Editor’s note: This is the fifth installment of Jerry Sternberg’s continuing “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).
Fred Seely, a teetotaler, would have turned over in his grave if he’d known that I turned his very sedate music room, with its tapestry and oak walls, into a barroom.
And what a barroom it was!
The men who worked with me gave me a most thoughtful, wonderful, surprise gift. On their own time, they built me a Western bar that looked like a wagon, made out of wagon wheels we’d obtained when we bought out the Hickory Wagon Co. in Hickory, N.C. (which had been closed for several years), finished off with the marble top of the old Langren Hotel’s front desk. It was the perfect watering hole for me and my pals who wanted to be on the wagon.
The greatest treasure in that buyout was hundreds of wagon wheels of all types and conditions. They fashioned a chandelier from a carriage wheel and created an amazing glass-topped table out of a large dray wheel to which they’d added legs made from welded-together horseshoes. They also made lamps out of some of the old wagon hubs, completing what I still consider one of the greatest tributes I’ve ever received.
Behind the music room was the library and study. At more than 2,100 square feet, it was the largest and by far the most elegant room in the castle.
Handmade walnut bookshelves ran along the entire north wall, from the floor to the 18-foot ceiling. There was enough space to accommodate the vast Sternberg Library, consisting of three books (two of which I’d already colored). Surrounded by windows, the small study recessed into the wall of shelves was said to be where Seely had tutored his sons.
In the far corner sat an antique fireplace that had once belonged to Queen Victoria. Set at an angle, it guarded the famous “secret room.” Visitors were mesmerized by the fact that although you could see two windows from the outside, that area was inaccessible from within. People would stand in front of that fireplace for hours, searching for a knob or button that would cause it to open like in the old “B” movies, revealing a hidden treasure trove. I never shared their conviction, but it certainly contributed to the castle’s mystique.
The south wall contained a set of unique folding, leaded-glass doors that opened onto a narrow balcony with yet another spectacular view of the mountains.
Unfortunately, the library was the room most impacted by a poorly engineered, leaky roof. This caused irreparable damage to the beautifully sculptured plaster ceiling with its royal crests. Whole chunks of plaster hung down or were missing, and tiny “snowflakes” fell constantly.
Because our budget didn’t allow for repairing the roof and restoring the ceiling, this room was furnished very simply: a Ping-Pong table, accented with water buckets to catch the leaks. It also became the school-project and rumpus room where kids could be as noisy as they liked, because the living quarters were one-tenth of a mile away.
The balcony was the perfect place for me to fulfill my primary macho responsibility: burning meat. One evening we had a number of guests for dinner, and I was grilling a big roast. But while turning it over, I inadvertently rolled it off the grill and over the balcony to the yard, some 15 feet below.
I bolted from the library — through the music room, the great room, out the front door and down the driveway to the front yard — to rescue our dinner before the dogs beat me to it.
When I went to pick it up, however, it was so hot that I had to wrap it in my T-shirt just to get it back inside.
Naturally, our guests were quite shocked at the indignity of the Royal King of the Castle, shirtless, running from the dogs, our clumsily wrapped dinner in hand. Needless to say, the King was reminded of this incident from time to time over the years.
The west end of the library formed the castle’s formal entrance, with winding stairs leading from the porte-cochère to the huge oak doors. Below, two stone lions guarded the driveway; dating back to the War of the Northern Rebellion, they’d originally stood outside the courthouse in Atlanta.
In the next installment, I’ll reveal the secrets of the ominous tower and the extensive culinary department. Stay tuned.
— Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.