The castles of my imagination

The fortresses were built to project power, but they intrigue me for vastly different reasons.

Sue Wunder
Rapperswil Castle on Lake Zurich in Switzerland.

I’ve never been particularly impressed by castles, though they have served the dual purpose of protecting nobility and impressing the rest of us since medieval times. They dot (or exclamation point) parklands and rural landscapes worldwide, particularly where the topography invites a vantage – very handy before national identities took shape and united diverse and quarrelsome feudal realms. 

I am intrigued by castles, however: their stones, their architectural and cultural idiosyncrasies, their placement in terrains. Having just returned from a European vacation with my grandson, I lost no time exploring a Facebook post shared by a friend that included a list of “stunning” castles I “must see” in the United States.

I was curious if my personal favorites had made the list. One is the Smithsonian Institute, the red sandstone icon of the National Mall in Washington; another is the wonderfully medieval-looking Gillette Castle, built of New England fieldstone by the actor William Gillette, who won acclaim portraying Sherlock Holmes onstage a century ago. The castle is perched on a bluff above the Connecticut River, and a miniature railroad (alas, no longer operating) winds around the grounds. No two of its plethora of doors are alike, and the place is full of built-in nooks and ingeniously intricate puzzle locks designed by Gillette himself. 

Both structures did indeed make the grade, to my great satisfaction. So did one in my hometown of Rochester, N.Y., to my even greater nostalgic pleasure: good ol’ Warner Castle, constructed in 1854 as a home for John Warner, a banker and lawyer, using nearly two-foot-thick hand-hewn limestone blocks from a local quarry. Tucked into the undulating glacial topography of Rochester’s Highland Park (hey, I’m a geologist), Warner is a stone’s throw from the former home of one of my best girlhood friends. To say I know the castle well is an understatement.

Compared with the castles I visited this summer with Connor (Hohenneuffen, near Stuttgart, Germany, and the grandiose Rapperswil on Lake Zurich in Switzerland), Warner kind of pales. Despite its turrets, arches, and decorative corni­ces, it exudes a low-key presence easily missed amid giant trees on the western edge of a park. But as a childhood haunt it was unparalleled. 

The father of another childhood friend, then the city’s parks director, had an office in Warner, but the castle’s interior was not the big draw despite the fossil-riddled marbles of its vestibule. (My interest in fossils came later.) What we truly embraced as kids were the sunken gardens and cell-like storage vaults below, all dank stone and iron in the wild and semicultivated greenery. Of course, to us they were dungeons, darkly shadowed and wonderfully frightening. We regularly banished one another to 20-minute sentences in their gloaming, about all we could tolerate, whether in or out. Though we never found any balls and chains or even suggestions of real imprisonment – they were dungeons only in our minds, after all – this did not stop our pursuit of the macabre on those cool earthen floors.

Warner is simply a garden center and herbarium now, and disappointingly welcoming. But I keep going back in search of those memories, stepping up to the cool, gloomy gated recesses in Warner’s lower garden. Kids today are deprived: The cell gates are closed and locked, not ajar and darkly enticing. 

My latest visit to Warner this summer made me eager to visit at least a few of the other castles on the list of “must sees.” I’d like to find what dark corners and imaginative possibilities they offer. And next summer I hope to visit family in Connecticut and see Gillette’s again on its rocky hill, with its wonderful features of metamorphic geology.

All of which is to say that castles do impress me after all, just in ways they were probably not designed to.

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