This man's castle could be your home

Auction: It may not be the Taj Mahal, but it, too, was built for love. Now the Berkeley Castle in West Virginia, is being sold to the highest bidder. We're guessing he or she will love it, too.

September 02, 2000|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. -- If you've ever wanted to live like royalty, here's your chance: Berkeley Castle is going on the auction block.

No, not THE Berkeley Castle. This pile of West Virginia sandstone is a scaled-down knockoff of the famed English fortress where King Edward II was murdered in the 14th century.

But the 12-room, turreted mansion overlooking one of America's first resorts has a colorful, if slightly shorter, history of its own.

Built more than a century ago by a wealthy Maryland businessman to woo a young bride, Berkeley Castle has been one of this picturesque town's top tourist attractions, next to the warm springs where George Washington and his gentrified peers once bathed.

Hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world have paid $5 each to listen to a tape-recorded account of the castle's history and peer through grates into dark, wood-paneled rooms furnished with antiques and 19th century knickknacks. Scores of couples have rented it out for weddings.

Now, with the death earlier this year of the castle's most recent owner, Walter M. Bird, his widow and son are selling the landmark and all its furnishings today in separate auctions.

"I'm going to take the tradition and divide it up among the public and let them take [pieces of] it away with them," says Walter M. Bird Jr., who grew up here donning a period costume to shepherd tourists around.

Bird, 49, now a truck driver living in Warrenton, Va., says the castle and its contents are being sold to support his 84-year-old mother, Elva, who lives in a Washington-area nursing home.

More than 150 prospective buyers have trooped through the castle since its sale was announced, and about 100 bidding brochures have been handed out. But how many actual bidders there will be is "a flip of the coin," says Valaria DeVine, president of Great Estates Auction Co., the North Carolina firm handling the home sale.

Although guarded about identifying possible bidders, DeVine did say the property has drawn the attention of historic preservation enthusiasts, businesses looking for a corporate retreat and at least one group of ghost-hunters who expressed interest in converting it to an institute for the study of the paranormal.

No one has died in the castle that anyone can recall, but local folklore has sprung up about ghosts roaming the halls, and the museum has even catered to the legends with special spook-seeing tours.

"In the bidding, the ghost is included, no extra charge," DeVine says.

Anyone wanting the castle, or a piece of it, needs to get a move on. Registration for the home auction begins at 9 a.m., with bidders required to present a $25,000 certified check as a deposit. Bidding on the furnishings begins at 10 a.m., and the house itself will be sold at 11 a.m.

As with many such auctions, the house is offered "where is, as is." Although appraised by the Morgan County assessor as worth $387,500, the castle and its 3.75 terraced acres will go for the highest bid, even if it is far less than the appraisal.

"It's a risk, but it's a risk that needs to be taken," says the younger Bird as the last crop of tourists wanders through on Wednesday before the museum closes to prepare for the auction.

The castle is designated as a West Virginia and national landmark, but its buyer appears to be free to renovate, alter or even demolish it. Private historic sites are not regulated as long as they did not receive any government funding. DeVine says she feels confident it will all work out for the best.

"The thing that is so wonderful about this house is the romance that went into building it," the auctioneer says. "Hopefully, someone's going to buy it and restore it to its former beauty."

The castle's colonel

The castle was built by Col. Samuel Taylor Suit, for whom the Prince George's County community of Suitland was named. The wealthy businessman, born around 1830, made his fortune building a distillery, developing roads and railroads, and investing in the stock market.

According to the castle's history, Suit fought in the Confederate army during the Civil War and later served as ambassador to England under President Ulysses S. Grant. A history of Prince George's County, however, says Suit's title, "colonel," was an honorific he picked up about the time he got into the distillery business in Kentucky. The ambassadorship also is unclear, although historians agree he entertained Grant and other dignitaries, and dabbled in dipomacy.

In any event, Suit apparently became smitten with Rosa Pelham, the young daughter of an Alabama congressman. She may or may not have figured in the dissolution of Suit's second marriage in the late 1870s, but his offer to build her a castle on the hillside overlooking Berkeley Springs reportedly won her hand.

They were married Sept. 4, 1883, when she was just 22 years old, and construction on the castle began two years later, with German stonemasons hauling chunks of sandstone from eight miles away.

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