Many of our modern impressions of castles come from the dark, brooding chambers and cold, damp ramparts shown in Hollywood films. The heavily romanticized image of Disney World’s “Cinderella Castle” has given us an equally distorted view. Walt Disney based his fairy tale landmark on the sculpted peaks and soaring spires of 19th-century Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. But the truth is that, throughout the centuries, there have been as many different styles of castles as rulers who lived in them.
It was in the 11th century that our stereotypical view of castles really took hold. As William the Conquerer scored ruthless, crushing victories over England’s northern territory, he started constructing substantial castles of stone. These virtually impregnable defenses served to intimidate and control the peasant population of the countryside, and to stave off potential attacks from invading foreign armies.
William’s structures shared several common features. The tall central tower — or “keep” — was made of dense stone and constructed on steep earthen hills called “mottes,” placing his soldiers high above the ground where they could rain down arrows, boulders, and boiling oil on the enemy below. Capping the top of the castle walls (which could be 10 feet thick) and the keep were “battlements,” which produced the up-and-down, zigzag pattern that gives the Norman castle its signature imposing profile. Finally, William’s fortresses contained a “portcullis,” or heavy main gate made of iron or wood, which could be raised or lowered to allow friendly troops in — or keep hostile troops out.
These oversized fortresses have captivated the hearts of architecture buffs and romantics for generations. But what you may not know is that there are more than a dozen castles sprinkled throughout the Hudson Valley — some in plain sight, others more hidden. While most were built in the last 150 years as private homes, that does not diminish their grandeur. Here are stories I collected along the way while exploring some of our region’s own.
In 1867, the Hudson River School artist Frederic Edwin Church and his wife Isabel — accompanied by their one-year-old son, Frederic Joseph — set off on a two-year journey to Europe and the Middle East. After brief stays in London, Paris, and Marseilles, they headed east to Alexandria, Egypt. The family then remained in Beirut, Lebanon, while Frederic traveled on to Jerusalem and Petra, Jordan. Commenting on his trip to fellow artist Martin Johnson Heade several years later, Church wrote: “I like the houses. They are solid and capacious and are decidedly effective.”
The end result of this trip was Olana, Church’s Moorish-inspired castle near Hudson, which combines Persian artistry with Western practicality. Olana Castle’s central courtyard is surrounded and protected by thick, fortress-like walls, while its interior rooms reflect the complex designs of the Middle Eastern houses that Frederic Church so admired.
Conceived as a three-dimensional work of art (and as a home for his young family) the castle took Church nearly 30 years to build. He enlisted noted architect Calvert Vaux — who, along with Frederick Law Olmstead, designed Central Park — to help with the plans. Fashioned of stone and brick, the exterior is an Oriental red color, and boasts polychrome stenciling in patterns the artist himself created.
Inside, the castle looks just as it did during Church’s lifetime. The elaborate stenciling continues through to the interior of the house. Some of the exotic furnishings include objects collected by Church during his travels, as well as paintings by friends and associates. Olana also contains the last of Church’s studios, which was built as an addition in 1888-90.
I stand beneath the central tower of Olana Castle, which looms high over my head; the silence is palpable. Just over my shoulder is a view commensurate with heaven: The Hudson River stretches from the densely foliated foreground to the expansive reaches of the sun-bathed horizon. Here before me is the living realization of Church’s dream — a place of peace, grandeur, and self-discovery. Among the delicate inlaid mosaic designs of the cube-shaped tower lies Frederic Church’s message: that at Olana, the crossroads of two disparate cultures — East and West — meet.
Olana State Historic Site is located at 5720 Rte. 9G, Hudson. 518-828-0135
Castle Rock in Garrison sits high above Route 9D. With its multiple peaked spires and gray-stone facade, it is the better known of the two structures built here by the Osborn clan, since it can be seen from the road below. The Osborns sold Castle Rock in the early 1970s, but they still own Cat Rock Castle, my destination, which is hidden from view up Osborn Drive.
I begin the ascent over a wide dirt-and-gravel road and pull into the castle’s circular driveway, where I’m met by a tall, affable man. “Hi, Scott,” he says, extending his hand, “I’m Hank Osborn. Welcome to Cat Rock.” Hank — whom I learn is actually Frederick Henry Osborn IV — leads me around the side of the castle, where I am struck by a spectacular view of the Hudson River and West Point. I practically breathe the history as I envision George Washington looking down from this vantage point and assessing his military options.
