12 Awe-Inspiring American Castles
You don't have to travel to Europe to indulge your royal fantasies—it turns out we have towering turrets, secret passageways, and medieval moats aplenty right here at home, not to mention some fascinating stories about how these great houses came to be.
Castello di Amorosa
Word to the wise: Imbibe the cabernet sauvignon and pinot grigio at the Castello di Amorosa winery carefully, because somewhere in the 121,000-square-foot, 107-room, eight-level complex there's a dungeon with a functional Renaissance-era iron maiden. It took 14 years to construct the castle using historically accurate medieval building techniques. The end result is an "authentic" 12th- and 13th-century Tuscan castle with drawbridge and moat. The frescoes in the Great Hall and Knights' Chamber are hand-painted, some 8,000 tons of Napa Valley stone hand-chiseled, the Hapsburg-era bricks, hand-forged nails and chandeliers, and 500-year-old fireplace all tediously imported from Europe. That sense of awe? Very modern. 4045 N. St. Helena Highway, Calistoga, CA, 707/967-6272, castellodiamorosa.com. Admission $18, including wine tasting.
What do you do when you come across a heart-shaped isle while vacationing with your wife in the Thousand Islands? If you're upstart industrialist George Boldt, you buy it and hire 300 stonemasons, carpenters, and artists to build a six-story, 120-room testament to your love. There were Italian gardens, a dove-cote, and a turreted powerhouse, plus all the imported Italian marble, French silks, and Oriental rugs money could buy. But when his wife Louise died in 1904, the heartbroken Boldt ceased construction on the Rhineland-style Taj Mahal and left it to the elements for 73 years. Today, tourists can visit from May to October for self-guided tours—or book a wedding in the stone gazebo. +44° 20' 40.29" N, -75° 55' 21.27" W, Heart Island, Alexandria Bay, NY, 315/482-9724, boldtcastle.com. Admission $8.
It's elementary: Get famous (and rich) by playing Sherlock Holmes on the stage; build your own Baskerville Hall. Pet project of campy eccentric William Hooker Gillette, the 24-room castle was completed in 1919 by a crew of 20 men over five years using the actor/playwright's own drafts and designs. It's also the focal point of his 184-acre Seventh Sister estate, a forested bluff overlooking the Connecticut River. Outside, the local fieldstone reads like crumbling medieval; inside, the built-in couches, curious detailing, and inventive hand-carved southern white oak woodwork is all arts and crafts. As for cat images? There are 60. (Gillette had 17 feline friends.) Gillette Castle State Park, 67 River Rd., East Haddam, CT, 860/526-2336, ct.gov. Grounds open year-round; interior tours available Memorial Day to Columbus Day. Admission $6.
Second behind Asheville's Biltmore as the largest private estate in the nation, OHEKA—an acronym of Otto Herman Kahn, its millionaire financier original owner—ended up abandoned in the late 1970s and sustained extensive damage from fires, vandals, and neglect. After a 20-year renovation, it's back in form and is now a 32-room luxury hotel. Think Downton Abbey just an hour from Manhattan (themed packages available), or for that matter, Citizen Kane (photos of it were used in the film). Originally set on 443 acres, massive tons of earth were moved to make the hilltop location of the 127-room, 109,000-square-foot manse the highest point in Long Island. The Olmsted Brothers planned the formal gardens, the Grand Staircase was inspired by Fontainebleau's famous exterior one, and 126 servants tended to the six-person family when they came for weekends and summers. The 1919 price tag: $11 million. That's $110 million in today's money. Sounds about right for a man whose likeness inspired Mr. Monopoly. 135 West Gate Dr., Huntington, NY, 631/659-1400, oheka.com. Admission $25. Double rooms from $395 per night. Guided tours available.
Of all the Gilded Age Victorians built by Nicholas Clayton along Galveston's Gulf Coast, the Bishop's Palace (née Gresham Castle, 1893, after its original owner, Santa Fe railroad magnate Walther Gresham) remains the grandest—and not just because its steel and stone hulk survived the Great Storm of 1900. Its small lot and oversized proportions with château-esque detailing of steeply peaked rooflines and sculptural chimneys still dominate the street, while inside the 14-foot coffered ceilings, 40-foot octagonal mahogany stairwell, stained glass, plaster carvings, and Sienna marble columns exude richness. Keep a lookout for the bronze dragon sculptures. After serving as a Catholic bishop's residence for 50 years, the house is now open for tours. Book a private guide to see the usually off-limits third floor. 1402 Broadway, Galveston, TX, 409/762-2475, galveston.com. Admission $10, private tours from $50.