These days, “Escaping from America” is not necessarily as comfortable, affordable or interesting as “Escaping to America.” Unusual residences, quaint towns, and, especially these days, bargain properties are as numerous in the United States as they are outside it. And what could be a more unusual residence than a castle?
You certainly find castles in the oddest places.
My latest find was in Medina, Ohio, where an American residence long shrouded in local mystery and covered for ages by overgrown ivy and shrubbery recently changed hands after the death of its 98 year old owner. The property’s new owner, a man of august years himself, moved quickly to make the structure properly and proudly visible from the road. The place long known by locals as “The Castle” soon sprang to life in all its glory as what it truly was: a castle!
Nestled among 70 acres of rich Ohio farmland, “The Castle” and its five outbuildings stand in stark contrast to other local architecture. Located just a few miles outside the town of Medina, Ohio, which is known for its historical Greek Revival and Federal style architecture, “The Castle” defies local style, but holds true to its builder’s vision.
“As a boy, Walter Russell dreamed of living in a castle. After studying medieval design and brushing up on building trades, Walter and his wife, Ilona, built their own castle over a period of five years beginning in the late 1940s,” writes John Gladden in an article from the Medina Gazette, Oct. 28, 2010. According to the new owner, in the 1940’s, “The Castle” was a showplace, full of the latest in design and amenities, as well as home to the myriad antiques Russell had collected from years of travel and trade. The residence was a place of culture and refinement, parties and festivities. Rumor has it that even the famous film actor Spencer Tracy once visited the house.
Nothing much in “The Castle” has changed since it was built. In fact, the current owner can’t imagine anyone would want to do more than update the wiring or plumbing. Stepping inside the residence is like stepping into a time portal. The kitchen still sports an unusual round countertop access dishwasher of a type most women under 70 years of age likely have never seen. The house’s marble countertops, spray jet shower and finished basement with a security system and intercom were all marvels back in the day. The closets, all still fragrant cedar, allow for excellent protection from moths. The floors throughout the house are made almost entirely of oak. Most of the walls and ceilings are finished in wood that was cleared from the original farm property, including maple, walnut, ash and pine.
Looking through the 3,400 square foot house, I was amazed at how structurally sound it remains after 65 years. The block foundation and brick exterior betray no signs of cracking, leaking or even wear. Despite the years of overgrown ivy, the mortar between the bricks remains pristine and completely intact. The extensive wood coverage of all floors, most walls and ceilings remains in excellent condition, although some wood soap and polish would serve to bring them back to original luster. The massive stone fireplaces in the basement, living room and cabin are awe-inspiring. Built with rocks from all over Ohio, brought to the Russells by friends and neighbors, these gigantic mountains of stone were designed by Russell to emit maximum heat, obviously an improvement over any true medieval design.
The two round saw-toothed towers visible from the front of the house extend below ground. Each one is about 8 feet across. Inside the house, the towers create unusually attractive spaces in the living room, the master bedroom and the basement entertainment area,. Beautiful stained glass windows highlight the decorative spaces created by the turrets, including the one in the master bedroom that makes an ideal space for a small reading area or for a dressing table.
In fact, the residence has a considerable number of exterior stained glass windows and extensive leaded glass display and liquor cabinets inside. One room, rife with these display cabinets, carries its own interior signage “The Castle Bar.” Besides a whimsical mosaic footrest at the bottom of the long counter, the wall behind the bar features not only storage shelves, but also the most de rigueur item in all medieval castles: secret panels to hide valuables.
Of course, what might have been valuable to the Russells’ might be beyond the modern imagination. Mrs. Russell, a well-known antiques dealer in the 1950’s and 1960’s, used some of the leaded glass cases in her basement for the display of fragile items. However, she also had two custom made wooden display cabinets that still stand in one of the many basement rooms, which doubled as an antiques store and an entertainment area. Although once offered almost $10,000 for these beautiful handmade cabinets, Mrs. Russell declined the offer thinking they were made-to-fit for the space and might be of use to a future resident.
As to improvements over the years, Mrs. Russell installed a cost-efficient boiler twelve years ago that keeps the house toasty warm when the fireplaces aren’t used. In fact, on the cold and blustery November day I visited, the inside temperature was set at 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Despite whipping cold winds outside, the inside of “The Castle” was warm and completely without drafts, another vast improvement on how medieval castles must have felt in the winter. Also, the new owner has rebuilt an outside balcony and put on a new waterproof coating to the flat roof nestled below the level of the turrets.
While the five car garage is built into the side of “The Castle” and entered through a driveway that sweeps to the side of the house between old pines, each of the five other outbuildings has its own purpose. These wooden buildings include: a barn/stable, a boat house complete with its own turret nestled at one end of a three acre lake, a cabin, a large workshop to accommodate any hobby imaginable, and a potting shed. The outbuildings, as well, were all designed and constructed by Mr. Russell.
The cabin, which sits no more than ½ acre away from the main house, was designed for entertaining friends and clients. Having worked in the early days at Ohio Bell, Russell had access to wooden cross pieces of old telephone poles. These pieces, which are about 3 inches square and up to 8 feet long, layered one on top of another, make up the bulk of the cabin. The size of the cabin and its wooden floor makes it perfect as a dance space or, perhaps, a bunkhouse. Just like the main house, the cabin is as solid as a rock.
The house and surrounding 70 acres are for sale, but in the current U.S. economy the market for a castle in this local area has been small. In fact, the market in northeast Ohio is so constricted at this point, the real estate promotional material on the house touts “Make an Offer on this Estate.” From an outsider’s perspective, it’s almost hard to understand why locals would pass this up. Although Ohio has the questionable distinction of a state with a high tax burden, the property taxes on “The Castle” are minimal due to the fact that a nearby farmer, for years, has been growing soybeans on most of the land. Once categorized as “agricultural property,” the taxes on Ohio farm land can reach zero.
“The Castle’s” current owner is willing to sell the land and buildings in small parcels or all as one piece, depending on the interest of potential buyers.
In my opinion, “The Castle” could be a wonderful residence or a perfect investment property. While making an ideal setting for a Bed & Breakfast, other possibilities easily come to mind. Such a place would be the perfect summer or winter playground for a private overseas school or university looking for an American vacation spot for its pupils in a town named by Money magazine as one of the “America’s Best Small Towns.” Properly fitted out, the house and cabin could house up to 20 to 30 students. The grounds could be turned to riding or sports, the lake used for boating and water skiing. However, to keep the property taxes low, the grounds could be left to farming and Northeast Ohio’s many nearby parks, lakes, hunting areas and resorts could be used to keep students entertained while being introduced to the United States.
Just to name a few important places of interest visitors or residents can enjoy within 50 miles of “The Castle”:
More localized sites of interest and events include:
Art in the Park
These days, “Escaping from America” is not necessarily as comfortable, affordable or interesting as “Escaping to America.” Unusual residences, quaint towns, and, especially these days, bargain properties are as numerous in the United States as they are outside it.
Anyone interested in viewing the house for possible purchase or investment can contact Elaine Kress at email@example.com or at 330-571-2986.
About the author: Visit Tracy Zhang online at http://www.charliebear.etsy.com or read about her adventures in China at “Taking the Long Way Home” in the November 2009 issue of Escape From America or “Middle Eastern Fortunetelling in Shanghai” in the April 2010 issue of Escape from America.