But Cat Rock itself has its own storied past. William Henry Osborn, Hank’s great-great-great-grandfather, first spotted the land that would become the Osborn estate from the window of a Highland Falls asylum, where he was recovering from malaria. The first Osborn born in the U.S., William had amassed a fortune in the whaling industry, and purchased thousands of acres in the Hudson Highlands. The estate eventually shrank to 100 acres, but the Osborns’ wealth grew through the generations. In 1919, Hank’s great-great-grandfather hired a former Princeton classmate to design and build Cat Rock Castle. After being used as a weekend home, Hank’s great-grandparents made it their permanent residence in the 1970s. Now, Hank and his family live in another house on the grounds and rent out Cat Rock for weddings and photo shoots in order to maintain the estate.
Inside the castle are 28 rooms, half of which are bedrooms. Visitors enter through a grand entrance hall, which contains a staircase leading up to the second floor and the towers. The entrance hall flows into a 700-square-foot living room, which itself leads into an outdoor area with a tent, swimming pool, and tennis court.
Interestingly, the interior is barren of décor. Along the staircase are portraits of Hank’s ancestors, and photographs of the Osborns’ various residences grace the dining room walls, but beyond that there is little. Hank’s father, Frederick Henry Osborn III, later explains that the family keeps the castle free of keepsakes so that wedding parties feel as though the space is truly theirs. In the past, however, the rooms of Cat Rock were full of splendor.
Back outside, it becomes apparent that Cat Rock — with its chiseled stone facades, square central tower, crenellated battlements, symmetrically carved arches, uplifting gardens, and delightful swimming pool — was designed to provide a lifestyle of elegant comfort that is in touch with the elements of nature. “It is our goal,” explains Hank, “to make Cat Rock as green as can be, both figuratively and literally.” Indeed, the family has been committed to environmental causes for six generations; the Osborns were instrumental in founding the Palisades Interstate Park Commission and the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, among other organizations.
Cat Rock Castle is a hidden jewel of the Hudson Valley, just waiting to be discovered.
Cat Rock is located at 200 Osborn Dr., Garrison. The castle is not open for visitors, however if you are interested in holding a wedding or other event at Cat Rock, contact Hank Osborn at 646-734-5766.
Photograph by Lauren Golde
By Greg Ryan
While others may come in more artful and inventive variations, no castle in the Hudson Valley possesses the mystique of that on Bannerman Island. Located on a Hudson River islet three miles south of Beacon, the structure has ignited the curiosity of many a passing Route 9D driver and Metro-North rider. Fortunately, the castle’s back story is as interesting as its unorthodox location.
In 1900, a military-surplus dealer named Francis Bannerman bought the island with the intention of using it as a storage site for his business. Previously, Native Americans had believed the island to be haunted by goblins. But that didn’t stop Bannerman, a man with intense pride of his Scottish heritage, from designing and constructing a castle inspired by the fortresses of his native country.
What we know as “Bannerman’s Castle” is actually a series of buildings constructed by Bannerman over 20 years. The first structure built, the “first warehouse,” was quite simple, with the only elements of note being the crenellations atop the three-story brick walls. Subsequent buildings, such as the armory with the words “Bannerman’s Island Arsenal” molded into the masonry and the six-story stuccoed brick-and-fieldstone tower, assumed an increasingly castle-like appearance. The compound even includes a moat, complete with an arched gate and drawbridge to allow entry.
Bannerman died in 1918; his family sold the island to the State of New York in 1967. Two years later, a fire of unknown origin (spirits, perhaps?) severely damaged the castle and other buildings on the property. For decades, the island remained accessible only to adventurous boaters. Then, in 2004, the Bannerman Island Trust and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation began offering boating and walking tours of the site. The buildings are still unsafe to enter, but the trust is attempting to raise $350,000 to restore five of the island’s seven structures and return Bannerman Island to its former glory — if the goblins allow it, that is.
Boat and hard-hat walking tours of Bannerman Island are available through Hudson River Adventures. For schedule information and reservations, call 845-220-2120.
I hop into my van and head south toward the eclectic Hansel and Gretel-style edifice known as Wing’s Castle in Millbrook. After a short stint up the dirt-and-gravel path, I stumble upon Peter Wing just as I left him six months ago — sitting atop his beloved 1953 backhoe, named “Henry,” as he transports a writhen stone column to its intended destination. “Peter!” I call out to him. “Just how long have you been building this place?” His response: “Oh, for the last 40 years, or so…”
Toni, his stalwart wife, says that Henry belongs in the Smithsonian. In my mind, the whole place belongs in the Smithsonian. Wing’s Castle is a marvel of innovation and artistic sensibility. And Peter is an artist, in every sense of the word.
