the wine.
Like all good castles, it’s supposed to be haunted and there is, of course, a ghost tour. Considering Castello di Amorosa was completed in 2007, this must be the youngest ghost on record!
Aerial view of Boldt Castle. Photo courtesy Teresa Mitchell.
Another fine replica of a castle is found on Heart Island, one of the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York. This one has a sad story attached to it. Back in 1900, the millionaire George Boldt, owner of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, decided to built a fairytale castle for his wife. Sadly, Boldt’s wife died in 1904 before it was finished. Boldt called the workmen and told them to put down their tools.
For 73 years the castle deteriorated until it was purchased and lovingly restored by the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority. Now Boldt Castle draws visitors from both sides of the border who visit many of the 120 rooms, look out from the towers for lovely views of the river, and stroll in the Italian gardens. The restoration crew was careful to furnish the rooms the way Boldt had originally intended in a refined fin de siècle style.
Boldt Castle is available for weddings and the local yacht club is popular for New York’s and Canada’s well-to-do, who enjoy plying the waters around Heart Island and examining the castle’s rare steam-powered yacht from 1892. Renovations are continuing, so if you’ve already visited this compelling attraction, it’s worth a repeat visit.
The Roman pool at Hearst Castle. Photo courtesy Wikipedia user King of Hearts.
Of all the millionaires of the Gilded Age, the greatest had to have been newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who brought entertainment and news to the masses with sensational yellow journalism. He fomented war fever against Spain in 1898 and then made millions selling newspapers about the fighting. He was the model for the millionaire in Citizen Kane.
Near the end of his life he built this imposing modern castle of 165 rooms set within more than 125 acres of gardens and pools atop a wooded hill just outside San Simeon, California. Completed in 1947, Hearst Castle is like something from another time. Grandiose buildings such as this were things of the previous generation, but Hearst never did anything by half measures.
There are two vast, Classical-style pools, one inside and one outside, that look like something from a Roman emperor’s palace. The Gothic study has a vaulted wooden ceiling with Medieval-style paintings. The rooms are stuffed with Heart’s vast collection of art, with fine examples of ancient Egyptian statuary, Renaissance religious paintings, and a floor covered in a genuine Roman mosaic. The dining room is paneled in wood from early European churches and features Renaissance tapestries.