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When your home is a castle

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Roger Declements likes to build his castles the medieval way.

He starts with stone – up to 1,000 tons of it – and then constructs two parallel walls. After years of work, sometimes an entire decade, these walls add up to what he considers “the most advanced, strongest and most comfortable” abode a person can have.

Highlands Castle, which overlooks Lake George in upstate New York: Interest in castles has grown thanks to the ... Highlands Castle, which overlooks Lake George in upstate New York: Interest in castles has grown thanks to the popularity of shows like “Downton Abbey” and “Game of Thrones”. Photo: Nathaniel Brooks/The New York Times

“If you want a secure home, you build a castle,” said Declements, whose company is called CastleMagic. And he has: five of them so far, in Washington, Utah and Idaho.

Unlike castles built centuries ago, his have insulation, modern plumbing and other such amenities, so that people will want to live in them – and pay in the neighbourhood of $US1 million to do so.

The great room in Highlands Castle, which is for sale for $US12.8 million. The great room in Highlands Castle, which is for sale for $US12.8 million.  Photo: Nathaniel Brooks/The New York Times

In the United States, where there are no authentic medieval castles, imitation ones are few and far between. But interest in them has grown, in part because of the popularity of books and shows like “Vikings,””Downton Abbey,””Game of Thrones” and the Harry Potter series.

“When people build castles in America, they’re fantasy structures,” said John Sexton, an associate professor of English, who focuses on medieval literature at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.

“True castles are defensive structures. They weren’t thought of as a comfortable place to live. You’re inside of them because there were people outside who wanted you dead.”

John Lavender II took the comfort-and-fantasy approach when he built a castle of his own. He put up a simple wood-frame structure and then hauled in hundreds of tons of stone, putting each one in place by hand.

A bedroom in Highlands Castle. A bedroom in Highlands Castle.  Photo: Nathaniel Brooks/The New York Times

Over the past 35 years, he has created an imposing stone redoubt on Lake George in upstate New York.

He has particularly fond memories of working with his son on the cottage. “We stoned that whole place in one summer together, working very hard on it,” he said.

Castle aficionados, particularly those who know a thing or two about the castles that dot the countryside of Europe, scoff at these Americanised versions of ancient European fortresses. Words like “Disney” and “confection” get bandied about to describe them.

But even on the other side of the pond, there has been an apparent resurgence of interest in castles among those with resources to spare.

“When we started doing castles four years ago, we started with 20 or 30,” said Michael Braunholtz, sales director of Prestige Property Group, a realty firm in London. “We could not believe the number of people who hit our page. It beat Monaco, St.-Tropez, Venice by a factor of two. The number of people looking for castles was colossal.”

He said his firm sometimes gets as many as 200 requests a week.

Royal price

While castles like Declements’ in the Pacific Northwest can be had for the price of a one-bedroom condo in Manhattan, Lavender’s life’s work, known as Highlands Castle, is listed for sale at the royal price of $US12.8 million.

Declements said he sold his last castle, on Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho, for about $US1 million, which he said was above the value of other homes in the resort area. He is building two new ones now, he said.

This not the first castle boom in the United States. In the early 20th century, men like William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper publisher, and Raymond Pitcairn, heir to a glass company fortune, built castles to house their collections of medieval art and tapestries.

“A lot of monuments in Europe were in ruins and easily exported, because there were no export duties,” said Martha Easton, assistant professor of art history and museum professions at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. “They wanted to put them in medieval castles, not any old house.”

For many buyers of existing castles, they are projects.

Tom Vozzella, a Realtor with Berkshire Hathaway Real Estate in Stamford, Connecticut, spent three years trying to sell a castle in the wooded, northern part of the city. The castle was built by Gustave E. Steinback, an early 20th-century architect, on the highest point of his 79-acre property.

Old world splendour

That was in 1906. In the intervening years, the castle had its ups and downs, and it was in need of serious renovations when it went on the market in 2011 for just over $US1 million.

“Functionally, it was a bit obsolete, as most of these castles are,” Vozzella said. “The kitchen was in the basement, and they had a dumbwaiter. Then they took a library and built a kitchen on the main floor. But there wasn’t even a bathroom there.”

He struggled to find a buyer until a local mason, impressed by the intricate stonework, bought it for $US625,000 in 2014, knowing he might spend twice that amount to update it.

High-end castles in Europe, with their Old World splendour, aren’t any easier to sell. Braunholtz said his firm has sold only a few castles, despite the hundreds of thousands of people who look at the listings online.

“The size, scale, price and the amount of money you’d need to maintain it removes a large part of the market,” he said. “You’re down to the top 2 per cent. Of those people, most would rather have a luxury ski chalet or a property with sea views in St.-Tropez.”

The New York Times

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