The Gospel According to Jerry

Editor's note: This is the ninth and final installment of Jerry Sternberg's "Life in Seely's Castle" saga. The earlier pieces are available on the Xpress website or at www.gospeljerry.com (which also contains additional photos of the castle and its furnishings).

It didn’t take long for my partner and me to figure out that if we got no other benefit from owning the castle, we were sitting on an invaluable public relations asset. Anyone and everyone wanted to visit, including the many customers of our contract waste-hauling company and the executives of the industrial and manufacturing plants that sold us their scrap metal and surplus items.

To capitalize on that, we decided we would throw a bash to rival any gala held anywhere in the city and invite them all, along with many public officials. We found a young decorator from one of the big department stores who let his creative talents run free, bringing in a whole truckload of greenery, props and special-effects lighting. Despite the falling plaster in the library and the other structural damage, for one unforgettable evening each year, he would transform this genteel ruin into the Magic Kingdom.

It started with the invitation, on parchmentlike paper, rolled up and tied with a ribbon (see the photo at gospeljerry.com).

Parking was limited, so we bused people up from a lot at the bottom of Town Mountain Road. Excitement and anticipation reigned as they passed through the massive iron gates and were transported up a winding driveway lined with scores of torches, evoking a medieval bacchanal.

They were greeted at the formal entrance under the porte cochère and then climbed a graceful stairway into the beautifully illuminated library, with its elegant silver chandeliers. Guests were encouraged to explore the house at their leisure and take advantage of several bars and food stations set up in the public areas.

One year we decided to remind everyone that we offered commercial garbage service. With great ingenuity and skill, our employees hoisted a brand-new 8-cubic-yard trash bin up to the library floor through the large folding window. The guests were amazed and amused when a beautiful barmaid started serving them cocktails through the side doors of a refuse container.

Then there was the woman who absolutely refused to believe that I lived in the castle, insisting that I not only take her to my bedroom but show her my underwear in the dresser drawer!

The PR value of these parties cannot be overstated. More than once, I heard a wife tell her husband, “I don’t know what kind of business you’re doing with these guys but you better keep on doing it, because I want to come back next year.”

Alas, after 12 years, it was time for the king to abdicate the throne, with both sadness and joy. My children had all left home by that time, and for two or three years I’d been living there alone.

Meanwhile, the maintenance costs were becoming quite a burden, so we decided to put the property on the market. Unfortunately, in those days, there were not a lot of buyers for a mansion in the sky. We had plenty of tire-kickers and hood-raisers who really just wanted a Cook’s tour, but no offers.

Switching tactics, we then tried offering it as a charitable donation to some of the institutions we supported. Without a doubt, it would have made a fabulous retreat, community center, museum or other public facility that would have benefited both the charity and the city as a whole, but once again we had no takers.

In desperation, we hired a real estate agent who found a Bible school that was willing to accept it and, after obtaining an appraisal in the high six figures, we made the donation. I told my partner, “Don’t think of it as giving it away — think of it as having sold it to the government.”

The Bible school turned over the property to a young couple who operated a mission there for a few years. They, in turn, sold it to a Hendersonville industrialist, a big antique collector who spent a substantial amount of money on a proper restoration. To my knowledge, it’s still his home today.

And so it was that the man who had been king moved out of this 25,000-square-foot domicile back down to the land of the commoners — a 700-square-foot suite in the Sheraton downtown — and lived happily ever after.

— Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at gospeljerry@aol.com.

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