The Impressive Restoration of a 19th-Century Vermont Estate

The village of Proctor, Vermont, is one of the few places in the United States with an actual castle. Enormous, beautiful, and creepy, Wilson Castle is part of a 115-acre estate in various stages of disrepair. It’s hard to imagine a building more incongruous with its surroundings. 

You approach the estate (it’s a real castle, tour guides explain, because it has battlements and towers) by turning off a main highway by a truck parts shop and traveling for a mile or so on a sparsely populated rural road near Rutland, Vermont. Neighboring buildings include small ranch houses and trailers.

It was always a slightly unusual building for the area, which was, perhaps, the point. A Vermont doctor, John Johnson, built it in 1867 to impress his wife, who was an English aristocrat of some sort. According to the story, Johnson met her when he attended medical school in the United Kingdom.  It took eight years and $1.3 million to finish the castle. Mrs. Johnson returned to England after living only three years in the castle with her husband. After she died her husband had to sell the castle.

The property was juggled from one owner to the next for the next fifty or so years until falling into the hands of Herbert Lee Wilson, an AM radio pioneer who created a radio station in the castle stable, which, though its headquarters have since moved, is still on the air today. Five generations of Wilsons lived at the house from 1939-2009, when Wilson’s daughter passed away. It opened for tours in 1962 and is still owned and operated by Wilson’s granddaughter, Denise Devine.

The castle is a peculiar mixture of 19th-century architectural styles including Dutch Neo-Renaissance, Scottish baronial, Queen Anne, and Romanesque Revival. Consisting of 32 rooms (though only a few of these are available for touring), 84 stained glass windows, and 13 fireplaces, the building is lavish in a way that’s unique for Rutland County, and even for the Gilded Age. Each room has different woodwork to match its furniture, some of which is priceless. Due to the travels Wilson (who was also an army officer) the castle is decorated with include impressive and valuable Far Eastern and European antiques, Chinese scrolls, and Oriental rugs. The Wilson Castle tour is novel in that visitors can walk on the carpets, touch some of the furniture, and take flash pictures.

Depending on funds and maintenance, and concerns about visitor safety, various parts of the estate are added and subtracted from what’s available on tour. Most of the rooms originally had elaborate murals on the ceiling—an owl near the study, a rendition of the sky on the drawing room ceiling—but many of those are gone now or covered over due to water damage and the expense and difficulty hiring workers to repair and maintain such decorations.

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