Buying Seely's Castle
In my first article in this series (May 9 Xpress), I described Seely’s Castle and some of its fascinating history and myths. Here’s how I came to be the faux king of the castle.
My partner, Jack Doloboff, and I owned a junkyard on Riverside Drive, dealing in all sorts of surplus salvage, scrap metal and commercial trash hauling.
We bought things nobody else wanted, including Christmas trees, salvage from railroad wrecks, even surplus ladies’ handbags from the Orient, and with some success figured out a way to sell them at a profit.
We had a sign that had belonged to my grandfather, S. Sternberg; it said, "WE BUY ANYTHING AND SELL EVERYTHING."
Maybe that’s what led some creative real estate agent to call me one day in 1964 asking if I wanted to buy a castle.
At first I thought this was some con artist; we got our share of those. After he told me where it was, I remembered that when I was a boy, my family would drive up to the Mountain Meadows Inn on Town Mountain Road, from where we could see this huge stone building.
I guess I knew that Asheville-Biltmore College was up there, though I never had occasion to visit. I had no intention of buying the place, but I figured it’d be interesting to see it.
And no, I did not fall in love with this behemoth at first sight, even though it was a unique and beautiful place.
After the inspection, the broker pestered me with phone calls to make an offer. I finally offered him $50,000, based on the fact that it sat on seven acres of land with a prime view, and the salvage value of the building materials, the many antique doors, windows, chandeliers and the scrap metal (it even had a copper roof) would certainly bring that much. Junk dealers always try to base their purchases on the worst they could do if they have to bail out.
He laughed at me, saying he had an offer nearly three times that much, and I suggested that he take it. A year later, I got a call one afternoon from the same guy wanting to know if I would still pay $50,000 for the castle. I guess his high-dollar offer had fallen through; I said I’d want to see the property again.
Sadly, it had deteriorated considerably due to lack of maintenance, water damage and vandalism. Some former students had been holding some pretty interesting parties up there.
I said that in its present condition, the property was now worth only $40,000. I told him my offer was good until sundown the following day and, after that, not to contact me again.
Apparently the owners, who were nearing completion of the Tiara Apartments on the north end of the tract, were anxious to sell, because I received a call the next afternoon. "Can you still see the sun?" the agent inquired. I answered, "Yes." He said, "Well, you and your partner just bought a castle."
I’m not sure my partner, who was much more conservative than I am, was ecstatic about this deal, but he soldiered on with me.
When I announced to my family that this would be our new home, my children were thrilled. My wife was much more skeptical until I showed her the nearly 1,000-square-foot room next to the master bedroom that she could use as her closet. (She collected everything.)
My father, an old-school scrap-metal dealer, just rolled his eyes until I showed him the many pounds of valuable metal (including the leaded windows, which were worth a fortune).
Our first task was stabilizing the property. We had to get the grounds into some kind of shape and get the ivy off the building.
The biggest structural problem was the flat roof, which caused continual leaks. And because there was no moisture barrier, wind-driven rain would find its way past the stone walls during heavy weather.
It wasn't uncommon to find pots scattered about to catch leaks. This seriously damaged some of the walls and the beautiful sculptured-plaster ceiling in the library.
The second major problem was security.
Upon hearing of my purchase, a friend of mine, a police officer who worked with attack dogs, called me and said they were looking for a home for a German shepherd that hadn’t responded properly to training. He offered it to me as a watchdog.
This was fortuitous, because it would be a month before we could move in, and we needed to protect the castle in the meantime.
We installed Wolf, a huge animal weighing close to 100 pounds, in the castle at night.
The first morning after Wolf's arrival, we found a broken window in the bedroom wing and a trail of blood down the hall to the front door. After that the vandalism stopped. Just his bark in that big, empty cavern sounded like a lion roaring and served as a huge deterrent.
As you can imagine, moving from a house that wasn't much bigger than the Great Room in this monstrosity involved many challenges. Not the least of them was furnishing and refurbishing the place, which I’ll get into in the next installment.