Those of us lucky enough to take the house tour (offered from early June through Labor Day weekend; $10 adults, $8 children under 12) are witness to Gothic spires, rough-hewn stone arches, a lengthy swimming pool that resides in its own moat, hidden passageways with private staircases that go to who-knows-where, and sculpted stone faces staring out at you. “Angels, griffins, Sisyphus — my wife yelling at me, immortalized in stone,” jokes Wing. A full 80 percent of Wing’s Castle is constructed from recycled materials that Peter has gathered from local railroad yards, factories, water towers, and any other source that will yield fodder for his fertile imagination. “It’s the anti-Martha Stewart,” he says.
“The dome of our small stone Buddha room comes from the bottom of an old water tower that I turned upside-down,” he tells me. “It looks like it’s made of copper, but it is in fact battleship steel, held together with iron rivets.” If this all sounds very industrial and “nuts-and-boltsy,” fear not: there is enough elegant art to soothe the savage beast, from Peter’s stained glass windows to the historic portraits, armor, swords, and figurines that grace the main house.
Forty years, I tell myself. It’s been 40 years of their lives that Peter and Toni have given to building a home for themselves and their children. Beyond that, they’ve also spent the last 18 years working on a two-room addition that will be a bed-and-breakfast when completed (hopefully this year). “I’m not going to be flipping eggs. But the whole idea is, basically, a Grimm’s fairy tale. There are plenty of Victorians to stay in, but there are no castles,” says Wing. “They’re going to feel like they’re not in New York State — or America — anymore.”
Peter Wing’s “invention” takes us on a journey of adventure and discovery, while at the same time connecting us with that fanciful part of ourselves which, these days, is too often suppressed. “Things from the past exist today,” Peter says fervently. “I mean, I have a dinosaur footprint that is 400 million years old — give or take 25 million years.”
A contented grin comes to my face. “You know, Peter, I believe you do.”
Wing’s Castle is located at 717 Bangall Rd., Millbrook. 845-677-9085.
Standing before the Lyndhurst castle, I am hit by the same stark silence I experienced at Olana. But Lyndhurst — which was designed as a country home by famed architect Alexander Jackson Davis in 1838, and named for the many linden trees on its 67-acre property, which were planted by second owner George Merritt in 1864 — speaks to an intense, stoic power not found in all of the castles I visit.
Three families eventually called Lyndhurst home — former New York City mayor William Paulding, merchant George Merritt, and railroad tycoon Jay Gould — before it opened to the public in 1965. Known for its asymmetrical outline and fanciful turrets, Lyndhurst is considered one of the greatest examples of early Gothic revival architecture in the country.
Within Lyndhurst’s thick walls, the main floor boasts a superb entrance hall, with vaulted ceiling sections, stone archways, and historic busts. The parlor room is comprised of a star-shaped vaulted ceiling, tea-service table, sofa and chairs, tall plants, paintings, and statues. But it is the dining room that is the grande dame of Lyndhurst’s main floor, with its central chandelier; intricately carved wooden alcove awnings; and long dinner table, resplendent with silver plate settings and crystal glassware. The high ceiling is of a stout wooden cane-pattern construction, and an ornate bay window allows in plentiful light at the head of the room. All the furniture here was also designed by Alexander Jackson Davis. “One of the fascinating things about the Davis-designed furniture is that he used a lot of the same vocabulary as the decorations on the outside. He’d reduce it in scale, and apply it to his furniture,” says Catherine Anders, assistant director of Lyndhurst. The wave-like wooden corbels Davis built along the roofline can also be found on the back of the chairs in the drawing room.
Upstairs where the families lived there are also several interesting rooms. The art gallery, bathed in white and accented in gold, still has the artwork that was purchased for Lyndhurst by Jay Gould — a rare example of a 19th-century collection intact. As you might expect, the Duchess’s guest bedroom is an exercise in opulent comfort and tasteful luxury, all geared to produce an atmosphere of light, delicacy, and tranquility. Featured in the room is a four-poster, canopied bed of dark, rich woods; a faceted, sky-blue ceiling; and an ensemble of chairs and writing desks, combining artistic design with everyday practicality.
Lyndhurst Castle is located at 635 South Broadway, Tarrytown. 914-631-4481.