A long and colorful tale can be told about the origins of this historic Vermont mansion.
By Pamela Selbert
Wilson Castle, a 19th-century architectural gem near Rutland, Vermont, in the Green Mountains, is as unexpected as it is grand. Descriptions fail to adequately describe it. The literature also fails to note that the castle, built of red brick imported from England, with 32 rooms, a bevy of turrets and parapets, Roman-arched windows and doorways, and more, was the “dream home” of a flimflam man.
His name was John Johnson, and he began practicing medicine based on questionable science in England in the mid-19th century, said our tour guide, Bernie Miles. Johnson, whose “medicine” included the use of hypnotism and magnets, had visited New England in the early 1860s, fell in love with the lush landscape, and longed to buy land there.
“He dreamed of being a gentleman farmer,” Miles said. “But one small problem stood in his way: he didn’t have the resources.”
So the good doctor chose a patient with significant money, an eccentric woman named Sarah Robbins, and married her. He was then able to buy 115 acres in the beautiful, steeply sloped Green Mountains of central Vermont. The castle grounds are thickly statued with trees, among them half a dozen magnificent cottonwoods that measure more than four feet in diameter.
Johnson positioned his dream home halfway up one mountain, with rare views of other mountains to the east, rank upon rank of misty blue, cone-shaped peaks. He could hardly have chosen a lovelier site for the castle, the overall design of which is Flemish.
Work began on the mansion in 1867 and continued for seven-and-a-half years. The carpentry was completed by German and Italian craftsmen, and the stenciled walls and ceilings were painted by Italians. By then Johnson had managed to spend $1.3 million of his wife’s money, and his “country manor” was still not finished.
“But Sarah’s family was getting concerned about the amount of money being poured into the project, and two of her brothers came from England to see what was going on,” said our guide. “They realized, of course, that she was being taken, and insisted she divorce Johnson immediately.”
Sarah was sent to stay briefly with relatives in Connecticut, and it’s likely she never set foot in the castle. Without Sarah’s money “” she soon went back to England, and died the same year, 1874 “” work on the castle ground to a halt, leaving the third floor unfinished. By this time the complex included 14 buildings, including stables, two carriage houses, and a cattle barn. Nine of the buildings are still standing.
Johnson remained on the premises until 1876, then moved to the nearest town, Proctor. Between then and 1939, when wealthy Missourian Herbert Wilson, a radio station developer, purchased the property, the house was bought and sold several times.
For a few years in the 1890s, the basement under the servants’ quarters (the castle itself has no basement) was used as a prison. Shackles still hang from the marble walls.
Wilson became intrigued with the castle and bought it for $12,000 in the waning days of the Great Depression. In 1941 he renovated the structure, added electricity and modern plumbing (the original plumbing involved a collection site on the roof and a gravity feed), and converted the coal furnace to oil. Then, when the United States entered World War II, he joined the Army as a member of the Signal Corps, leaving behind his wife, Helen, and two daughters, Lois Klein (who died in 1966), and Blossom Davine, who still lives on the premises.
Wilson stayed in the army after the war and retired in 1952 a lieutenant colonel. During his years abroad he invested many dollars in antiques and other collectibles that decorate the house today. Between 1953 and 1961, Wilson was mayor of Brown City, Michigan, and only spent summers with his family at the castle. In 1962 he returned permanently, moved the family to the servants’ quarters, and began giving tours of his home. This soon became the family business. Then, as now, approximately 150 visitors come to the castle each day throughout the summer. Tours are offered daily from Memorial Day through October 25.
The castle already had an interesting past, but according to our tour guide, Wilson was quite the storyteller, and invented wild tales. In one story, Wilson told of being attacked by a wild 400-pound boar in Italy. No one today knows what really happened, but a boar’s head decorates the wall in the library.
Wilson died in 1981 at the age of 82. He left the castle to Blossom, and her daughter, Denise, now runs it.
Miles said that although he has led many tours of the castle, he never ceases to be amazed by the grand scope, exquisite workmanship, and attention to detail. He began the tour by pointing out the paneling in the dining room, Italian Renaissance-style quarter-sawn oak, and the fireplace that features carved lions and “turned” columns.
Across the hall, the Grand Reception Hall is paneled with mahogany from Honduras. An opal-like glass chandelier hangs from the ceiling, and in one corner stands a large brass chime, which Wilson had bought while serving in China. When struck with the mallet that hangs from its frame, a loud “gong” resonates throughout the castle.
Acid-etched windows in the hall feature the likeness of a knight holding a halberd, and other medieval themes. Here also is the only fireplace of the castle’s 13 that is still used.
The tour continued to the second floor, past elegant wood paneling along the stairs, and stained-glass windows in gorgeous colors on the landing. (In all, the house has 84 stained-glass windows.) Over the staircase, the ceiling is decorated with 30 “grotesque” faces. The master bedroom features paneling of bird’s-eye maple and delicately painted ceilings. In the children’s room is a lovely cherry wood fireplace with red-brown tiles.
The third floor, we were told, was never quite completed, but a ballroom, bedrooms, and a reception hall were planned. The tour returned to the first-floor library, which is paneled with beautiful carved black cherry wood from Scotland; and the French Renaissance-style drawing room, which features a Louis XIV marble table, a Louis XV crown jewel case, and many other elegant items. The castle is worth visiting if only for its sumptuous furnishings.
Ten rooms are included in the tour, among them the former solarium, a huge room with a 34-foot-high ceiling and skylight that Wilson converted to an art gallery.
Outside the gallery, the L-shaped veranda features a stunning floor of basket weave marble in red, white, and black; a beamed ceiling; and seven Roman-style brick arches. A “leveling swing” dating from the 1860s is original to the house. It’s a four-foot-square platform that moves horizontally, not in an arc, so it could be used by “proper ladies.”
The castle’s exterior has turrets of “pounded-out” lead with slate shingles, decorative brickwork, terra-cotta flower patterns over the windows, and much more. But describing it can hardly do it justice. Wilson Castle really must be seen to be appreciated.
Wilson Castle is located on West Proctor Road, off of U.S. 4 west of the Rutland, Vermont, business district. It is open daily from late May until October 31, from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Guided tours last approximately 45 minutes. The last tour is at 5:30 p.m.
Admission is $8 for adults, $7.50 for seniors and AAA members, and $4 for children ages 6 to 12. Children under age 6 are admitted free.
For more information, phone (802) 773-3284; e-mail [email protected]; or visit www.wilsoncastle.com.